When coffins are first introduced to the novel in volume one, they serve a utilitarian purpose: Grandpa makes the narrator a narrow wooden coffin to bury him outside the schoolyard. It is a humble coffin, but the narrator is still appreciative and the reader is given a sense that he was buried with respect. But the sudden influx of death in the village makes the once ominous and morbid coffin a well-sought after prize. Coffins become a scarce and therefore valuable resource.
Yan is not exactly subtle with the message he wants to convey in his novel. When villagers begin cutting down old trees and repurposing school furniture for their coveted coffins, they are quite literally sacrificing their past and future. Yet it is hard to blame the villagers for wanting to honor their dead in such desperate times. The reason this sparks such outrage however is because all of it was ultimately unnecessary. If Ding Hui had not stolen the coffins in the first place, the villagers would have been fine. This is taken to the extreme when Ding Hui treats this as a personal challenge to show the villagers once and for all how capable he is. He pays for the coffin of his brother, the supposed family disgrace, with not only the blood of his village but their coffins too. It is a callous display of wealth that drives a nail into how a beautiful coffin is really just a symbol of mindless vanity and excess. It is a rats race. There is no benefit to a beautiful coffin to the dead. It is only a status symbol for the living.
It is the year 1918, four years after the death of Franz Ferdinand. Russia ends its participation in the war, the United States wins Battle of Cantigny, and a deadly strain of influenza quietly sweeps across the globe infecting a third of the world’s population and claiming approximately 50 million lives. Katherine Anne Porter survives this pandemic. She had been working as a reporter for The Rocky Mountain News during the height of the virus in Denver, Colorado while also seeing a young soldier who was about to be deployed overseas. After she falls ill, the soldier nurses her until her editor manages to squeeze her into a hospital. The hospital is so overcrowded that she is left lying on a gurney running a forty-degree fever for nine days. After her miraculous recovery she finds out that the young soldier she had been seeing died because of the virus weeks ago. So it goes. Pale Horse Pale Rider is therefore a testimony to Porter’s own unique experience caught between both one of the deadliest wars and one of the deadliest plagues in history.
It is easy to see how Porter’s personal encounter with the virus shapes the way the story is told. The entire novella is written as a fever-dream, full of vivid and almost surreal iconography but disjointed in its sense of time and place. The story opens for instance with a dream within a dream, emphasizing the delirious nature of our protagonist, perhaps emulating for the reader what it is like to feel influenza first-hand. She also incorporates language of memory — “remember”, “forget”, “remind”, ”forgotten”– throughout the piece, frequently moving in and out of flashbacks between strings of monologue and moments of lucidity. Through her writing, Porter aims to reflect on Miranda’s psychological reaction to tragedy and how the plague and war changed her. The story becomes about how Miranda is meant to process trauma, loss, and confront her own mortality. Porter said of the pandemic in a 1963 interview:
It simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, really. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really “alienated,” in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the “beatific vision,” and the Greeks called the “happy day,” the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are.
The eponymous Pale Horse and Pale Rider is, of course, a reference to the Biblical Book of Revelations. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse described in Revelations are Conqueror on a white horse, War on a red horse, Famine on a black horse, and Death on a white horse. In this way, Pale Horse, Pale Rider is also a story about the end of things, a combination of factors that lead to great tragedy.
The theme of war is pervasive throughout Pale Horse, Pale Rider. It pervades every facet of the characters’ lives, and furthermore seems to divide society into the “combatants” and the “noncombatants”: those who actively fight in the war and those who are the “stay-at-homes” (171), encouraged to “do their share” by purchasing Liberty Bonds (147). While patriotism is severely emphasized by both combatants and non-combatants alike, whether that be direct or performative, Miranda herself views the war as more of a harbinger of death. Especially in regard to her relationship with Adam, Miranda sees the war as something that merely send these soldiers— these “sacrificial lambs” (177) — out to die.
In Pale Horse, Pale Rider, however, these themes of war and death are further complicated by the simultaneous unfolding of a plague. Throughout the novella, the language of contagion and militarism seem to overlap to the point where it becomes difficult to separate the war and the plague from one another. Adam, for example, says to Miranda that “the men are dying like flies out there, anyway. This funny new disease. Simply knocks you into a cocked hat” (158). In many ways this statement is unclear on whether Adam is referring to the war or the plague, as both in their own right are claiming lives. Another example would be the ways in which Porter describes the nature of the two through the character of Miranda. Miranda, for instance, describes the war as such:
“The worst of the war is the fear and suspicion and the awful expression in all the eyes you meet…. It frightens me; I live in fear too, and no one should have to live in fear. It’s the skulking about, and the lying. It’s what war does to the mind and the heart, Adam, and you can’t separate these two— what it does to them is worse than what it can do to the body” .
