Pale Horse, Pale Rider offers us a glimpse into the psyche of young Americans during World War I and the raging 1918 influenza pandemic or “Spanish flu”. Widely assumed to be based on the author’s own life experiences, the novella tells the story of Miranda, a reporter who covers the “routine female job” (149) of theatrical reviews. Even before Miranda contracts influenza, she cannot escape death; she is literally surrounded by funerals and death permeates even her most inane conversations through constant references to the war. However, it is not until she herself becomes sick and nearly dies that she experiences a fundamental shift in her relationship with her own mortality, returning to consciousness with the impression that “the body is a curious monster, no place to live in…” (203). In a world so full of death, what does it mean to live—to escape the pale rider?
A past convener’s post explores
the impact of Porter’s choice to employ the narrative style of free
indirect discourse, aptly described as “a narrative technique where we
cannot differentiate between the narrator and the characters.”
Throughout the story, it is often unclear whether we are hearing
Miranda’s direct thoughts or the reflections of an outside narrator;
this is part of what contributes to the hazy treatment of time in the
novel, which Professor Waterman reflects on in his article “Plague Time (Again)”.
The overall narrative structure of the piece is also worth considering
as we try to piece together what Porter is showing us about death, war,
and society. If this story is essentially a narrative about surviving an
illness, why does Porter choose to start the action so long before
Miranda actually falls ill? Why give us so much information about war bonds
and newspapers? One answer lies in Miranda’s resistance towards
returning to normalcy after she recovers. She puts off reading the
letters that her loved ones sent while she was sick, lamenting, “They
will all be telling me how good it is to be alive, they will say again
they love me, they are glad I am living too, and what can I answer to
that?” (205). Even these positive threads of her communicative network
pull at Miranda in unwanted ways, demanding a response that she feels
she cannot give. By dedicating more than half of the story to Miranda’s
life prior to the illness, Porter allows readers to see more clearly
what has changed here. Once a vibrant, active figure within a social
network, Miranda now feels alienated from others due to her new
perspective on life and death. The disease has not just impacted her
physical contact with others, but also her desire to engage in
emotional, intellectual contact.
Adam and Miranda’s relationship has a doomed fate from the start, as
Adam is readying for deployment overseas, a fact that the couple is
acutely aware of: “She liked him, she liked him, and there was more than
this but it was no good even imagining, because he was not for her nor
for any woman, being beyond experience already, committed without any
knowledge or act of his own to death.” What they don’t know is that it
will be the virus that gets them first. Still, that doesn’t stop the
couple from enjoying their precious moments together. They spend their
10 days in the frenzy of early romance: dancing to jazz under the stars,
sharing stories, going to plays, talking about their past lives and
reflecting on futures that can never be. Their love adds a vibrance and
light to the story, contrasting with the context of death and darkness
they are surrounded by. Funeral processions pass regularly through the
streets with seemingly growing frequency, but Miranda is determined not
to disturb “the radiance which played and darted about the simple and
lovely miracle of being two persons named Adam and Miranda, twenty four
years old each, alive and on earth at the same moment.” Similarly to
the community in A Feast During the Plague, human connection
provides escapism, a symbol of the goodness remaining in the world.
Miranda is portrayed as using her relationship with Adam as a shield
against the war and the virus, substituting and interweaving one set of
experiences for another.
The relationship between the living, the dead and memory is presented as a recurring motif in the text (Severance, is that you?). At one point, Miranda and Adam discuss the eponymous traditional spiritual Pale Horse, Pale Rider, in which death steals the singer’s lover, mother, father, siblings, and eventually, the entire family. Because the dead in the song, like the dead in the war and the victims of the influenza pandemic, have no memory, remembering them becomes the survivor’s responsibility. Miranda identifies with the singer in the spiritual when she tells Adam, “but not the singer, not yet. Death always leaves one singer to mourn” (190). As mourners at the feast, Miranda and Porter eventually each become bearers of memories that would otherwise be forgotten.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that just as much as the story is about escaping death, it is also about accepting death. In the case of Adam, he tries to make the best of his life and his time with Miranda because he wants to make use of what little time he has left before he goes to fight in the war. He has already accepted his death and does not run from it. He treats the war to be the same as his death (for example, he explains that he smokes despite knowing how bad it is because the state of his lungs in the future does not matter when he is going to war anyway.).
Despite this, however, he did not harbour any ill emotion for being made to fight in the war – he views it as his duty, saying he could not “look himself in the face” if he didn’t go (177). Miranda views him as a sacrificial lamb, marching to his death without fighting against it, having accepted it. This is quite similar to Ibsen’s Ghosts, where Oswald accepts his inevitable (brain) death, although in his case, there is nothing he can do to fight against it. We can say that Adam has more agency than Oswald, and he gives up what little agency he has and accepts his fate. Another interesting, coincidental connection with Ghosts is that the sun represents death in Oswald’s case, while in Miranda’s case, it represents her coming back to life.
When discussing agency, we can revisit The Decameron, where the privileged ten have all the agency in the world to abandon their city and live in a countryside mansion. Here too, the ten main characters are running from death that surrounds them in the city, fighting against it, although it is much easier for them than for Adam.
In the concluding passages of the text, as Miranda regains consciousness to find that the war has finally ended, she is confronted with an atmosphere of jubilation in stark contrast to her individual story of deep loss. Amidst the celebration, Miranda’s reaction to the news of Adam’s death reflects on the purpose and meaning of her life without her lover: “Adam, she said, now you need not die again, but still I wish you were here; I wish you had come back, what do you think I came back for, Adam, to be deceived like this?” (208). Now, rather than accepting her own death, she has to accept Adam’s, which is hard for her to do. As an ode to Severance, we see Miranda adopting consumer rituals, marking her survival and as an attempt to regain a sense of normalcy, however her psyche remains haunted by the ghost of her lover, who is ‘more alive than she is’.
To Miranda, her recurring struggle over Adam’s memory seems to be driven by three key reasons: because it is her responsibility, because it connects her to other survivors, and because she loves Adam. At the moment Miranda comes closest to death, “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). As she asks this question, she feels excruciating physical pain – the first returning sensation of life – and she begins to recover both her health and her memory. We view this connection between pain and forgetting as not accidental. Porter, who has experienced both her own near death and the actual death of her lover due to influenza, warns the reader that only the fragile, vulnerable thread of memory connects the living to the dead. Forgetting is presented as the psychological analog to physical paralysis, so remembering and pain, although negative states, are preferable to lack of memory and lack of sensation. Ultimately, Porter leaves us with the questions: why is it important to remember the dead? What is the relationship between the living and the dead? And what do those left behind owe to those taken away by the Pale Horse, when “now, there would be time for everything” (208)?
Maja, Mary, Saideep, Asma