Style and Technique
“Old Mortality” derives much of its impact from Katherine Anne Porter’s use of telling details and from her indirect, insinuating means of introducing essential facts about characters. The crowded events of Aunt Amy’s brief life, which are known only from others’ recollections and from sundry material objects, are vividly recaptured nevertheless. In her formal photograph, she has clear gray eyes, short oval features, and wide, inviting lips: later the girls are shown her fine, silvery gray wedding dress, and a lock of her dark, cropped, curly hair is discovered in an envelope. Bygone courtships and intrigues are evoked in old letters describing the costume ball where Amy wore a ribboned hat, a black half-mask, and silk skirts. On that occasion Gabriel wore a blond curled wig and carried a shepherd’s crook; he challenged a man who had come dressed as the pirate Jean Lafitte.
When Miranda herself finally encounters Gabriel, she is struck by the tired swollen eyes and “big melancholy laugh like a groan” that suggest his degeneration during the years since Amy’s death. On each appearance, Cousin Eva’s personality is suggested by her lean, sharp rodentlike features, traits that seem to become more obtrusive as time passes.
Many of the circumstances surrounding Miranda’s immediate family come to light only after more distant relations have appeared, in one guise or another. Several aunts and cousins are shown before her father is introduced. Some important plot developments enter the narrative stealthily. During the final section of the story, it is after some pause that Miranda recognizes her fellow passenger as Cousin Eva; they converse for some time before it is made known that Gabriel has died. Even later Miranda discloses that she has eloped and left school. Much of what Miranda learns about her family’s past is gathered obliquely, and other important revelations later are made indirectly and subtly reinforce the themes of change and mortality that are presaged by the girl’s own experiences.