Pale Horse, Pale Rider (176-177)
These notions of mind, heart, and body also come into play throughout the time Miranda falls ill to the influenza. What seems to weaken Miranda is not necessarily her physically ailing body, but her deteriorating mental state. Her claim to fighting the illness is not through her body but through her mind, where “a clear line of communication… between her and the receding world” is considered her “small hold” on her life (194). The parallels in language imply that war and the plague can be seen as one and the same thing.
Another key theme that Porter focuses on are the ideas of mortality, asking what does it mean to live and to die? Particularly for Miranda, the decision to live seems to be made for her: “…,the whole humane conviction and custom of society, conspired to pull her inseparable rack of bones and waster flesh to its feet…” (204). Her wanting to die and feeling empty as a result is not well accepted. The story ends on a melancholy but conflicting note: “…the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there will be time for everything” (208). What does she mean by ‘everything’?
A pandemic can be thought of as a collection of millions of personal traumas and explorations of mortality occurring simultaneously. This personal and psychological account is able to shed light into individual decisions and actions more deeply. Adam was supposed to die because of war, but most probably Miranda ended up giving him the flu that killed him. To what extent is she responsible for Adam’s death? How does she consolidate the guilt if at all?
Finally, mortality is presented as a war against time and the body. Throughout the text, Miranda is running out of time and she is constantly calling attention to this. Why is time almost a third main character? Additionally, as she ‘fights’ the flu, what parallels exist between the language of war and the war against a pathogen within the body?
There are ways in which this story reminds us of our situation today. It is not new to see the media and governments using war metaphors when discussing pandemics, given how convenient it can be. It can be an easy way of evoking emotional response and a sense of urgency, both of which make people more accepting to make sacrifices.
Soldiers fighting in the front lines of the First World War are today’s social workers combating the pandemic. Trying to provide care for patients in the face of failing institutions and lacking infrastructure is most likely a war of its own and both have their lives put at risk in trying to fight. There is even glory in going out to fight, shown more through the bitterness of Chuck who, unable to go, does not care about “how it started or how it ends” (170).
Of course, sacrifices are still made away from the front lines as well. However, Miranda is skeptical of the ones made in her home front. She acknowledges that “it wasn’t so much her fifty dollars that was going to make any difference” (147) and that much of actions of their part “keep[s] them busy and make[s] them feel useful.” (171) COVID revealed the importance of the actions of everyone involved in preventing the spread, though many proved either equally as skeptical or incompetent.
Oh, come not near then to your Jenny, No last kiss on her pale lips lay, Watch, but watch you from afar off When they bear her corpse away
Feast During the Plague, Lines 60-64
What does it mean to grieve in a pandemic?
All over the world, burialritualshavechanged, and people are experiencing grief not only for the loss of their loved ones, but also for the loss of customs they were meant to remember them by. Families in Wuhan have not been able to pick up the cremated ashes of their loved ones for two months because of lockdown. Filipino wakes normally last up to three days, but the pandemic has enforced all cremations to take place within 12 hours of death. Big public funeral processions that were once so vital in many faiths of South Asia are now complicated by social distancing. When the best one can do is Zoom into a friend’s funeral, a great deal of human connection is lost.
I find Pushkin’s exploration of coping mechanisms and grief particularly relevant to this modern concern. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a similarly story to Pushkin’s called “The Masque of the Red Death” where a group of rich people also throw themselves a feast in the middle of plague, but while Poe’s play was about confronting mortality head on, Pushkin is more concerned with those who have to consider it second-hand.
Pushkin through the Chairman and other characters, considers the emotionally turbulent experience of restricting our reactions to loss. Though Mary seems distraught over the empty churches and schoolyards and burials and conveys her sadness through song, her companions are perhaps equally distraught but a little better at hiding it. “So for the Plague a hearty cheer!” says the Chairman. Though his mother is dead and so is his wife and dear friend, a cheer, he says. His grief is expressed in the active denial of hurt and sadness. He turns to alcohol and merriment as a cheap way of coping with tragedy. It makes one wonder how much of this reaction was imposed on by the plague? Would he have reacted similarly if his mother had died in more normal circumstances? If he had been allowed to see her and mourn? Or did the plague amplify his grief?
Interestingly enough, it is not those who have been those most heavily hit by loss of loved ones that are out there partying today. The only parties I ever hear of are these so-called COVID parties. While Pushkin’s feast was about grief and respect for the tragedy of plague, the modern COVID party (if it does exists) is centered on the active denial of plague. It makes me wonder, maybe plague-denial is in itself is an expression of grief. Or maybe not. Who knows.