Dead War, Dead Survivors

Pale Horse, Pale Rider resonates strongly with the “living dead” theme we discussed throughout Ibsen’s Ghosts. Instead of being haunted by the incidents of the past, however, the characters in Pale Horse, Pale Rider are haunted by both the ongoing war and the lingering atmosphere of oncoming death. It is interesting to note that this sense of imminent death, however, is not limited to direct combat in war; rather, it is focused on the dreary lives of the “stay-at-homes”.

Miranda, the main protagonist, is a female reporter who feels as if her life is meaningless. She goes to work, she dates a man, she fulfills her expected duties, but is cynical of the entire process:

“So all the happy housewives hurry during the canning season to lay their baskets of peach pits on the altar of their country. It keeps them busy and makes them feel useful…So rows of young girls… roll cock-eyed bandages that will never reach a base hospital, and knit sweaters that will never warm a manly chest, their minds dwelling lovingly on all the blood and mud and the next dance at the Acanthus Club for the officers of the flying corps. Keeping still and quiet will win the war.” (171)

This social milieu of doing pointless activities for the sake of the war (without actually helping it) is presented as a disaster almost greater than the war itself. It is a contagion infesting itself into wartime society, and is eventually directly revealed in the form of a plague:

 “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.” (177)

“I tell you, this is a plague, a plague, my God, and I’ve got a houseful of people to think about!” (183)

Miranda seems to be the only character who is acutely aware of this influenza (of both the mind and body), “I hope I see you once more before I go under with whatever is the matter with me” (170). Nonetheless, the “living dead” is a recurring pattern represented in each of the characters throughout the story. How are each of the characters not quite living? Are there any characters that could be considered fully alive?  If so, how are they managing to do this?

The relationship between the living and the dead is another recurring theme worthy of discussion. The suffering of the living is explicitly mentioned when Miranda introduces the song that begins with “Pale horse, pale rider…” (189). In this song the death, represented by “pale horse, pale rider”, takes away not only lover but also the whole family, leaving “one singer to mourn” (190). And Miranda, in her nightmare, experiences this devastating pain. She sees Adam continuously struck by arrows in his heart and dies, while she cannot help but live and endure everything. Miranda believes that the pain of the living is no less than that of the dead, as we can assume from “It’s my turn now, why must you always be the one to die?” (191). She would rather die than become the lone one who has to suffer from the loss.

In another of Miranda’s dreams, we learn how she handles the memory of the dead.

…something, somebody, was missing, she had lost something, she had left something valuable in another country, oh, what could it be? There are no trees, no trees here, she said in fright, I have left something unfinished. A thought struggled at the back of her mind, came clearly as a voice in her ear. Where are the dead? We have forgotten the dead, oh, the dead, where are they? (201)

In her dream, Miranda enjoys the company of “all the living she had known” in a serene scene of sea and sky, until the pain returns with the memory of the dead. She could live in joy and peace if she would forget everything, but it seems that she cannot let go of her memories of the dead—she feels that “something valuable” is missing. She chooses to bear the remembrance, although it entails severe pain.

How is Miranda’s attitude toward the dead similar with or different from that of other characters we’ve encountered in our readings so far? How can we apply Anderson’s argument regarding the relation of the living and the dead to Miranda’s situation? Does Porter explicitly or implicitly suggest how we should act in response to the loss of beloved ones?

Finally, this novel also offers a much more intimate perspective on disease. The prose transitions fluidly from third person to first person. The reader becomes both an omniscient observer and a part of Miranda’s consciousness, privy to her inner dialogue.

This is especially important when Miranda is delirious and on the brink of death:

 “I shall not know when it happens, I shall not feel or remember, why can’t I consent now, I am lost, there is no hope for me. Look, she told herself, there it is, that is death and there is nothing to fear. But she could not consent still shrinking stiffly against the granite wall…” (199)

When Miranda identifies her own survival instinct, it is described as “a hard unwinking angry point of light” that speaks to her, and yet the light uses the personal pronoun “I”. Miranda is within and without herself, and she recognizes her instinct for survival as an external force pushing her towards life and as a part of herself, intent on self-preservation.

