Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Dis-Ease of Katherine Anne Porter's Greensick Girls in "Old Mortality"

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

The Dis-Ease of Katherine Anne Porter's Greensick Girls in "Old Mortality"

Article excerpt

"For human beings are not so constituted that they can live without expansion. If they do not get it one way, they must another, or perish."

--Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century

Readers of "Old Mortality" have been anything but remiss in bringing attention to the rebellious behavior of Porter's women characters. Her principal female characters have been said either to display a proud rebelliousness or, at the very least, to attempt resistance even though they will inevitably fail because of their ambivalent relationship to a past they cannot quite relinquish and a future they cannot quite embrace.(1) Many of these same critics have considered her characters as semi-autobiographical creations of what Joan Givner called Porter's own "fatal ambivalence": "She craved the protectiveness and support that she never had from her father and at the same time she was disposed to be independent and dominant as her grandmother was" (92). Porter's readers over the past decades, decades in which American culture has been marked by the optimism and anger of second-wave feminism, have typically celebrated the struggle undertaken by her female characters to achieve independence and to survive a headstrong (southern) patriarchal culture. Having inhaled the cultural air, which is not to imply that all Porter's readers are feminists, critics have often read "Old Mortality" as a story of American girlhood: a story not of Jamesian resistance abroad, but of resistance at home since the time when first-wave feminism was making itself felt. The nature of her female characters' resistance, however, needs to be reconsidered. I propose that instead of presenting girls engaged in healthy rebellion against their assigned adult social roles, "Old Mortality" brings sharply into focus the pressures and anxieties suffered by adolescent females in Victorian America and their willingness to take their destinies into their own hands by deferring as long as possible--and at great risk to their own lives--the inevitable crossing from the freedom of girlhood to the restrictions of adult womanhood. The power of cultural ideology to shape and distort a girl's identity and body seems to have riveted Porter, perhaps because she felt they were ideologies that persisted with equal force in her own age. Reconsidering "Old Mortality" in this light leads one to the realization that this was not the only occasion in which Porter paired the struggle for self-autonomy with the sick body of girlhood.

The resisting female character, even if she fails to break out from under the oppression of the dominant culture in which she finds herself, is irresistibly attractive to twentieth-century readers. However, a critical dimension of Porter's story has, as a result, not received much notice: the illness suffered by pubescent girls who cannot quite accept the cultural status quo for women. To shift the focus from healthy adolescent rebellion to the ailing body of girlhood, we need to resituate this text, removing it from the formalist, symbolist, and autobiographical sphere so as to contextualize it in fin-de-siecle American culture. My intent is neither to read the body in the feminist context of the rebellious Victorian girl or the New Woman in the process of being born nor to claim that Porter is "writing the body" in the celebratory manner glorified by Helene Cixous, for instance. Rather, I wish to examine this story in the context of disease and illness in which Porter sets it, a context which urges us to consider both the sick body of adolescent girls and "Old Mortality" as one of Porter's "fictions of illness" (Vrettos I). Not unlike Hawthorne who dragged his reader back to the gloom of Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter, Porter forces her modern-day (female) reader half a century back in time to the repressiveness of Victorian America. In this context, the female body needs to be read as inscribed by its culture's discourses, one of which is its medical discourse, which will be the focus of this paper, so that we might examine how the nineteenth-century medical establishment read the female body as against girls' readings of their own bodies. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.