, Research Paper
Historically women have been considered intellectually inferior to men and also a source of temptation and evil. Women have also been considered naturally weaker than men, squeamish, and unable to perform work requiring muscular or intellectual development. In most early societies, and up until fairly recently, domestic chores were relegated to women, leaving heavier labor such as hunting, plowing, and careers outside of the home to men. Maternity was considered the natural biological role of the woman, and it has also been highly regarded as her social role as well. Young girls learned from their mother’s example that cooking, cleaning, and caring for children was the behavior expected of her when she grew up. Formal education for girls was, historically, second to that of boys. In colonial America, girls were taught to read and write at dame schools but they could only attend the school with the boys when there was enough room.
The views of women are present all throughout history in the writings of the times. Katherine Anne Porter, an important American author, was born in Texas in 1890. She spent all of her early life in Texas and Louisiana. Her mother died when she was two and she was raised, in poverty, by her paternal grandmother and father. She was educated in convent schools. She was brought up in a region where a woman’s femininity defined her. The idea of the southern belle was prevalent in her childhood. Porter defied these ideals by first becoming a journalist, and then becoming a fiction writer who was neither a feminist, nor feminine. Some of Porter’s beliefs and experiences are seen in her writings. She was known mostly for her short stories and her one novel. In 1930 Porter’s first book was published, Flowering Judas and Other Stories. This work contains the story “Old Mortality.”
In the 1930’s Katherine Anne Porter wrote “Old Mortality.” At first reading, this is a story of two children growing up in a family that relishes in the past. This work, which is set in the south, is separated into three sections with the first one beginning in 1885 and the last one taking place in 1912. There are three main characters in this story; Miranda, Miranda’s Aunt Amy, and her Cousin Eva. Miranda’s older sister, Maria, is highly involved in the first two sections of the story but the reader is not able to see her inner thoughts nor her transformation from a child into an adult. Some critics believe that “Old Mortality” is simply a story of romantic ideals, romantic love, and the past, but there is also an issue of femininity present.
In the first section of the story Maria and Miranda are merely children, twelve and eight years of age respectively. They are being raised by their grandmother and their father. In every aspect of their lives they are taught about the ideal of the southern belle. Miranda’s father and grandmother preserve the family history by refusing to admit the imperfections in the women in their family. Miranda hears her father talking about a picture of Amy, saying “…she was much slimmer than that, too. There were never any fat women in the family, thank God” (174). Miranda knows that the reality was to the contrary of that statement because her great-aunt Keziah was so overweight that her husband “had refused to allow her to ride his good horses” (174).
It is through Amy that Maria and Miranda learn their roles in society. They were able to learn what women were supposed to be, or rather, at that time, what women were supposed to look like, and Amy had fulfilled all of the requirements of a female beauty.
“There were points of beauty by which one was judged severely. First, a beauty must be tall; whatever the color the eyes, the hair must be dark, the darker the better; the skin must be pale and smooth. Lightness and swiftness of movement were important points. A beauty must be a good dancer, superb on horseback, with a serene manner, and amiable gaiety tempered with dignity at all hours. Beautiful teeth and hands, of course, and over and above all this, some mysterious crown of enchantment that attracted and held the heart” (176).
There is nothing to speak of in this quote about any mental abilities nor moral or virtuous behavior, with the exception of the mention of having dignity. The description of a woman that Miranda is brought up to want to emulate, is simply that of a facade, a certain look which she hopes she will one day she be able to achieve. “Miranda persisted all through her childhood in believing,…, that by some miracle she would grow into a tall, cream-colored brunette” (176).
To contrast the vision of beauty that Maria and Miranda are constantly reminded of, they are also told what the opposite of beauty was. Their cousin Eva, is well-known in the family for being ugly. “Eva, shy and chinless, straining her upper lip over two enormous teeth…She wore her mother’s clothing, made over, and taught Latin in a Female Seminary. She believed in votes for women, and had traveled about making speeches” (178). Eva never married because she was not beautiful. She was intelligent and worked to get women the right to vote and because of this was not able to charm men with her conversation.
The young girls arre treated by their father in accordance with these beauty oriented attitudes. Harry, the girls’ father, is described as a “a pleasant, everyday sort of father” (184) and that he would hold “his daughters on his knee if they were prettily dressed and well behaved” but he “pushed them away if they had not freshly combed hair and nicely scrubbed fingernails. ‘Go away, you’re disgusting’ he would say in a matter-of-fact voice” (184). The girls understood why their father would do this. It was to prepare them for the future where they would need to impress a man with their femininity in order for him to take one of them as a bride. They understood that no one wanted to grow old the way cousin Eva did; ugly and alone.
