Katherine Anne Porter's Miranda Stories: A Commentary on the Cultural Ideologies of Gender Identity
Frankwitz, Andrea K., The Mississippi Quarterly
IN DISCUSSIONS OF THE TREATMENT OF WOMEN in Katherine Anne Porter's short stories, critics almost invariably examine the recurring character of Miranda. Typically, scholars such as William L. Nance and John Edward Hardy focus on how her grandmother's "matriarchal tyranny" has been a shaping influence in Miranda's psychological development as a female, but one should not so readily accept this term as an appropriate label for the ideology the grandmother represents. (1) Rather, the generations of women in Miranda's life represent first a passive acceptance of patriarchal culture and then a paradoxical rebellion against it. In the sequence "The Old Order," "Old Mortality," and "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," Porter not only fictionalizes parts of her own life through the character of Miranda but also depicts a reshaping of the cultural ideologies surrounding gender roles and the formation of identity. (2) Those characters who represent either a willing submission to the patriarchal view of gender or a paradoxical rebellion against it in "The Old Order" and "Old Mortality" serve to show Miranda the repressive nature of this cultural ideology. In charting Miranda's maturation through these two sets of stories and "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," one may discern her gradual disillusionment with the patriarchal ideology of gender and her steady movement toward a self-fashioned identity free from social constructs.
Miranda's first encounter with cultural ideologies of gender comes through her grandmother, who signifies a passive acceptance of the patriarchal order. Generally, the ideologies of a patriarchal system are symbolized and propagated through male characters, but females also may uphold them. What is traditionally associated with the patriarchy is not only the reinforcement of an absolute truth, dualistic thinking, authority, and a hierarchical order but also the privileging of the masculine over the feminine, and the idea that men and women have fixed places and roles in society. Contrary to Darlene Harbour Unrue's contention that Miranda's grandmother shows contradictory philosophical ideas in learning to do men's work but disapproving of her daughter-in-law's modern ways as a "new" woman, the grandmother remains consistent in her adherence to the traditional patriarchal ideology. (3) While a surface-level examination of "The Old Order" may seem to indicate that the grandmother, Sophia Jane, is rebelling against these ideological codes of behavior and thinking, she is, in fact, subtly and, perhaps naively, perpetuating them.
From young adulthood on, Sophia Jane lives her life, not according to her own inner beliefs but in recognition of, and acquiescence to, patriarchal gender roles. For example, she dreams repeatedly that she has lost her virginity--"her sole claim to regard, consideration, even to existence"--and then wakes in terror and disorder. (4) Her belief that virginity and virtue are synonymous and that they are the measurement of her worth as a woman certainly belongs to what Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar call "patriarchal aesthetics"--which want a girl to be a passive chaste maiden and "the eternally beautiful, inanimate objet d'art." (5) Sophia Jane hears that her cousin Stephen acts a little wild, "but that was to be expected. He was leading, no doubt, a dashing life full of manly indulgences, the sweet dark life of the knowledge of evil.... All, the delicious, the free, the wonderful, the mysterious and terrible life of men!" (p. 335). Sophia Jane's thoughts reflect the patriarchal ideology of gender, which reinforces the feminine as subordinate and the masculine as authority.
Although some critics, such as Shirley Scott and William L. Nance, argue that Sophia Jane rebels against the patriarchy and advocates feminism or androgyny--because she is a woman and does a "man's" work in cutting timber and plowing fields--she, on the contrary, passively reinforces the patriarchal ideology of gender. …