Old Mortality

(Great Characters in Literature)


Miranda, a young girl whose mother has died and who lives in a world created by romantic family legends. As she grows older, she gets hints that her beloved Aunt Amy and Uncle Gabriel are not the romantic couple she has idolized, but two people with problems. At the age of eighteen, by which time she is married, she confronts the most realistic member of her family, Eva, who reveals the past through different eyes. At the end, she decides to find the truth beneath the illusions.

Eva Parrington

Eva Parrington, Miranda’s cousin, a plain woman who taught Latin and was involved in the women’s rights movement. She sees Amy as she is, unadorned by romantic stereotypes. Her forthright explanation is the trigger for Miranda’s search for truth.


Amy, the young wife of Gabriel who died of tuberculosis after leading a life of scandalous but intriguing behavior. Her portrait hangs in the hallway of the house, forever a memento to lost times.


Gabriel, Amy’s husband, an owner of racehorses. He is attached to the romanticized memory of Amy. He dies as an alcoholic, married unhappily for the second time.

Noon Wine

(Great Characters in Literature)

Royal Earle Thompson

Royal Earle Thompson, the owner of a ramshackle dairy farm in Texas. Aspiring to a grander lifestyle, he hires Olaf Helton. His fortunes improve because he allows Olaf to direct the farm activities. Seeing only that things are improving, he misses the hint that something could be amiss with Helton. When Hatch appears, looking for Helton and wanting to return him to the mental hospital, Thompson seeks to defend Helton and kills Hatch. He commits suicide after trying in vain to convince his family and friends that the whole thing was an accident.

Olaf Helton

Olaf Helton, a Swede from North Dakota who hires on as a farmhand. Except for playing the harmonica, he works silently and industriously, bothering no one. Only once does he reveal the potential for violence in his character, but he keeps it under control. His death results from a tragic mistake.

Homer T. Hatch

Homer T. Hatch, who comes to return the escaped mental patient to North Dakota. His sneaky attitude and stereotyped remarks about Helton annoy Thompson because they threaten the smooth surface of his lifestyle. Because of this, Thompson kills him.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider

(Great Characters in Literature)


Miranda, a theater critic on a small newspaper. Working for little pay amid the stress of wartime conditions and an influenza epidemic, she falls in love with Adam, a young officer who lives in the same rooming house. Falling prey to the epidemic, she goes through a near death experience. She regains her health only to find that Adam has died. These experiences initiate her to the world of real truths.

Adam Barclay

Adam Barclay, a handsome young officer on leave from the Army who falls in love with Miranda and nurses her until she can go to the hospital. He then falls victim to the disease and dies before Miranda recovers.

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Taken together, the three short novels in Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider provide a rather bleak account of life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Western United States. In “Old Mortality,” as Miranda matures she rejects her family’s romantic view of the past and determines to create her own version of truth. In “Noon Wine,” Thompson purportedly kills in self-defense, but, when he fails to convince others and ultimately even himself of his lack of guilt, he commits suicide. In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Miranda confronts death and manages to escape, only to learn that her sweetheart has died and that she is left to face a bleak future alone.

“Old Mortality” begins in late nineteenth century Texas and is divided into three parts. In part 1, Miranda and Maria continually hear stories of their family’s romantic history, especially the tragic tale of their beautiful late Aunt Amy and her dashing beau and husband, Uncle Gabriel. In part 2, the sisters are sent to a convent school in New Orleans, where they feel “immured” in their cloistered existence. On a weekend escape, their father takes them to a horse show and introduces them to Uncle Gabriel, whose drunken state and slovenly appearance evoke skepticism about the romantic legends and force the girls to modify their view of the past. In part 3, the story is seen through Miranda’s consciousness as she boards a train on her way home and bumps into Cousin Eva, who is coming back for Gabriel’s funeral. The antithesis of Amy, Cousin Eva has devoted her life to the woman suffrage movement. She maintains that she was fond of Amy but that Amy “was simply sex-ridden, like the rest.” Miranda listens quietly but rejects Eva’s view of the past as equally romantic and false as the view the family has tried to force on her. She realizes that continual re-creation of the past through memory produces a lie, and...

(The entire section is 789 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*South Texas

*South Texas. Both Old Mortality and Noon Wine use Texas as their settings, but the Texases depicted in these stories are very different. Old Mortality is the first of Porter’s “Miranda” stories, generally agreed to be the most openly autobiographical portions of her work. The story is suffused with the culture of the Deep South, opening with a picture of Miranda’s dead Aunt Amy, whose idealized and romanticized memory continues to haunt the family. The family that Porter constructs for Miranda is in many ways the family Porter tries to give herself. While Porter was raised by her grandmother on a south Texas ranch on which money was tight, Miranda lives in something like a plantation, filled with books and music and dancing.

By contrast, Noon Wine features a hardscrabble Texas ranch far out in the country, inhabited by the decidedly nonaristocratic Thompson family. In all likelihood, the reality of Porter’s childhood is probably closer to this picture than to the one she constructs for Miranda. In contrast to the southern sensibilities implicit in Old Mortality, Noon Wine offers the life of plain dirt farmers trying to eke out livings from the soil. The isolation of the ranch provides a sense of the frontier rather than the flavor of the antebellum South.

