Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Old Order is a collection of seven sketches or short stories concerning the life of a rural Texas family ruled by Sophia Jane, the matriarch and mother of eleven children. The first half of the collection deals with Sophia Jane and her African American servant and companion, Nannie. Their relationship comprises the closest bond in the family, more so even than that between Sophia Jane and her children. The second part of the collection concerns itself with the family of Harry, one of Sophia Jane’s favorite children, and in particular the development of Miranda, the youngest of his three children. Miranda, probably the most widely known of Porter’s characters, appears again in two of her most famous stories, “Old Mortality” (1940) and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” (1939). The psychological development of the soon-to-be independent young woman, loosely based on Porter herself, is the overall focus of the work: The reader sees Miranda’s character as a direct outgrowth of her grandmother’s will, a transformed and modernized version of feminine strength and endurance.

The structure of the stories reinforces the idea of development and growth. The first story, “The Source,” emphasizes the dominance of the grandmother in the family setting. Primarily a sketch of the family’s yearly summer migration to the family farm in the Texas countryside, “The Source” briefly details Sophia Jane’s traits. Each summer, the grandmother would become restless in town and would load up the entire family to travel to the farm. Upon her arrival, Sophia Jane would...

(The entire section is 648 words.)

The Old Order Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Old Order is among the most highly regarded of Porter’s fiction works, and the individual story “The Grave” is one of her most written about short stories. As is typical of the criticism of Porter’s work, much praise has been given to the technical and stylistic aspects of the work, while less emphasis is given to the representation of women’s issues in these stories and to the unromantic portrayal of plantation and farm life. Porter’s stories are perhaps best read in the context of Southern women’s writing, along with the writers whom she held in highest estimation.

In 1944, the American critic Edmund Wilson admitted his confusion over Porter’s work, finding it lacking in the usual melodramatic devices and other evidence of influence. Porter, who was largely self-educated, listed five male writers as her primary influences: Henry James, James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. She eventually added British novelist Virginia Woolf to the list, as well as Jane Austen and Emily Brontë from her early childhood reading. Noticeably absent are sentimental yet popular Southern women novelists such as Augusta Evans. Porter’s break with the Southern feminine tradition is consistent with her representation of the character of Miranda as a rebel and a skeptic. The common thread linking this disparate list of influences is their general opposition to sentimentality and their often ironic treatment of the standards of a constrictive society. As appealing as the old order is made to be in the first two sketches of this collection, its time has passed and the grandchildren of Sophia Jane are left without a satisfying or even adequate model of behavior. Their father Harry exists in an interregnum where the weight of the past will not allow the future to be born. By her subsequent actions foreshadowed in her childhood, Miranda (and Porter) help to bring that future to birth.

The Old Order Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A dozen articles on Porter’s career as a writer. One article, by Constance Rooke and Bruce Wallis, deals exclusively with the story “The Grave.” Includes a chronology and a reasonably complete bibliography.

Givner, Joan. Katherine Anne Porter: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. The authorized biography of Porter. Givner presents an uncritical look at Porter’s life and career.

Hartley, Lodwick, and George Core, eds. Katherine Anne Porter: A Critical Symposium. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1969. Seventeen excellent articles concerning Porter and her work, including an interview. The essays by Southern writers Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and Cleanth Brooks provide excellent insight into Porter’s milieu and writing.

Hendrick, George. Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Twayne, 1965. An early critical work dealing with Porter’s life and writing. Presents much corrected information on Porter’s life, including her actual birth date, which was four years earlier than Porter claimed.

Mooney, Harry John. The Fiction and Criticism of Katherine Anne Porter. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1957. A concise and accessible introduction to Porter’s work. Includes a separate chapter on the Miranda stories.