Memories of the Fallen Riders: Pale Horse, Pale Rider

Red Cross volunteers assembling influenza masks during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Content source:  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD)

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


 Add your comment
  1. This post touches on how Adam seems to have accepted his death as he is matter-of-fact about his conscription into the war. I think he makes an interesting foil to Miranda who seems unwillingly to read into the many ways that death touches her life, even before she falls ill. For example, she has dreams about a pale rider and talk of the war causes her great distress and, as the post mentions, she ignores all the funerals happening around her. I think that her month of illness forces her to reckon with the fact that although she is young and not a soldier, she cannot escape from death and cannot forget death. Ultimately she just barely recovers from her illness but carries a new awareness with her.

  2. the post does an outstanding job of discussing the idea of memory and survivors guilt that the song represent. this play hammers the ideology of war and death and i believe the song perfectly represents what the characters portray. Miranda’s comment on the singer left to mourn, mentioned in the post, struck me as odd and interesting. which to me came full circle at the end of the play when we see Miranda is left to suffer and mourn Adams death as the singer that is kept alive

  3. I think one of the relevant things that this post brings to our attention that I would focus on is the themes of escaping and accepting death. One thing I would like to add to that (which is also the unique thing about this play) is the fact that Miranda learns how to live with a desire to get to the end? I hope I makes sense, it just feels like deep within her soul, she longs for the “sweet nothing”, that pastor field from her near death experience at the clinic. But she doesn’t die (i am not asking her to die) and there is something here. Whatever keeps her going, whether it is the memories of Adam and their love, or the routines that kept her and Severance sane, it is all something that helps them fight till the end. There is something there too. I am not so sure what. Just feels like it.
    Maybe, just like you said, it is all about accepting death? Not getting wrapped up in the ideas of how to die, but understanding that death is a natural process that will come anyway. The fact that you can still live with the desire to die (omg that sounds so bad).

    Even knowing that you are going to die (like in the case of Adam), you can still appreciate life is the message I am getting. Maybe too positive.

    • Camus in his writings discusses the absurdity of life — how life is devoid of meaning and a search for some such meaning would be fruitless. His answer was to live in spite of life’s absurdity as sort of an act of rebellion, to declare that even if life has no meaning, that your life existed and you lived it.

      It feels like this is the same energy that Adam has, and Miranda at the end. It reads to me that Adam does not want to let his fate which seems sealed in stone to him dictate how he spends the rest of his free life that he has to himself. He lives it with love as a sort of rebellion to the cruelty that the world shows him.

      When Miranda gains consciousness and gets ready to leave the hospital, she understands the absurdity of her life. She understands that there is no meaning in her life, but she lives it anyway. She rebels against the absurdity of her life and the cruelty of the world by declaring to the world that she lived her life in spite of the absurdity, and now she will use all the time she has to live as she pleases, to appreciate life in spite of what she thinks to be its meaninglessness.

      I think you put it very nicely, about fighting till the end despite knowing that there is an end. I think that’s why we all live. I like your interpretation of the message — I don’t think appreciating life is too positive!

      Thanks for your comment, made me think quite a bit :))

  4. I think the looming threat of the plague interlaced with Miranda’s narrative slipping in and out of sleep really highlights this sense of “indecisiveness” (of sorts) between her acceptance of death and the grim desire to live on amid all she had seen and experienced what others have gone through – this is perhaps also evident in how the line between her own narrative and the stories of other people (e.g., the young people at the bar) is kind of erased as the story develops. When I was reading towards the end, I couldn’t help but start guessing what the ending would be – and I thought, it would actually be fitting if Miranda was revealed to be Death (the Pale Rider) itself reminiscing about all the reasons she did and didn’t want to die, a collective will of sorts.

    Re: your paragraph on Miranda’s relationship with her memories of Adam, it reminds me of this thing that some people say (I think Pixar’s Coco also mentioned it?): the legacies of the dead only exist as long as the last person that remembers it. Miranda in this sense could just be wanting to honor and prolong her memories of Adam to keep his memories alive in this world. I think to some extent we all want to be remembered when are gone, and in exchange we horrifyingly grasp on to our connections to the dead and the past?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.