Pale Eternity

In this class, we have read quite a few depressing books, but never one that began so ominously. The Pale Horse and its Pale Rider could not have been mistaken for anything other than a reference to death. Indeed, in the Bible, he is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who ride when the world ends – or in 1918 during the bleak hopelessness of the First World War. Death is an underlying theme that lurks throughout the story. It is in the newspapers and the words that people say; it is across the ocean where young men are the “sacrificial lambs” sent to their own demise; it is on the streets in the shape of endless funeral processions and the ever-spreading influenza; and it pervades Miranda’s dreams and intrudes upon her reality when it takes her loved ones away in succession.

The novel depicts a warping of Miranda’s dreams, her reality and her imagination. She constantly drifts in and out of sleep. The text begins with a dream about the “lank, greenish” stranger (presumably the Pale Rider) riding on a horse beside her. This play between fantasy and reality is crucial to the understanding of the text. She is clearly upset and reconciles with herself that the cause of this “uneasiness is not all imagination.”

She is lonely, stating that “the worst thing in the war for the stay-at-homes is that there isn’t anyone to talk to any more”. She explains her loneliness through her description of human eyes and her inability to empathize with other eyes. “The worst of war is the fear and suspicion and the awful expression in the eyes you meet.” It is morbid that she cannot empathize with anyone, even those she agrees with, like the girl in the car who also believed visiting the soldiers was pointless. Imagine a scenario where you cannot connect with anyone, when you are so distanced from the rest of humanity that it is like they are suffering from a contagion and you are the only survivor, the only one with “sanity”. Or is it you who is wrong, who cannot join the giggly girls who visit the soldiers?


She tries to escape this feeling of being isolated, first by trying to run away from her physical surroundings with Adam and later in the digressions in her thoughts, when she vividly describes Adam and their shared interests and experiences. This helps to illustrate a duality between the physical and the mental effects of the plague. She says “what it does to [the mind and the heart] is worse than what it does to the body.” While she does have “pains in [her] chest and [her] head,” her dreams and nightmares always feature the more painful thoughts of violence and death. However, she seamlessly transitions into descriptions of beautiful sunlight and calming ocean waves. This reflects her inability to reconcile the phenomenon of death in her mind. On the one hand she accepts death to be an “eternity” and describes it as a phenomenon where the senses are diminished, or reduced, where there is “silence” and everything is “white” and is devoid of colour. On the other hand, she is “no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence.” The acceptance of death versus the “stubborn will to live” is an aspect that is central to all victims and patients, whether dying of depression influenza or World War 1. Thus, death is really the eternity that unifies the contagion, the war, and terminates everything.

Even in life, Adam and Miranda feel a sense of eternity they know is not actually possible. “Seems to me I’ve been in the army all my life,” commented Adam once. We as humans do have a tendency to adapt, becoming accustomed even to having death constantly hanging over our heads. Porter’s dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness technique of writing warps and almost extends the time over which the story takes place. Indeed, what we have seen is only the slightest sliver of the war and of Miranda’s life. It is easy to forget that “[s]he had seen him first ten days ago,” when it felt like an eternity packed with dancing, dull theatres, mountain climbing and geological museums. We are faced with this abrupt finality to an eternity only at the end:


 “No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.”


But what does it mean that there is time for everything? Is Miranda dead when she narrates her account of the hospital towards the end of the book? Is she dead when she sees Adam and says that he was “a ghost but more alive than she was”? There is no more war and no more plague and there is time for everything. But since death is the eternity, has she transcended the war and the plague and moved on into this eternity?

For Miranda, there is also no more Adam. Is it a hopeful note that Miranda and America will recover, or is it more of a bitter, ironic statement? It is more likely the latter, when in the silence all that is left are the snapshots of Adam “looking very free and windblown,” but fixed forever. It is interesting to note that this is a quality even the living Adam had: he “raised his hand” instead of waving goodbye, “his brows fixed in a straight frown”; or “set in blind melancholy” seen through a dingy window. He always stood “fixed,” as though it was always his destiny to become a snapshot memory.


