Narrative Technique in Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”

One of many woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer depicting the Apocalypse. It is argued that Porter derived inspiration for her book while doing research at University of Basel Library and the Kunstmuseum, which house these woodcuts.

By Dürer –, Public Domain,

Hello everyone!

Since we will not have the chance to discuss “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” again in class, this post will be a bit longer than usual.

For those of you who missed the waffles and class discussion, we are first going to briefly talk about narration, which is a topic that we touched upon on Saturday.

Porter employed free indirect discourse, a narrative technique where we cannot differentiate between the narrator and the characters. At the end of the novel, the narrator’s voice is fused with the voice of Miranda as we cannot distinguish who says “a ghost but more alive than she was, the last intolerable cheat of her heart” (208).  Miranda also imagines herself through other people, such as the young couple in the bar, and as the narrative voice is filtered through other voices, this creates another layer of obscurity. Since this narrative layer blurs the line between Miranda and the society she observes, the question of whether it is possible to separate oneself from a social formation is one to be raised.

Miranda’s voice and personality allows the reader see things from a female perspective. Her voice brings feminism to light, by showing objection to patriarchy. For instance, she showed resistance, in a male dominated society, when she was being coerced to pay the bond. She also claps back when Adam makes an allusion of roles being gender specific (157). Other parts of the text portrays Miranda’s tastes in a way the female audience can relate. Also, mentioning her tastes and ability to make sole decisions of what she wants on her shopping list shows the power the author gives the narrator, Miranda, in the text.

This contrasts with the strength of another female character, Mrs Alving, in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, that we’ve discussed in class. Mrs. Alving, unlike Miranda, cannot make sole decisions and her life is based on the norms of the society and the partriachical display of her husband and Manders. Both texts were written by authors of different genders and judging by the outcome, it becomes clear how the masculine gender sees females or the position the masculine gender wishes to place females.  This raises the question: Do we only relate to people’s struggles if we have walked/are walking their path, just as Porter is able to relate to feminism and give the female character a voice? It would also be interesting to see how a female writer portrays the character of a woman.

Building off this question of the author’s experience and whether it feeds into the short novel, something else we didn’t touch on extensively in class is the fact that this book is to a large extent autobiographical; it is reported that Porter almost died of the Spanish flu in 1918 in Denver. Given this fact, one can question the legitimacy of this work as a history — or historiography, rather — of the Spanish flu in America during the war.

In a 2013 article titled ‘Trauma, Influenza, and Revelation in Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”’, Laurel Bollinger discusses this issue of autobiography. She cites some contemporary critics who read “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” “as a record of the trauma itself (whether personal or communal) rather than on the degree to which Porter creates a highly structured and carefully fictionalized version of the experience” (366). Seeing the story as a psychological/traumatic narrative that explores the infected self — more of an anthropological and psychological exploration — can be well-supported by the narrative technique employed by Porter, and

However, Bollinger is interested in exploring this relationship between fiction and autobiography. She argues that is exactly that fusion between truthful societal accounts and personal experience that strengthen the narrative, which is then ultimately tied together through biblical allusions:

[H]istorian Alfred Crosby describes the novella as “the most accurate depiction of American society in the fall of 1918 in literature. It synthesizes what is otherwise only obtainable by reading hundreds of pages of newspapers” (318). Porter offers similarly precise descriptions of the impact of the flu, both on her own body and on the victims who surrounded her. Yet far from simply recording what LaCapra worries will be “confused or undisciplined thought,” Porter’s hybridized account of the events takes its power specifically from its fusion of the autobiographical and the fictional as she works through the trauma by turning to the mythic. … Looking back on her memories over twenty years later, Porter depends upon biblical allusions, particularly to the Book of Revelation, to give shape and presumably meaning to her experiences (370).

