Katherine Anne Porter

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Katherine Anne Porter Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Katherine Anne Porter once suggested that when she sat down to write about her life as accurately as possible, it turned into fiction; indeed, she knew no other way to write fiction. Whether this anecdote is true, it is certain that capturing the past with great detail was an important ingredient in her writing. In a number of the short stories, and in two of the best short novels, Miranda, the central character, is very close to being Porter herself. These stories follow Miranda’s life from infancy in her grandmother’s house in South Texas to her scrape with death from influenza in Colorado at the age of twenty-four—her first major step toward maturity.

Concerning the time of her illness, Porter has said that it was as though a line were drawn through her life, separating everything that came before from everything that came after. She had been given up and then had survived, and in some ways all her time after that was borrowed. Perhaps that is why her overtly autobiographical stories deal with the time before that line, the time when she was “alive” and therefore had a life to record. The stories that take place after that incident present her, if at all, as an observer, as someone slightly distant and alienated from life. (It is a question of degree: Miranda is also, of course, an acute observer in the stories in which she takes part. Her name, in fact, means “observer” in Spanish.) Porter was in real life a passenger on the ship about which her novel Ship of Fools was written, but she speaks of herself as purely an observer, who scarcely spoke a word on the entire voyage. She does not appear directly as a character in the novel.

Old Mortality

Miranda, the girl in the short novel Old Mortality, runs away from school to get married, in part to escape from her family, so suffocatingly steeped in its own past. At the conclusion of the novella, she is determined to free herself once and for all from that past, so that she can begin to consider her own future; but she determines this, the reader is told in the ironic concluding lines, “in her hopefulness, her ignorance.” The irony is that Miranda (Porter) herself became so obsessed with that past that much of her best work is devoted to it. The explanation for Porter’s obsession with the past can perhaps be guessed from the conclusion of Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Everything of importance to Miranda has died; only her ravaged body, her spark of a soul somehow survives. She finds that she has no future, only the slow progression to death once again. The past, then, is all she has, yet the past is finally intangible, as the girl in Old Mortality discovers as she sifts through all the evidence. At last no truth can be discovered, no objectivity, only the combined and contradictory subjectives: The only truth, once again, is the truth of fiction.

Porter said that in her fiction she is not interested in actions so much as she is interested in the various and subtle results of actions. Certainly, of all her works, Old Mortality deals directly with the ramifications of past actions. This short novel spans ten years in the life of theprotagonist, Miranda, from the age of eight to the age of eighteen. In that time, the reader learns little of Miranda’s life, except that she is bad tempered and that, unlike many of the young women in her widely extended family, she is not going to be a “beauty.” She is, rather, the recording center of the novel: The events are brought to her and have their effect on the person she is becoming.

The crucial actions have occurred in the preceding generation. Miranda’s family is obsessed by a past event. Miranda’s aunt, Amy, was a great beauty, the measure, in fact, against which all the current crop of beauties are found wanting. She was glamorous, racy, even though tubercular, and for a long time spurned Gabriel’s devoted courtship. Gabriel was himself wild, ran a string of racehorses, and was heir to the fortune. Only when he was disinherited...

(The entire section is 3,159 words.)