Old Mortality Summary

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.

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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.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

When Miranda Gay is eight years old, she becomes aware, quite in passing, of a formal photograph showing her dead Aunt Amy. Miranda yearns to be beautiful when she grows up, as her aunt was in her wedding pictures. Her cousin, Isabel Rhea, is told that she rides horses almost as well as Amy did; her sister, Maria, is almost as fine a dancer. During her early years, the presence of the past enters Miranda’s conscious mind in a number of other ways. The girls are shown Amy’s wedding dress; another cousin, Eva Parrington, a Latin teacher, calls back celebrated events from southern history. Amy’s widower, Uncle Gabriel, sends letters from New Orleans, Kentucky, and other parts of the country as he pursues his calling of training racehorses.

The impressionable young Miranda thus is exposed from several sides to others’ recollections, and family history is assimilated piecemeal along with more remote visions of literary and historical figures from the past. The romantic aura surrounding death is evoked particularly by Uncle Gabriel’s verses, printed in gold on a mourning card, which commemorate Aunt Amy’s passing: “She lives again who suffered life,/ Then suffered death, and now set free/ A singing angel, she forgets/ The griefs of old mortality.”

Packets of letters discovered...

(The entire section is 2,437 words.)