In this class, we have read quite a few depressing books, but never one that began so ominously. The Pale Horse and its Pale Rider could not have been mistaken for anything other than a reference to death. Indeed, in the Bible, he is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who ride when the world ends – or in 1918 during the bleak hopelessness of the First World War. Death is an underlying theme that lurks throughout the story. It is in the newspapers and the words that people say; it is across the ocean where young men are the “sacrificial lambs” sent to their own demise; it is on the streets in the shape of endless funeral processions and the ever-spreading influenza; and it pervades Miranda’s dreams and intrudes upon her reality when it takes her loved ones away in succession.
The novel depicts a warping of Miranda’s dreams, her reality and her imagination. She constantly drifts in and out of sleep. The text begins with a dream about the “lank, greenish” stranger (presumably the Pale Rider) riding on a horse beside her. This play between fantasy and reality is crucial to the understanding of the text. She is clearly upset and reconciles with herself that the cause of this “uneasiness is not all imagination.”
She is lonely, stating that “the worst thing in the war for the stay-at-homes is that there isn’t anyone to talk to any more”. She explains her loneliness through her description of human eyes and her inability to empathize with other eyes. “The worst of war is the fear and suspicion and the awful expression in the eyes you meet.” It is morbid that she cannot empathize with anyone, even those she agrees with, like the girl in the car who also believed visiting the soldiers was pointless. Imagine a scenario where you cannot connect with anyone, when you are so distanced from the rest of humanity that it is like they are suffering from a contagion and you are the only survivor, the only one with “sanity”. Or is it you who is wrong, who cannot join the giggly girls who visit the soldiers?
She tries to escape this feeling of being isolated, first by trying to run away from her physical surroundings with Adam and later in the digressions in her thoughts, when she vividly describes Adam and their shared interests and experiences. This helps to illustrate a duality between the physical and the mental effects of the plague. She says “what it does to [the mind and the heart] is worse than what it does to the body.” While she does have “pains in [her] chest and [her] head,” her dreams and nightmares always feature the more painful thoughts of violence and death. However, she seamlessly transitions into descriptions of beautiful sunlight and calming ocean waves. This reflects her inability to reconcile the phenomenon of death in her mind. On the one hand she accepts death to be an “eternity” and describes it as a phenomenon where the senses are diminished, or reduced, where there is “silence” and everything is “white” and is devoid of colour. On the other hand, she is “no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence.” The acceptance of death versus the “stubborn will to live” is an aspect that is central to all victims and patients, whether dying of depression influenza or World War 1. Thus, death is really the eternity that unifies the contagion, the war, and terminates everything.
Even in life, Adam and Miranda feel a sense of eternity they know is not actually possible. “Seems to me I’ve been in the army all my life,” commented Adam once. We as humans do have a tendency to adapt, becoming accustomed even to having death constantly hanging over our heads. Porter’s dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness technique of writing warps and almost extends the time over which the story takes place. Indeed, what we have seen is only the slightest sliver of the war and of Miranda’s life. It is easy to forget that “[s]he had seen him first ten days ago,” when it felt like an eternity packed with dancing, dull theatres, mountain climbing and geological museums. We are faced with this abrupt finality to an eternity only at the end:
“No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.”
But what does it mean that there is time for everything? Is Miranda dead when she narrates her account of the hospital towards the end of the book? Is she dead when she sees Adam and says that he was “a ghost but more alive than she was”? There is no more war and no more plague and there is time for everything. But since death is the eternity, has she transcended the war and the plague and moved on into this eternity?
For Miranda, there is also no more Adam. Is it a hopeful note that Miranda and America will recover, or is it more of a bitter, ironic statement? It is more likely the latter, when in the silence all that is left are the snapshots of Adam “looking very free and windblown,” but fixed forever. It is interesting to note that this is a quality even the living Adam had: he “raised his hand” instead of waving goodbye, “his brows fixed in a straight frown”; or “set in blind melancholy” seen through a dingy window. He always stood “fixed,” as though it was always his destiny to become a snapshot memory.
Adam is a very significant character in this novel, not only as Miranda’s lover, but also as one of the sacrificial lambs of America. Although Miranda is highly obsessed with Adam and carefully observes and describes Adam’s characteristics and behaviors, the figure of Adam is still vague for us. Perhaps it is because he is already distant as a doomed man, but perhaps be
cause it isn’t clear how he feels about the war. On one hand, his joke about the “average life expectation of a sapping party” being just nine minutes can speak of underlying resentment. On the other hand, when he defends the Liberty Bonds salesman, “[h]is pride in his youth, his forbearance and tolerance and contempt for that unlucky breathed out of his very pores. As Miranda sees it, “[t]here is no resentment or revolt in him. Pure, she thought, all the way through, flawless, complete, as the sacrificial lamb must be”.
Why did Miranda fall in love with Adam so quickly? Does she fall in love with Adam or her image of him? Can we assume that Miranda embraces him because of his purity and his adoption of the “American values” that she lacks? From this perspective, Adam is the lighthouse among all of her depressed imaginations and she heaps all her remaining hopes on him. Miranda’s love towards Adam, therefore, can be interpreted as her quest for social virtues or goodness. But again, we also want to ask that if Adam is really as innocently accepting of his fate as Miranda perceives? Since she is the narrator of this novel, does she in fact manipulate or beautify Adam’s figure? As we said before, already he is hazy and far away. Now that the war is over, will Miranda’s depression be alleviated or will the loss of Adam be too catastrophic to allow that?
We hope we have raised some thoughtful questions for this week’s discussion!
Abhi, Rosy, and Yan.