Adam is a very significant character in this novel, not only as Miranda’s lover, but also as one of the sacrificial lambs of America. Although Miranda is highly obsessed with Adam and carefully observes and describes Adam’s characteristics and behaviors, the figure of Adam is still vague for us. Perhaps it is because he is already distant as a doomed man, but perhaps be

cause it isn’t clear how he feels about the war. On one hand, his joke about the “average life expectation of a sapping party” being just nine minutes can speak of underlying resentment. On the other hand, when he defends the Liberty Bonds salesman, “[h]is pride in his youth, his forbearance and tolerance and contempt for that unlucky breathed out of his very pores. As Miranda sees it, “[t]here is no resentment or revolt in him. Pure, she thought, all the way through, flawless, complete, as the sacrificial lamb must be”.

Why did Miranda fall in love with Adam so quickly? Does she fall in love with Adam or her image of him? Can we assume that Miranda embraces him because of his purity and his adoption of the “American values” that she lacks? From this perspective, Adam is the lighthouse among all of her depressed imaginations and she heaps all her remaining hopes on him. Miranda’s love towards Adam, therefore, can be interpreted as her quest for social virtues or goodness. But again, we also want to ask that if Adam is really as innocently accepting of his fate as Miranda perceives? Since she is the narrator of this novel, does she in fact manipulate or beautify Adam’s figure? As we said before, already he is hazy and far away. Now that the war is over, will Miranda’s depression be alleviated or will the loss of Adam be too catastrophic to allow that?

We hope we have raised some thoughtful questions for this week’s discussion!

Happy(?) Reading!

Abhi, Rosy, and Yan.


 Add your comment
  1. Dear Abhi, Rosy and Yan,

    Great post! Loved all the ideas and your analysis of the text. I especially like the question of whether Miranda is “dead” while narrating towards the end. It is obvious that death is a prominent theme in this novel. Although some of our previous readings contain incidences of death and allude to the connection between life and death, in Pale Horse Pale Rider we see it appearing from the very beginning and in everything that comes later on. It is as if death was one of the characters of the story. It is interesting that you note both Miranda’s and Adam’s “bravery” or the fact that they seem to not really fear death as for example the revelers in Pushkin’s A Feast During the Plague. In fact, for them death is not something they just recall or think about (like the feasters) but it is something they foresee, expect and kind of “accept” in a way. Death has been moving between their lives all the time, like Miranda’s dreams and her constant metaphorical references to death and Adam’s insistence on fighting the war (with the risk of dying in mind). To some extent, it seems like death was the power that controlled their lives, it is the reason everything went by so quickly, which means that after death comes eternity (i.e. “Now there would be time for everything”).

    -Aysha 😀

    • Thank you for you kind comment Aysha! It really is difficult to escape questions of death while reading this book, especially considering that death personified as the “lank greenish stranger” is introduced even before we know Miranda’s name. I do feel like in both A Feast During the Plague and Pale Horse, Pale Rider death hangs over the proceedings, coloring them and shaping them to some extent, but I’m not sure how easily any of the characters truly accept death, as we discussed in class today. Is it fear of truly confronting the inevitable perhaps? Either way, it is interesting to consider the different characters’ reactions to it and how they choose to face it.

    • Hi Aysha,

      Thanks for bringing up my favourite theme of this book: death. (Favourite in that it is in my opinion the most interesting to analyze. I’m not a huge fan of death in general.)

      Death is present everywhere in the novel and this may be a biased opinion but I feel like the story is on a subliminal level about death itself. The outbreak of influenza and the First World War are united by it, and the pale rider is an allusion to it.

      Miranda also completes a full cycle – she initially is possibly afraid of death (as Mahra brought up in her comment), and then she faces the “bottomless pit” and “escapes death” as though she has a divine mission to accomplish before she dies.

      She questions, “what about the dead?” and brings up a real struggle in the relationship between the living and the dead. All that is left behind of one after one’s death are his or her memories and the issue of memories helps to highlight one of the principal concerns of not just this passage, but of contagion novels in general – what is the best way to honour someone’s memory and what is the relationship between the living and the dead? Miranda is resigned to the fact that she will face death and that the memory of Adam will cease to exist (“there will be nothing to think of him, at all”). This resignation is possibly the reason why she doesn’t excessively mourn his loss.

      Hope this gave you something to think about too!

