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THESE FADED THINGS: Katherine Anne Porter

southern fashion rhiannon leifheit

Katherine Anne Porter may have professed to hate symbolism in literature, but her short story “The Grave” (the conclusion piece to her larger story “The Old Order”) has enough symbols and allusions packed in its scant seven pages to fuel one hundred college theses. I imagine that most of these scholarly papers would focus on the dead mother rabbit, or on the empty graves themselves, and that would be all well and good and certainly rife with symbolism. But what fascinates me is the ring.

I gave Porter’s Miranda a good deal of space in my last column, and I didn’t plan to write about her again so soon, but I can’t help it: She is the Southern fictional character I relate to the most. Like her, I spent my childhood quietly observing my way through life, captivated by family history and by stories of what had happened before I was born. Miranda had her beautiful and short-lived Aunt Amy to daydream about, and I had my great-grandmother, a pretty and fashionable jazz singer who had to give up the spotlight for a conventional life in a small Midwestern town.  

Clothes, of course, helped fuel our fascinations. Miranda wondered over but could never quite get her head around her aunt’s strange Victorian dresses, choosing instead to emulate her chic cousin Isabel, so much more modern with her “trailing white satin gowns.” Likewise, I had only a vague idea of the kinds of things my great-grandma must have worn during her shows in the 1930s, gathered mostly from watching old black-and-white films at another grandmother’s house. My sisters and I picked this particular grandmother as our own fashion icon, marveling over her closet and its seemingly endless reserve of colorful pumps and matching handbags.

But most of the time I was a tomboy. And so was Miranda. In “The Grave,” she is nine years old, not yet the fashionable society reporter of Pale Horse, Pale Rider. She is the kind of girl who chooses to spend her time outdoors with her brother Paul, wearing “her summer roughing outfit: dark blue overalls, a light blue shirt, a hired-man’s straw hat, and rough brown sandals.” This uniform shocks the “old crones” of the community, but to Miranda and her father it makes perfect sense. She wears almost exactly what her brother wears because she enjoys doing the same things that he enjoys doing: running wild around her grandmother’s old Texas farm, shooting rabbits, digging in the dirt.  

The siblings are exploring empty graves in the abandoned family burial plot one day when Miranda comes across a coffin screw and Paul discovers a shiny gold wedding ring. They trade treasures, and the ring distracts Miranda from shooting, indeed turns “her feelings against her overalls and sockless feet, toes sticking through the thick brown leather straps.” Suddenly she feels the need to leave her tomboy ways behind. All she wants to do is “go back to the farm house, take a good cold bath, dust herself with plenty of her sister’s violet talcum power…put on the thinnest most becoming dress she own[s], with a big sash, and sit in a wicker chair under the trees.”

southern fashion katherine anne porter

But the sound of a gunshot interrupts her thoughts. Her brother kills a rabbit, cuts it open, and finds inside “a bundle of tiny rabbits, each wrapped in a thin scarlet veil.” This, of course, is where most of that symbolism comes into play. It’s Miranda's second awakening of the story—the sexual as opposed to the social. This being a fashion column, I’m more concerned with the social, that gold ring and how it can turn a tomboy into a young lady in ten seconds flat.

When I graduated from high school, my parents let me pick out a ring, the first valuable piece of jewelry I ever owned. I don’t have the ring anymore and can only vaguely remember what it looked like; I think I was supposed to pick out my birthstone, but ended up snubbing topaz and going for something blue instead. I can, however, remember how the ring made me feel. I was still bookish and awkward, but having that ring on my finger made me feel different. A little more grown up, a little bit new.

Miranda’s ring shines with a “serene purity.” She doesn’t seem to be bothered by its origins; unlike her Aunt Amy’s old, moth-eaten garments, the ring doesn’t make her recoil or turn away in confusion. If anything, it seems to confirm the “family legend of past wealth and leisure” she grew up hearing about. The ring may be associated with death, but to Miranda it symbolizes a new beginning, even if it is a conventional one. In the end, Miranda, like Katherine Anne Porter, will reject the life of the Southern belle, running away from married life and into the work force. But for one brief moment she imagines herself as the proper Southern lady in a flouncy dress, sitting under a magnolia tree, a shining ring on her finger.


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