In the second part of the story, Maria and Miranda are now ages ten and fourteen, respectively, and they are away from home at the Convent of the Child Jesus in New Orleans. They spend each Saturday sitting in wait to see if their deportment has merited them a visit from a relative and a subsequent trip to the race track where they would each be given one dollar to bet on any horse they chose. Some Saturdays were spent just waiting with no one showing up. This meant that they had received bad grades that week and were being punished for it. One Saturday, however, the girls’ father shows up to take them to the track. Uncle Gabriel, who had been married to Amy and was a major character in the family legend, was racing a horse at the track. It was this particular weekend where Miranda realizes that the myths she grew up just accepting as truth were really embellishments and revised history. Uncle Gabriel does not resemble the man from the myth of Aunt Amy at all. He is overweight and a drunkard. At first glance, Uncle Gabriel was described as “a vast bulging man with a red face and immense tan ragged mustaches fading into grey” (197). Maria and Miranda both know that the description that had of Uncle Gabriel was not accurate. “Maria and Miranda stared, first at him, then at each other. ‘Can that be our Uncle Gabriel?’ their eyes asked. ‘Is that Aunt Amy’s handsome romantic beau?’” (197).
The second section also provides a self-realization for Miranda. It is in this section that Miranda realizes that she is never going to become a southern belle. “Her father had said one day that she was going to be a little thing all her life, she would never be tall; and this meant, of course, that she would never be a beauty like Aunt Amy” (196). Since she was small in stature, she makes the decision that she wants to become a horse jockey. After seeing the race and seeing the mare with her bloody nose afterwards and then meeting Uncle Gabriel and his wife, Miranda makes another decision that she does not want to be a jockey after all. Her father pokes fun at her by reminding her of her of her femininity and saying, “Well, well,…so you aren’t going to be a jockey! That’s very sensible of you. I think she ought to be a lion-tamer, don’t you Maria? That’s a nice, womanly profession” (205).
The final section of the story begins with a slightly liberated, eighteen year old Miranda taking a train home for Uncle Gabriel’s funeral. She ends up in the same sleeping-car as Cousin Eva. Once they realize who the other is, Eva begins a tirade of the family legend of the beautiful Amy. Cousin Eva has her own version of the family legend of Amy; her’s is the contempt and bitter version of the values which degraded her and made her feel second class because she was not beautiful. When Miranda puts in a word of defense for Amy, claiming that everyone loved her, Cousin Eva rebutted by saying, “Not everybody, by a long shot,…She had enemies. If she knew, she pretended she didn’t. If she cared, she never said. You couldn’t make her quarrel. She was sweet as a honeycomb to everybody. Everybody…That was the trouble. She went through life like a spoiled darling, doing as she pleased and letting other people suffer for it, and pick up the pieces after her” (211).
The third section opens Miranda’s eyes to the different views that can be taken from different people. Cousin Eva’s version of the family legend is as obviously false as were those she grew up hearing about. The truth was somewhere in the middle, but Miranda does not care to spend any more of her life fantasizing about the past. Cousin Eva does make one point with hero story. By her still being alive and Amy having long ago passed away, the old axiom “beauty goes, character stays” (215) is proven to be true. Miranda realizes that it is time for her to find her own beauty to coincide with her own character. “She resented, slowly and deeply and in profound silence, the presence of these aliens who admonished her, who loved her with bitterness and denied her the right to look at the world with her own eyes, who demanded that she accept their version of life and yet could not tell her the truth, not in the smallest thing” (219). She rebels against her family’s most prized possession; their memory of the past, whatever that memory may be. Miranda states, to herself, “I will be free of them, I shall not even remember them” (219).
“Old Mortality” contains three characters of entirely different kinds, and all three defy the social order of the south and strive to maintain their personal uniqueness and identity. The reader, through the telling of the family’s past, is able to see each woman’s own struggle toward self-definition, and each is able to achieve it, in some part, through her own individual act of separation from family and home. Amy and Eva have already experienced their liberation from the family and from the myth of the southern belle. Amy experiences this through her death and Eva through her acceptance of her life and her attitudes towards the memories of the past. In the final lines of this story, Miranda is finally realizes that she will have to separate herself from her family in order to be able to be an individual and not stuck in the fictionalized memories from the past that her family lives through.
“Her mind closed stubbornly against remembering, not the past but the legend of the past, other people’s memory of the past, at which she had spent her life peering in wonder like a child at a magic-lantern show. Ah, but there is my own life to come yet, she thought, my own life now and beyond. I don’t want any promises, I won’t have false hopes, I won’t be romantic about myself. I can’t live in their world any longer” (221).
Miranda will be the first of these three women to be able to enjoy the freedom that comes with the act of separation. Amy’s legend lives on, even though she does not. Eva, although aged and separate in her own right, still must live with the burden of knowing that she failed to live up to the myth of the southern belle. Miranda, however, has consciously decided to make this change in her life so that she can find the truth for herself and be able to live the rest of her life with these new ideals.