  2. Dear Abhi, Rosy and Yan,

    Overall, great post. I thoroughly enjoyed it. When you say “the Pale Horse and its Pale Rider could not have been mistaken for anything other than a reference to death,” I do agree that even from the title of the book and this particular story, the word: “pale” implies some sort of illness or death. However, one may ask, does “pale” refer to one of the symptoms of a plague (or any other illness) or the fear of death itself? Could these words (“pale horse,” “pale rider”) have been referenced, as well, to a soldier going to war who is afraid and is about to sacrifice his life (as we have established that this was during World War I)?

    I also believe that the title being referenced to illness is just as plausible because at the beginning of the third story, Miranda dreams about, like you mentioned, a pale-looking stranger riding a horse. The horse could have been a metaphor for death and it is carrying someone who is about to die. The fact that this person is on a horse portrays status and riding on a horse could have implied that this person is a soldier or a warrior in real life (or a fighter of the illness he will eventually suffer from). Therefore, I believe that Miranda’s dream foreshadows the next few weeks of her life (or this person’s life). This is evident as she met a soldier called Adam, whom she fell in love with, who later died of the plague. In her dream, the pale rider could have been depicted as a stranger since Miranda only knew Adam for ten days when she dreamt this. Another hint that death will occur is also given to us when you say / quote: “he ‘raised his hand’ instead of waving goodbye, ‘his brows fixed in a straight frown’; or ‘set in blind melancholy’ seen through a dingy window. He always stood ‘fixed,’ as though it was always his destiny to become a snapshot memory.” Thus, I do agree that “[death] pervades Miranda’s dreams and intrudes upon her reality when it takes her loved ones away,” however, it may not be referenced to her directly.

    You establish that Miranda accepts death, but is she afraid of death? Is part of her dead already since she cannot, like you mentioned, empathize with anyone? Has the war and the young people dying for her country affected her at the beginning already, more than the plague will? Moreover, do you think that the reason why “Adam and Miranda feel a sense of eternity” is because Adam and Miranda stayed together until the end of his (their?) life (lives?)?

    Thanks & Regards

    Mahra Al Suwaidi

    • Hi Mahra!

      The phrases/names of “Pale Horse” and “Pale Rider” are not previously unheard of in literature and theology, which is why we were highly certain (or at least, as certain as one can be when analyzing literature) that they were a reference to death. For instance, it is explicitly named in the Bible:

      “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” Revelation 6:8 (King James version).

      It appears in other versions, sometimes as an “ashen horse” or a “pale green horse,” but the rider is always explicitly named as Death.

      External evidence aside, the phrase “pale horse, pale rider” appears in the story as a song that Miranda and Adam attempt to piece together (page 189-190):

      ” ‘Pale horse, pale rider…’done taken my lover away-‘ “.

      Miranda later identifies the Rider as Death, stating “But not the singer, not yet…Death always leaves one singer to mourn.” As we know, she will become that singer.

      However, I do believe that there is more room for speculation surrounding the Horse’s identity, for Death can arrive carried by various forces, including war or influenza.

      Miranda does not appear to accept death; our post mentioned “the inability to reconcile the phenomenon of death in her mind.” As best illustrated on pages 198-199, she is ambivalent about it:

      “Look, she told herself, there it is, that is death and there is nothing to fear. But she could not consent…all ties of blood and the desire of the heart, dissolved and fell away from her, and there remained of her only…the stubborn will to live.”

      The above is a discussion based on a very literal interpretation of what death is: the biological termination of life. Yet one could always argue, as you mentioned, that a part of her is dead, or that Adam’s death is also the relationship’s death, directly affecting Miranda. Although they were always faced with the knowledge that they did not have eternity, Adam and Miranda’s attempts to make the most of their time together may have created the illusion that they had known each other for longer than they actually have. I love the ambiguous ending of the story because it leaves it to us to ponder questions such as “does the fact that the eternity was but an illusion result in less pain for the singer left behind to mourn? Or does it only further the pain caused by the reality that the time they had was too little…?

      Ah, this is a book one can discuss eternally! But Camus awaits us and that’s just as exciting!


    • Hi Mahra,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! Your questions in the last paragraph are quite interesting for me to think about. Well, I just want to bring some of my ideas out here.

