The Old Order Analysis
by Katherine Anne Porter

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The Old Order Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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In The Old Order, Porter in many ways lays the foundation of the character of Miranda. Having previously portrayed Miranda as an adult in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” and as an adolescent in “Old Mortality,” Porter moves backward in time in the fashion of a psychoanalyst. Unlike Sigmund Freud, however, Porter neither discovers nor reveals any “primal scene,” or primary trauma, to serve as a single source explaining Miranda’s character. Instead, she offers a complex picture of race, gender, and sibling relations, all of which serve as an influence on the impressionable young Miranda.

Much of the discussion of race concerns the old generation more than it does Miranda, but the cause-and-effect relationship can be seen in the character of the adult Miranda (or the adult Porter, who based Miranda upon her own experiences as a child growing up in Texas). At first, the story of Sophia Jane, Nannie, and Uncle Jimbilly resembles the patriarchal depiction of race relations often described in plantation fiction. Porter, however, adds disturbing detail after disturbing detail, which combine to counteract the patriarchal myth. Sophia Jane originally scandalized the family by putting Nannie’s name into the family Bible and listing her as a black relation. The incident is passed over as a childish misunderstanding, but it returns in intensity when Sophia Jane nurses one of Nannie’s children, giving the child equal treatment with her own. This event illustrates the equal footing of Nannie and Sophia Jane, which in turn is undercut after Sophia Jane’s death. Nannie, whose affection for the family apparently does not extend past Sophia Jane, leaves the household for an independent old age. Not the loyal freed slave of plantation fiction, she prefers independence and respect to paternalistic treatment.

Equally complicated are the gender roles portrayed and espoused by the older generation. Sophia Jane and Nannie are proud, independent, willful women, yet they sacrificed their lives to bear and rear their respective eleven and thirteen children. They also seem to be drawn to the care of weak men who they usually end up supporting. Their expectations for their grandchildren are clearly more demanding than the unconventional lives that they lead and allow their children to lead. The two female grandchildren, Maria and Miranda, are expected to fit into a pattern whose time has long since passed. The male children are treated with much more leniency; Harry, Sophia Jane’s son and Miranda’s father, is allowed a much wider range of behavior than Miranda and Maria will ever be allowed. This double standard, which the grandmother never tolerated but is intent upon applying to the grandchildren, is treated with light irony by Porter, masked occasionally by the high regard in which the older generation is held.

The double standard spills over into the area of sibling relations, as evidenced by the friction among Paul, Maria, and Miranda. Maria is the model young woman who accepts the stereotyped...

(The entire section is 760 words.)