Another significant element of this book is death and its the role throughout the story. One instance where the meaning of death is juxtaposed is in one of the multiple dreams that Miranda has throughout the text. In this dream, Miranda yearns for death as it is an escape from her worldly life and unwanted relationships; she wants to be transported to a world that would rid her of these inconveniences. But it is also apparent that she flees from death when she states “This journey I do not mean to take” (142).  Here, we see her hesitation about actually facing death as well as its consequences. This is interesting as it shows the uncertainty that comes along with making decisions that are absolute as nobody really knows what the result of them could be. This juxtaposition also reveals the contemplative and uncertain nature of her thoughts — it could be interesting to refer back to religion in this case and see how much she does indeed draw from Christian beliefs when she evaluates the concept of death.

If you made it all the way through here — thank you! We hope this post generates some questions and food for thought. Enjoy your break!


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  1. Porter’s autobiographical approach reminds me of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which is the complete opposite of what Porter did Pale Horse, Pale Rider. While Porter transferred her own experience onto a fictional character, Defoe wrote a biographical account although he did not experience the plague himself, or rather he was too young to be aware of it. However different their approaches are, I think both of them achieve what Bollinger said in her article “it is exactly that fusion between truthful societal accounts and personal experience that strengthen the narrative.” The conveners already discussed how well this works in Pale Horse, Pale Rider; meanwhile, regarding A Journal of the Plague Year, the fictional biography allows Defoe to mix between facts and hearsay. The hearsay is probably not totally true, but it complements the facts and numbers by painting a general yet vivid picture of the chaotic life during the plague.

    • Wow, that is a very interesting observation. Indeed, both A Journal of a Plague Year and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” do merge fiction and truth to generate a narrative, as you lay out nicely. However, I am a bit hesitant about the claim that Defoe, like Porter, fuses “between truthful societal accounts and personal experience.” As you point out, he — most likely — was too young to remember vividly (if at all) what happened during the plague. Therefore, in my opinion, the element of personal experience is missing from the mix when it comes to Defoe. That said though, he does a different kind of merging, as you point out: he merges between hearsay and facts, which, in turn, both fall under “societal accounts” (although they may not all be truthful).

      To push this conversation further, it would be interesting to look more into both authors’ purposes in writing these two narratives. To elaborate, how does the type of evidence they use — whether it’s (truthful) societal accounts, personal experience, data, or hearsay — help them achieve their respective goals in writing these narratives. What did Defoe want to achieve by writing A Journal of a Plague Year, and how different is it from what Porter wanted to achieve in writing “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”?

      As we discussed in class, Defoe wants to warn both governments (what we called “policy recommendation”) and people about the threats of the plague and how to better navigate such an epidemic, if it were to occur again. On the other hand, the moment in which Porter is writing is quite different. She writes at the point of the emergence of mass media (as reflected in the music referenced in the story) and right after the Great Depression of a time during which World War I was taking place. This is an entirely different and more complex set of givens that Porter operates under. So how does her use of evidence — whatever that may be — contribute to her commentary on the contemporary events of her time, and what is she commenting on in her short novel?

  2. I’m intrigued by the question you asked about whether it is impossible to separate oneself from a social formation especially given the motif of contagion that is so intrinsically linked between the self and society Oedipus and Thebes, Ding Village and the narrator, Oran and its citizens, Hillbrow and its characters and so on. How illness in society is manifested within the self is interesting to think, especially having just recently read Welcome to our Hillbrow where the idea of collective culpability for the decay of society is so apparent in the inclusive “our”.

    Its also interesting to think about America as an entity in Angels in America during the Aids epidemic, and Reagan era. How it was viewed as the manifestation of Sodom and Gomorrah with AIDS being the punishment that is sent from God for immorality as represented by homosexuality. This raises the question whether it Is it the country that is tainted? or is it the people that contaminate the place? It’s interesting how the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah or Qur’anic of the city of Lot and the real life AIDS epidemic are conflated. What impact to stories have on real life consequences? Is that the real contagion?

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