Themes

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Last Updated on August 20, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 353

The Distance Between Legacy and Reality

Old Mortality is focused on questions of death and legacy and what the legacies that we inherit mean for our processes of self-discovery. Miranda is fascinated by photographs, keepsakes, and stories that give her windows into what her various relatives were and are like—Cousin...

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The Distance Between Legacy and Reality

Old Mortality is focused on questions of death and legacy and what the legacies that we inherit mean for our processes of self-discovery. Miranda is fascinated by photographs, keepsakes, and stories that give her windows into what her various relatives were and are like—Cousin Eva, Uncle Gabriel, and her late Aunt Amy especially.

Miranda's Uncle Gabriel sends letters and poetry that talk about Aunt Amy's death as if it were a glorious event that freed her from the chains of "Old Mortality." Aunt Amy also seems to have subscribed to an exaggerated, romantic view of things. Within the span of a week, Aunt Amy goes from a wild-partying young girl to complaining that she is old and chained down by her marriage to Uncle Gabriel, sentiments she recorded shortly before her death. Over and over, Miranda sees that her family members are not as beautiful as they have been described, not as pious as they are supposed, and so on.

This realization of the difference between how her family appears in photographs and stories versus how they are in reality leads to Miranda's disillusionment with her ideas about good and evil. Ultimately, she must abandon her once-clear sense of how things should be, which had been part of her childhood naivety. By the end of the novel, she is left with more questions than answers.

Growing Up as a Process of Discovery

The process of growing up and beginning to understand the difference between stories and reality can easily put someone into conflict with their family and community. Miranda gains a greater understanding of her family and the ways in which the stories she's been raised on are not entirely accurate. As this happens, she's pushed to figure out her own position within her family. She starts to consider this as part of an open process, rather than treating the continuation of her family legacy as a given necessity. Death continues to be the background for much of this process—the ultimate assurance that change will always happen and that clean, simple answers cannot hold up for long.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 396

Contrasting images of life and death form an essential background to Miranda’s early years. Some impressions are grasped directly and others are gathered only at second hand, as visible artifacts or in others’ recollections. Taken together, her views of the people around her suggest separate and distinct ways of life, which appear to the young girl fleetingly and in fragments. These types are presented unobtrusively, and nowhere are they disjoined from the people who embody them.

Aunt Amy, who died nine years before Miranda was born, left enduring memories that are revealed in parts to the young girl. The now almost legendary glory and sorrow of her short life are the more poignant for the coincidental, slightly garbled manner by which Miranda learns about the events of Amy’s brief existence. Her aunt was high-spirited and effervescent; she flouted convention and heedlessly sacrificed her health and well-being for a few nights’ dancing. Unconstrained, and given at times to wild abandon, she must have been coquettish, and probably indeed was capable of touching off deadly rivalries between her suitors. Perhaps settled married life was more than she could endure. No doubt she brought on her own tragic and premature demise, but then death claims other, more conventional types early as well. The reader senses that the force of Amy’s personality was felt the more after her passing, and that in retrospect she is cast larger than life.

The development of other characters suggests variant concerns in life. Great-aunt Sally, who is known only from her letters to Amy, was steadfastly committed to saving others’ souls. Uncle Gabriel, whom Miranda encounters early in her life, resembles Amy in his romantic fascination with horses and racing; yet where Amy spent herself in exorbitant demands on her substance, Gabriel gives way to weakness and self-indulgence and dies probably from his own bibulous excesses.

Miss Honey, who is very much his opposite, endeavors to restrain Gabriel but dies somehow well before her time. Miss Eva, Miranda’s plain cousin, appears at intervals ten years apart; though not devoutly religious, she is frankly disapproving of Amy’s youthful ebullience. Eva’s proselytism for women’s suffrage approaches the devotion of the faithful. It is from these conflicting examples, some tinged with a mythic aura and some distressingly mundane, that Miranda believes that she must find her own way of life.

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