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.