The Grave Essays and Criticism
by Katherine Anne Porter

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Porter's Use of the Grotesque

(Short Stories for Students)

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Many of Katherine Anne Porter’s Miranda stories present grotesque images, especially grotesque interpretations of female bodies. In those misshapen and sometimes tortured bodies, we can see the results of restrictive and sometimes fatal cultural codes for Southern women. However, these stories also depict grotesque images of women that suggest the possibility of escaping these roles by re-creating the grotesque, not as deformed or unspeakable, but as beautiful and worth celebrating. In these stories, Porter inverts grotesque images of women that have suppressed them and reinvents those images to give women power.

‘‘The Grave’’ provides a clear example of how Porter adapts the grotesque to her own unique purposes. In this final story from ‘‘The Old Order,’’ Miranda and her brother Paul are hunting rabbits when Paul discovers that he has killed a pregnant mother rabbit:

Brother lifted the oddly bloated belly. ‘‘Look,’’ he said, in a low amazed voice. ‘‘It was going to have young ones.’’ Very carefully he slit the thin flesh from the center ribs to the flanks, and a scarlet bag appeared. He slit again and pulled the bag open, and there lay a bundle of tiny rabbits, each wrapped in a thin scarlet veil. The brother pulled these off and there they were, dark gray, their sleek wet down lying in minute even ripples, like a baby’s head just washed, their unbelievably small delicate ears folded close, their little blind faces almost featureless.

The body of the pregnant rabbit conforms closely to the interpretation of grotesque bodies outlined by Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, in his important and widely read Rabelais and His World. For Bakhtin, the grotesque body is a body in the process of rebirth and renewal, a body that contains multiple bodies—just like the body of the pregnant rabbit. Yet for Bakhtin, the pregnant body is a degraded body. In the passage above, however, Porter’s description of the pregnant body of the rabbit re-creates it as an elevated body. The children treat the body with reverence, kneeling before it in near-religious awe. Miranda seems even to receive an almost divine revelation from her vision of the mother rabbit: ‘‘She understood a little of the secret, formless intuitions in her own mind and body, which had been clearing up, taking form, so gradually and steadily she had not realized that she was learning what she needed to know.’’ The image of the grotesque female body attracts Miranda. She wants to see, she wants to know; she is filled with ‘‘shocked delight’’ when confronted with the power of her own body. She embraces the ambiguous, multifarious nature of the rabbit body for herself.

Yet the framing of her revelation suggests what she leaves behind in order to claim that grotesque— really, her own feminine power. Just before she sees the rabbit, Miranda decides she wants to return to her family’s legendary aristocratic past. She has been wearing masculine clothing—overalls and a hired man’s hat—but looking at the ring she found earlier makes her want to take them off. For Miranda, the ring symbolizes the mythic Southern past, in particular mythologized Southern womanhood, as the ring shines ‘‘with the serene purity of fine gold.’’ The qualities of serenity and especially purity represent the essence of what it was to be an ideal Southern woman. The gold evokes a memory of a golden age from Miranda’s family’s past, an age from which the South has fallen, and its inconT gruity with Miranda’s ‘‘grubby’’ appearance suggests the impossibility of truly returning to that age. The image of the ring itself—a closed, encircling band—also suggests the confinement inherent in the gender roles of the old order.

Nevertheless, Miranda begins to long for a lost Southern past upon looking at the ring, almost instinctively:

She wanted to go back to the farmhouse, take a good cold bath, dust herself with plenty of Maria’s...

(The entire section is 3,932 words.)