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Last Updated on August 20, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

Old Mortality by Katherine Anne Porter is a short novel set in the South at the turn of the twentieth century. The narrative revolves around the impressions that two sisters, Maria and Miranda, gain from the family members around them.

Maria and Miranda's Aunt Amy, who is described as a...

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Old Mortality by Katherine Anne Porter is a short novel set in the South at the turn of the twentieth century. The narrative revolves around the impressions that two sisters, Maria and Miranda, gain from the family members around them.

Maria and Miranda's Aunt Amy, who is described as a great beauty who died tragically young, is a frequent topic of discussion. Harry, the girls' father, displays the same sense of a strong longing for the past as the other members of the family. As these stories of the past are relayed, the young girls form strong impressions in their minds about the figure of Aunt Amy, who served as an apotheosis of femininity. The girls are subsequently compelled to emulate her.

However, it is later revealed that the family's frequent reminisces about the beautiful, deified women of their ancestry conveniently discounts Great-Aunt Keziah and the girls' cousin Eva, who is homely in appearance, described as having a "chinless" face. Eva presents a sharp, prosaic contrast to the poetic, ephemeral, and dramatically sorrowful specter of Aunt Amy that has been conveyed through the family's stories. Cousin Eva, far from conforming to the archetype of Southern womanhood, fought staunchly for women's suffrage.

Moreover, the girls' exposure to stories of family relationships shows them the hatred that simmers in the human heart when they meet Miss Honey, Uncle Gabriel's second wife. Uncle Gabriel was first married to Aunt Amy, and her name stands in sharp contrast to the blatant bitterness that she exudes toward her husband's family, no doubt a result of constantly being eclipsed by the overbearing memory of Aunt Amy (preserved through the chronic and persistent nostalgia of the family).

The first time Miranda runs into Cousin Eva is when she travels by train to attend Uncle Gabriel's funeral. Both cousins display a rebellious streak and chart their own course: Miranda has married against the wishes of her father, and Cousin Eva has managed to break free from the constraining presence of the shallow beauty of her mother and sister—both now dead. Eva opens up to Miranda, and the cruelty and hostility that are hidden under the veneer of Southern gentility is revealed. Cousin Eva, in comparison to the peerless Aunt Amy, describes how she was always made to feel deficient and worthless.

Miranda's experience with Cousin Eva on the train—and the subsequent reception the two of them receive from Harry—strengthens Miranda's resolve to carve her own destiny and not be sucked into the romanticized notions of the past constructed by her father and the rest of her family. Likewise, Miranda develops a conviction to reject the bitterness Cousin Eva fosters.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1207

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 racing season. Then, if the nuns thought the girls’ deportment and scholastic achievements sufficient for the week, someone in the family was likely to come for the girls to take them to the races.

One Saturday, their father came all the way from Texas to take them to the races at Crescent City, where their Uncle Gabriel had a horse entered. For propriety’s sake, they had to bet their dollar on their uncle’s hundred-to-one shot. They knew that was no proper bet, but their father insisted on their showing respect for their uncle’s horse. Just before the race, they met their bleary-eyed Uncle Gabriel for the first time. He said they looked fine but rolled into one would not match up to Amy. As soon as she could, Miranda announced proudly that she thought Uncle Gabriel was a drunkard. His horse came in first. To celebrate, he insisted on taking Harry and the girls to see his second wife, Miss Honey. They found her in a cheap, foul-smelling room. She was unbending, especially when Uncle Gabriel asked her whether she thought the children resembled Amy a little. Horrified that their father took them to the races, she said she would rather see her son dead than hanging around a racetrack. The children realized that she hated all of them.

When they got back to the convent, Maria and Miranda realized that, although they had each won a hundred dollars which would go into the bank, they had not had even a nut bar to eat.

Eight years later, Miranda was on a train going home for Uncle Gabriel’s funeral. She sat down next to a very thin old lady who obviously disapproved of her until she asked her name. Then the old lady introduced herself as Cousin Eva Parrington. Cousin Eva had changed very little, Miranda suddenly thought, except that she was out from under her beautiful mother’s thumb. Eva had crusaded for women’s votes and had gone to jail three times. She hoped Miranda would use her brain a little in some good cause.

Neither Miranda nor Eva had been home for some time. Miranda had married young without her father’s approval. Eva had not been back since her mother died. Yet both felt that they had to come to Uncle Gabriel’s funeral, for his death was like the end of a period. His body was coming from Kentucky, where Miss Honey was buried, and then to Texas to be placed next to Amy’s. Eva sniffed that the arrangement was an eternal infidelity laid on top of a lifelong infidelity whose brunt had been borne by Miss Honey.

Eva snapped when she began to talk of the romantic view everyone had held of Amy. There were plenty of people who did not love Amy or think her the most beautiful girl in the South. Eva could not even believe that Amy’s tuberculosis had been the romantic illness the family had thought, nor did she think that illness had caused Amy’s death. She believed that Amy had committed suicide on her honeymoon, after tormenting Gabriel with jealousy during the few weeks they were married because she was always sweet to everybody.

To Eva, the parties that the belles in the old days felt they had to attend were markets for sex, where rivalry and competition were bitter and keen. Her part in them was particularly spoiled because Amy had always advised her to keep her chin up. As an old lady, Eva was still bitter about the viciousness of a society that made outcasts of those who had one deficient feature.

The next morning, Miranda’s father met them at the station. Harry and Eva immediately fell into the easy comradeship of their youth. As they drove to the house, Miranda thought that she had no part in either of their worlds, both fading into the dimness of the past. Having discarded her father’s romantic legend and Eva’s bitter one, she decided that she would be compelled to find a more vital one of her own.

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