The novel focuses on Miranda – the things that happen around her, her reactions, her observations, her thoughts, even her dreams. The disease itself doesn’t have a strong presence at first, only in the many funeral processions that intersect with Miranda and Adam’s walk. Then, when Miranda contracts the disease and confronts it directly, the disease consumes the pages as it consumes Miranda. Pale Horse, Pale Rider is similar to Ibsen’s Ghosts in that the portrait of the disease is very personal and intimate, perhaps making for a more disturbing effect on the reader/viewer. 



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  1. I agree that the complacency of most of the population to be bullied into supporting the war effort is like a second disease being criticised in the novel, acting zombie-like in their ordinary lives. However, as you also mentioned in the post, the hope that their contribution was pivotal made the women feel better about themselves: “It keeps them busy and makes them feel useful”. Even though these cooperating women were deceived by the government or by themselves of the real significance of their help, this action helps them cope with the war-time tension; one can consider this a white lie.

    This brings us to the subject of the individual in times of disaster. Pale Horse, Pale Rider draws a parallel between war and plague by several statements: they both raise fear and suspicion among neighbours and friends, they both challenge pre-existing customs such as the obligations towards your family and society, and they both have the quality of equalizing people by killing indiscriminately (especially disease).This last effect can also be seen in Miranda’s comparison with “a wave among waves”, an individual that on its own seems quite ephemeral but in cooperation with others makes up a grander ocean. During a plague, doctors and patients may feel worthless when fighting the pestilence, appealing to any solution such as the mountebank’s potions condemned by Defoe in A Journal of the Plague Year; but these alternatives might help us cope with our impotence, and keeps that particle of the “stubborn will to live” burning inside.

    • Thanks Rafa, for your points of interest. I find it interesting that you suggest women’s participation in war efforts a white lie, and I would like to add on two points (and many more questions posed), just as food for thought.
      1) Yes, this would be beneficial if it helped cope with wartime tension. In this case the individuals would actually believe in this white lie. But Pale Horse Pale Rider seems to be pointing out the negative consequences of forming a sense of obligation without a sense of purpose, where individuals (at least, Miranda and a few others) don’t actually believe this lie. Could a balance between these two extremes be somehow reached? Can a white lie be purely beneficial without becoming oppressive?
      2) This conversation on female participation during wartime reminds me of the “We Can Do It!” poster that is often brought up as a symbol of feminism and female empowerment. I do sincerely hope that all this “uselessness of women” mentioned throughout our discussions is but one side of the story (focused on listelessness and a sense of obligation), and that in reality all these efforts did have some form of helpful impact directly to the war.

  2. The previous conveners postulated the question: How are each of the characters not quite living?
    In reading the short story, one definitely notices the way in which most characters are depicted in such a way as to lack concrete existence or the quality of life. This effect is produced primarily as the result of the narration. For the most part, the story is narrated by Miranda who also happens to be, in the later part of the story, delirious from the disease. The confused narrative that develops as a result of her illness blurs the line between what is real and what is not. Furthermore, the chronology of the narrative breaks down as we see what was the past seep in as if it were the present. A prime example of this muddled narrative is when Miranda is waking up at the beginning of the story.

    In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere.

    Miranda “wakes up” to find herself a dream. In this dream, the narration is vivid and confusing. We get a clear sense of what is happening, but there is a distinct lack of logic or connection between the events that occur in the dream and those that occur in what we presume to be “real life”. Such is the nature of a dream. However after Miranda exits this dream we see her “wake up” into what initially seems to be real life.

    Slowly, unwillingly, Miranda drew herself up inch by inch out of the pit of sleep, waited in a daze for life to begin again.

