Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502
Although each novelette in PALE HODRE, PALE RIDER is independent of the others, a unity can be perceived in both chronology and characters. OLD MORTALITY, the first of the three, is the earliest, and Miranda appears again in the last novelette. Miranda is the protagonist in many of Katherine Anne Porter’s other stories. In OLD MORTALITY, she is shown at three stages of her girlhood: as a child of about eight years, as an adolescent at the Catholic convent, and as a recently eloped young woman of eighteen. A student of Porter’s work will recognize that Miranda is Porter’s alter ego.
The material of this work is as compact as that needed for the shorter form of narration, but the list of characters drawn for the reader with precision is longer, and the effects are more varied. Porter is said to have worked from memory; that is, she allowed her memories to come together until she had a story in hand. In OLD MORTALITY, as in other of her stories, she uses her own Southern background as a point of departure, suggesting also her own experience in the children’s schooling at a convent and revealing her interest in social causes as represented by Cousin Eva’s absorption in and imprisonment for women’s suffrage. The child Miranda seems to reflect Porter’s own challenge of her family’s romantic myth as compared to the less romantic view of things at the present.
Porter brilliantly analyzes the discrepancy between the acceptable roles offered to Miranda by her family and her growing awareness of her own nature. Rebelliously, she dreams of being a racehorse jockey, a profession then absolutely closed to women. Yet Aunt Amy is still held up as a model; the family celebrates her escapades, love life, and death. Miranda—small, snub-nosed, and freckled—knew that for her to become willowy, dark-haired, and pale like the accepted Amy would take a miracle.
The foil for Aunt Amy is Cousin Eva, who was called an old maid the moment she was born. Her own mother began the ill-treatment of Eva, calling attention to her buck teeth and lack of chin. Eva took refuge in scholarship and the women’s rights movement, but was always tormented by the family. Miranda generally follows the family’s opinion of Eva and does not come to appreciate her until, in the last section, the two meet while traveling home to Uncle Gabriel’s funeral.
It is in speaking with Cousin Eva that Miranda understands that her own elopement was in effect a flight from her family, and that her marriage is just a new kind of tyranny. She decides that she must abandon the marriage if she is to gain her own identity and be free of the conventions forced on her by her family and society. For 1912, a time when a woman’s “place” in the world was generally founded on her husband’s position, Miranda’s decision was a radical one.