Summary of "Old Mortality" by Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter's short novel "Old Mortality" might be a tale of teenage rebellion except that the rebellious acts are all committed by an aunt long dead. The story, centered around the impressionable Maria and Miranda, daughters of a puritanical Southern patriarch, describes how one of them breaks free from a life of remembered greatness to realize her own potential.

Free Spirits Crushed

The story's first half, told by an omniscient and somewhat unreliable narrator, details with disapproving tone the adventures of Aunt Amy, the girls' free-spirited relative, who occasions scandalous pistol duels at dances, cuts her hair short when her dull fiance Gabriel admires it, and flirts with other men during her engagement, which she breaks and renews repeatedly. We come to admire Amy's strength of spirit and will in spite of her family's -- and the narrator's -- disapproval; when she marries Gabriel, it's an intense disappointment. Her subsequent bedridden death, as she babbles about New Orleans cotillions, is heartbreaking.

Father Doesn't Know Best

As Miranda and Maria grow up, their father is intensely unflattering when describing them to strangers: "Rolled into one they don't come up to Amy." When Gabriel's horse Miss Lucy -- "Amy's mare" -- wins a race for the family, Miranda imagines being a jockey; her father replies sarcastically, "She ought to be a lion-tamer ... that's a nice womanly profession." By the time 1912 rolls around, we and Miranda are ready to depart the family, leaving them to their remembered beauty and greatness, and the memory of the spirited aunt she can never measure up to.

The Truth Will Out

At age 18, Miranda runs into her elderly Cousin Eva, who tells Miranda the truth about her family: Her overbearing, vain father and his money-hungry brood destroyed virtually every life they touched, and Amy, far from romantically fading from life, overdosed on drugs. The "ill health" the family possesses is their hideously selfish natures. The reader experiences a shock: The admirable free-spirited Amy is a vainglorious suicide. Eva, the true free spirit, campaigns for women's suffrage, although "society's disapproval" has aged her. Miranda resolves to move on, wanting "something new of her own."

"Green-Sickness," A Fatal Disease

The girls' grandmother, describing the family disease, calls it "green-sickness"; the ailment seems to be Porter's symbol both for societal oppression of females and the Old South's illusions about the past. Porter herself, who suffered from bronchitis, also had a life filled with disappointed romance, multiple marriages and lost illusions. Perhaps this tale was her attempt to find the "angel [who] forgets the griefs of old mortality."

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