Constructed Narratives and Writing Identity in the Fiction of Katherine Anne Porter

By Fornataro-Neil, M. K. | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Constructed Narratives and Writing Identity in the Fiction of Katherine Anne Porter


Fornataro-Neil, M. K., Twentieth Century Literature


Readers of Katherine Anne Porter's fiction may notice a similarity among "Old Mortality," "He," "Noon Wine," and "Holiday." This study will attempt to establish a paradigmatic frame of reference that reflects Porter's concerns regarding the importance of language and the construction of identity.

Often we become aware that some key characters in these stories have constructed a narrative that supports their own idealized sense of identity, reality, or propriety. In order to write their own narratives, these characters must define or "write" other characters as well. In each of these stories, Porter also presents us with characters who, for whatever reason, cannot or do not speak. Whatever the source of Porter's fascination with silent characters, they allow her a greater opportunity to comment on the construction of identity and to critique the notion of objective truth. Within this narrative space, characters who cannot speak for themselves are destined to be written by others in such a way as to conform to the narrative purpose. Alienated because they have no language, or more accurately because they communicate by means of a sign system that others fail to understand, these characters have no way to articulate their own sense of identity or to make their own realities known.

In "Old Mortality," perhaps the most complex variation of this paradigm, Porter directs the reader to recognize the narrative construct written by the elder members of Miranda's family. Frequent and repeated use of the words story, legend, narrative, and tale underscores the fictive nature of the family's reconstruction of the past. In essence, Miranda's family has constructed a highly romanticized narrative about the past that depends greatly on the story of Amy. Because Amy, in some external ways, conforms to the ideals of the southern belle of the Old South, she becomes a central and defining element. Although her own personal reality is quite different from the way she is defined by the family, Amy becomes emblematic of the romantic ideal.

As Jane Krause DeMouy notes, "'Old Mortality' is a fiction of memory. . ." (127). It is significant that Porter never writes from the perspective of the past, from the time that Amy actually lives and dies. Rather, Amy is presented to the reader through a continual writing (and rewriting) of history, based on the memories of those who knew hen Because her life is reconstructed by others, Amy never really has a chance to speak for herself, to Miranda or Maria or to the reader; she is, essentially, a silent figure. Aunt Amy is "only a ghost in a frame, and a sad, pretty story from old times" (173). The girls must sort through the pieces of Amy's story they are given, as well as the preserved physical evidence (Amy's photograph, wedding dress, etc.), in order to construct their own narratives, their own interpretations of the story, and to come to some understanding of Amy's identity:

They listened, all ears and eager minds, picking here and there among the floating ends of narrative, patching together as well as they could fragments of tales that were like bits of poetry or music, indeed were associated with the poetry they had heard or read, with music, with the theater. (176)

Furthermore, it is clear that even within this narrative, the carefully constructed illusion of her family's memory, Amy seems to speak a different language, one that her family is incapable of understanding. Operating as she did outside the societal conventions of her time, Amy's sign system differed radically from that of her family and community. Not only does Amy reject a white gown for her wedding, she redefines the word wedding as being synonymous with the word funeral. For her, marriage does not mean a cure for her illness, as her mother has assured her. Rather, it means death. She tells her mother, "It is my funeral, you know" (182). Amy's mother (Miranda's grandmother) makes little, if any, attempt to interpret Amy's language or to recognize her daughter's unsuitability for the life imposed on her. …

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