Old Mortality Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

When Miranda Gay is eight years old, she becomes aware, quite in passing, of a formal photograph showing her dead Aunt Amy. Miranda yearns to be beautiful when she grows up, as her aunt was in her wedding pictures. Her cousin, Isabel Rhea, is told that she rides horses almost as well as Amy did; her sister, Maria, is almost as fine a dancer. During her early years, the presence of the past enters Miranda’s conscious mind in a number of other ways. The girls are shown Amy’s wedding dress; another cousin, Eva Parrington, a Latin teacher, calls back celebrated events from southern history. Amy’s widower, Uncle Gabriel, sends letters from New Orleans, Kentucky, and other parts of the country as he pursues his calling of training racehorses.

The impressionable young Miranda thus is exposed from several sides to others’ recollections, and family history is assimilated piecemeal along with more remote visions of literary and historical figures from the past. The romantic aura surrounding death is evoked particularly by Uncle Gabriel’s verses, printed in gold on a mourning card, which commemorate Aunt Amy’s passing: “She lives again who suffered life,/ Then suffered death, and now set free/ A singing angel, she forgets/ The griefs of old mortality.”

Packets of letters discovered in a trunk lend credence to other rumors the girls have heard. Once during their courtship Amy returned from a masked ball, her dress disheveled and undone, without Gabriel; there were scandalous hints that she had been seen with another man. Gabriel was on the verge of challenging the interloper to a duel when Harry Gay, Miranda’s father, shot at his brother’s rival and then fled to Mexico for a time. Amy quarreled spiritedly with her great-aunt, Sally Rhea, a fundamentalist Baptist who feared for her soul. During Mardi Gras, Amy danced all night three times in one week and suffered an internal hemorrhage. In...

(The entire section is 786 words.)

Old Mortality Summary (Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Maria and Miranda, aged twelve and eight respectively, had grown old beyond their years because they continuously heard stories drawn from the memories of grownups in their family. It was hard for them to realize that their father, or Aunt Amy, or Cousin Eva had ever been young.

Twice a year, their grandmother felt compelled to spend a day in the attic, where she opened trunks, read letters, looked at dresses, shoes, ribbons, brooches, and feathers. She cried quietly most of the day, but allowed the little girls to come and go and handle the treasures if they did not disturb her grief with questions. Not that they needed to ask questions. All their lives they had heard that their father’s sister Amy was the most beautiful girl in the South, the finest rider, the most graceful dancer, the best-loved belle of her day. Their father had told them that Amy’s picture did not do her justice. They wondered when they looked at it why older folks sighed over it. They also wondered, when they looked at the keepsakes in the trunks, why no one else saw how dowdy, faded, and misshapen they were.

Their father looked askance at his chubby, freckle-faced little girls and hoped that some miracle would happen that they might change into slim, beautiful creatures like Amy. When he thanked God that all the women in his family were slim and beautiful, he seemed to forget Great-aunt Keziah in Kentucky, whose husband refused to let her ride his good horses because she weighed two hundred twenty pounds, or cousin Eva, whose chinless ugliness was a blot on the family reputation for comeliness.

The little girls felt that Eva, in her teaching of Latin and her speaking for women’s suffrage, belonged to their everyday world; but Amy, in her complicated romance with Uncle Gabriel, belonged to the world of poetry. Amy had a weak chest, and she used that as an excuse to keep her second cousin Gabriel dangling for five years. She was never so sick, however, that she could not ride when she wanted to or dance all night.

At one dance, Amy disappeared for a while with a man to whom she had once been engaged. Gabriel, ready to fight a duel, insisted that the man had kissed Amy. To prevent the duel as well as to protect his sister’s good name, Harry shot at the man and disappeared into Mexico for a year until the affair blew over. The little girls thought the scandal must have been terrific.

No one could see why Amy still would not marry Gabriel, who was young and handsome and his rich grandfather’s apparent heir. When Gabriel quarreled with his grandfather about racehorses and the old man cut him off without his expected inheritance, Amy suddenly decided to marry Gabriel. Six weeks later, she died mysteriously and romantically.

During the winter, Maria and Miranda were immured, as they liked to say, in a convent in New Orleans. The life they lived there was immeasurably dull except for Saturday afternoons during...

(The entire section is 1207 words.)