    However, in an interesting turn of events, we see her “jump” forward in time to a point where she has woken and is bathing. This implies that the events of the previous pages are part of her dream as well. This dream is apparently a flashback to what had happened in the past. In this sense we have a dream within a dream (cue Inception music). This disordered narrative suggests that the characters (the men selling liberty bonds) depicted in the scenes at the office (prior to her waking up) are in some way dead or unreal.
    Another example of a “dead” character in the story is Adam. The narrative is structured in such a way as to suggest that Adam is alive for a portion of the story. Later on in the story we realise that Adam has died from the disease. However, Adam continues to appear throughout the course of the story. This is the result of a confused and delirious Miranda.
    In effect the reality of characters other than Miranda is defined by the narrative style of the story. Because the narration is developed in such a way that it reflects Miranda’s psychological state, the other characters seem to be not entirely real or living.


    • Hey Liam,
      I also believe that the dreams in this novella play a big role in developing the concept of the “living dead.” What I also found interesting in this context is the frequent imagery of death that appears throughout Miranda’s dreams. This story begins with a vivid scene in which Miranda is chased by “pale horse and pale rider,” a.k.a. the death. In another dream, she finds herself in a jungle, which she describes as “a writhing terribly alive and secret place of death” (183). Her constant dreaming of death, even when she is yet to be delirious, seems to suggest that she is accompanied by death the whole time, due to the society in which people die out from the war and influenza. And the ambiguous narrative helps this imagery blend into reality by blurring the line between what is real and what is not, as you mentioned.

  3. In your post, you mention the war as a factor that leads to the zombification of society. I agree that this seems to be one of the central issues in the text. Perhaps, it would also be useful for us to think of other direct results of this “plague” that this short novel presents us with. A particularly important one, I believe, is the broad escalation of lying: not telling the truth in the Pale Horse, Pale Rider seems to have disastrous consequences. Be it propaganda by the government (“the WAR to end WAR” pg. 175) or Miranda’s cowardice apparent from her inability to act in accordance with her beliefs, when the truth is not told fully it results in direct harm both to the society and the individual. This links back to our discussion of Ibsen and the question whether withholding the truth can act as a disease itself, eating away at the very core of our being.

    I find it very interesting that the author chose to have Miranda working at a newspaper. Besides the obvious autobiographical significance, this detail allows us to get an even deeper insight into the novel’s position on truth and especially the presentation of truth during armed conflict. Whereas Mrs. Alving saw her ghosts glide through the lines of newspapers, Miranda is directly involved in the creation of these ghosts: working at a “routine female job,” (149) writing about theatre. This makes us question the assumption whether it’s really the war (or our social obligations as Maisie suggested) that is the main agent of the social disease plaguing Porter’s society or actually it’s the citizens themselves that are responsible for the malady infecting our community. Is Miranda, as everyone else around her, partly responsible for the “plague” by feeding the ghosts of “defunct beliefs,” causing all of us to live in aeigri somnia, a sick man’s dream?

    • The newspaper connection between “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” and “Ghosts” is a fascinating one — Mrs. Alving feels oppressed by those “defunct beliefs” she finds in newspapers while Miranda begrudgingly propagates them. This may have wider implications for Miranda’s attitude toward the war/the plague. She jokes about her illness from the outset (“‘Well, Dr. Hildesheim, aren’t we in a pretty mess?'” 193) and in her delirium, she tries to surrender to death but is blocked by her own survival instinct. Furthermore, when Miranda returns to ‘life’, she sees it as only ugly and full of pain compared to the silent serenity she found at the brink of death. This also supports the idea of Miranda’s ‘zombification’, and perhaps demonstrates that throughout the novel Miranda wants to shuffle off her mortal coil and revels in this death wish once it is almost granted.

  4. Thanks very much for fleshing out the newspaper connections. It’s a thread that reaches all the way back to Defoe!

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