*Deep South

*Deep South. The idea of the South plays a prominent role throughout Old Mortality. For example, New Orleans figures as the center of society for Miranda’s family. The city plays a triple role in the story: It is the place...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Porter’s style, like that of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, shows the strong influence of the oral tradition of storytelling. In this story, however, she draws from this tradition not as an end in itself, but as a way of clearing the ground for her other concerns. Her ability to summon an entire personality from a detail of description or an idiosyncratic action allows her to exercise a narrative economy that, in turn, leaves time and space for her experiments with stream-of-consciousness interior monologues. The first description of Adam, for example, captures the essence of both his appearance and his manner:He was wearing his new uniform, and he was all olive and tan and tawny, hay colored and sand colored from hair to boots. She half noticed again that he always began by smiling at her; that his smile faded gradually; that his eyes became fixed and thoughtful as if he were reading in a poor light.

Like William Faulkner, Porter opens the mind of her character not only for the reader’s inspection, but also for the reader’s participation—for example, the reader’s confusion during the dream sequences is just as complete as is Miranda’s. Like Virginia Woolf, Porter uses this technique to stop space and move in time (as in the opening dream) or to stop time and move in space.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

These short novels—“Old Mortality,” “Noon Wine,” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”—vary considerably in form, but all are realistic and are concerned primarily with death and its effects on the living. “Old Mortality” is a kind of family chronicle in which two motherless girls, Miranda and Maria, grow up surrounded by a family which romanticizes some of its members. The chief subject of romantic memory is Aunt Amy, a beautiful and wild young woman who consistently rejected the advances of Gabriel, her chief suitor, and refused to allow illness to limit her activities. Amy finally gave in to Gabriel and died not long after marrying him. In the course of the story, the girls grow up. The most important episode in their...

(The entire section is 696 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Of these three short novels, “Noon Wine” is the least concerned with women’s issues. Mrs. Thompson is a slight character, weak physically and personally, unable to control her sons, unable to do anything either to control or to comfort her husband. She is a type character, representing the image of farm wives as a beaten-down group, worn out by childbearing and by the hard physical labor of running a farm, especially if the husband is lazy and improvident.

In the stories about Miranda, however, Porter is presenting female figures who are struggling for independence against the forces of family and society. What happens to Aunt Amy in “Old Mortality” makes her a romantic figure to the young girls, but it is also a warning to Miranda of how strong the bonds of family can be; Miranda’s elopement into an unsuccessful marriage is still preferable to allowing herself to be buried in the family’s mythology. Whatever becomes of her, she will not be another Amy. Her meeting on the train with Cousin Eva, despised because of her unattractiveness, reinforces her determination. Eva has made a life for herself as a crusader for women’s suffrage, and Miranda promises herself that she will be equally independent. She is naive in her self-confidence, but she will learn.

What she learns in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is that life is indeed hard and precarious. As a reporter, she fights to avoid being assigned only to women’s interest stories, and she is attacked verbally in the newsroom by a hack performer resentful of one of her reviews. She struggles to avoid the fate of her friend Towney, condemned always to write the women’s page. As a person, she finds the beginning of love with the handsome soldier, only to be stricken by influenza and to learn that her lover is dead of the disease. She has gained the independence she wished for in “Old Mortality,” but her naivete is destroyed by the iron facts of life and death.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Explains Porter’s complex use of symbolism and irony. Asserts that the dream sequences of the Miranda stories reveal the unexpressed causes of her discontent.

DeMouy, Jane Krause. Katherine Anne Porter’s Women: The Eye of Her Fiction. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983. A feminist reading of Porter’s fiction, this book argues that Porter is a precursor of later feminism in her concentration on female characters trying to live independently in a world dominated by men.

Givner, Joan. Katherine Anne Porter: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. Explores key events that affected Porter’s work. Explains the connection, for example, between Porter’s near death experience and Pale Horse, Pale Rider.

Hendrick, George. Katherine Anne Porter. Boston: Twayne, 1965. Details Porter’s life and works. Explores the theme of innocence and experience in the stories in which Miranda appears.

Hilt, Kathryn. Katherine Anne Porter: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1990. A listing of all Porter’s works and the books and essays written about her through the mid-1980’s.

Lopez, Enrique Hank. Conversations with Katherine Anne Porter: Refugee from Indian Creek. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981. Stories about Porter’s life as she told them to the man who was her companion during the last years of her life.

Unrue, Darlene Harbour. Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter’s Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Lists criticial sources. Studies the themes of Porter’s fiction, asserting that her works have a thematic unity built around Porter’s understanding of truth.

Warren, Robert Penn, ed. Katherine Anne Porter. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1979. A collection of essays about Porter’s work, by a variety of critics.

West, Ray. Katherine Anne Porter. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1963. Sets the novellas in the context of Porter’s Southern background. Develops the idea that historic memory uses myths to portray truths.