Unraveling of Myths in Porter’s Old Mortality
“There was a kind of faded merriment in the background, with its vase of flowers and its draped velvet curtains, the kind of case and the kind of curtains that no one would have any more. The clothes were not even romantic-looking, bur merely most terribly out of fashion, and the whole affair was associated, in the minds of the little girls, with dead things: the smell of Grandmother’s medicated cigarettes and her furniture that smelled of beeswax, and her old-fashioned perfume, Orange Flower. The woman in the picture had been Aunt Amy, but she was only a ghost in a frame, and a sad, pretty story from old times. She had been beautiful, much loved, unhappy, and she had died young.” (173)
Porter uses this second paragraph from Old Mortality to suggest themes and foreshadow future happenings in this story. This passage, which focuses exclusively on the background of Aunt Amy’s picture, is full of language suggesting the outdated feeling of the photograph. Phrases like “faded merriment,” “the kind of [things] no one would have any more,” “most terribly out of fashion,” “associated… with dead things,” and “old-fashioned” lend the picture a sense of falseness that only time has exposed. This falseness seems to hint to the reader to be wary of accepting things as they are given. The way that the girls seem to find everything in the photograph to be dated and out of fashion also foreshadows Miranda’s inability to identify with the myth of Amy. It may also point to a larger theme of the crumbling ideal of the Southern Belle and the slowly collapsing walls of the rigid confines of the role of upper class, white women.
The narrative can be seen as a continual unraveling by Miranda of the many myths generated by the family. The myth of who Aunt Amy was is a part of the larger myth of what constitutes a southern belle to the families of the Old South. Porter’s repeated use of flowers, beautiful, yet easily perishable, can be seen as imagery for the mythical Amy, suggesting her fragility. But just as the smells that the girls associate with the picture –medicated cigarettes, beeswax, and perfume –exist to cover up the real smells of the grandmother’s things and person, so does the created myth of frailty cover up Amy’s real independence, strength, and finally her death.