      First, I do believe that Miranda is afraid of death. However, she may not be afraid of the biological death that Rosy talked about. Instead, she is more afraid of the sense of loss that Adam’s death brings to her. Though Miranda is always trying to pretend herself as an independent woman and relatively indifferent to the society that she lives in, her love with Adam and consistent hallucinations reveal that she is actually an emotional and sensitive woman. Her strong emotional bonding with Adam seems to be the only thing that greatly brighten her depressed and hopeless inner world. Adam’s death, therefore, deprives her of the remaining hope and happiness from her life. Then, she feels a sense of eternity because life without Adam has became a ‘pale life’ for her. She will live in this eternal loss of Adam until her physical death brings an end to her story. ‘Eternity’ here, represents a sense of ‘unchanged’ and ‘stagnated’. From this perspective, no time is passing for Miranda in the remaining of her life. Time is meaningless and useless for her. Then, can this situation be defined as “death”? ‘Pale’ here can be interpreted as ‘colorless’, ‘meaningless’, and ‘hopeless’. It is a color of Miranda’s future life.

      Sometimes, death is not the most fearful thing. People who are left lonely to live in the world with all those previous memories can be tortured the most.


    • Hi Mahra,

      Thanks for bringing up the title. The pale horse is a biblical allusion to death, as Rosy mentioned already. However, this reference also allows us to discuss the first section of the story – her dream – in greater detail. Death is the “lank greenish stranger” riding on the horse beside her. However this death “is no stranger to [her]”. This gives the reader an innate sense of foreboding, that death is always the rider that follows the character in the dream that is presumably Miranda herself. Secondly, it is also of note that the horse she rides is called “Graylie”. When she is in the hospital (the last few pages of the story), she demands grey objects from nurse and the doctor in a narration that follows after her having “escaped death”. Again the grey horse possibly suggests that although she has escaped death, death is always on a horse riding beside her taking the lives of her loved ones and taking away her time.

      Miranda’s fear of death, as you put it, is an aspect that I did not fully delve into and in hindsight, seems extremely relevant. There is a constant back-and-forth swaying between her acceptance of death and her willingness to fall into this “bottomless pit”, the “eternity” that she classifies death as, and her “stubborn will to live”. I thought that the reason she came back from the dead was because she wanted to see Adam for one last time, but as she is also hesitant to step into the darkness, and asks the nurse, “Please open the windows, please, I smell death in here.”

      Thanks for the comment, this has given me a lot to think about (as if the book didn’t already do just that).

      Happy reading!

  3. Good job on the post I really enjoyed it reading it. The part I found most interesting is when you proposed the questions

    Why did Miranda fall in love with Adam so quickly? Does she fall in love with Adam or her image of him? Can we assume that Miranda embraces him because of his purity and his adoption of the “American values” that she lacks?

    This is an aspect which I have not encountered during reading this novel and when you guys highlighted it, it made me second guess the idealistic picture of Adam I had in my mind. Because when someone is in love they tend to have a picture image of their loved ones and often are unaware of their faults. I do not think she embraces him because of him having all the values she lacks, I guess the answer is purely love.

    I also thought the part when you guys talked about eternity was very interesting. Indeed Adam and Miranda do feel to be immortal at some points and they also seem to acknowledge time differently than we do. They narrate 6 months as it was forever , my main concern about this part is when you further stretched this concept from being feeling time more slowly to Miranda narrating from the dead. To quote your exact words

    “Is Miranda dead when she narrates her account of the hospital towards the end of the book? Is she dead when she sees Adam and says that he was “a ghost but more alive than she was”?”

    I dont think this was the intention of the author when he wrote those words, I think what he meant by a ghost more alive than she was is to highlight the significance of Adam in Miranda’s life. Not the literal meaning of her being dead and therefore a ghost may indeed be more alive than she was.

    Lastly one thing I wanted to see in this post is the unique way it was narrated, it was narrated from Miranda’s point of view yet it was a mainly a third person narration and at some point this narration shifted to first person specially when Miranda was thinking about Adam. I believe you touched very very briefly on this when you said
    “The novel depicts a warping of Miranda’s dreams, her reality and her imagination. She constantly drifts in and out of sleep.”
    The narration take different forms when she is drifts in and out of sleep, I would have really liked it if you have gone into details of why these shifts occur.

    My best,
    Ali Tarek Talaat Abdallah Hassan Hussien Abouelatta Abouismail

    • Hi Ali,

      Thank you so much for your comment! I am really glad that you enjoy reading our post.

      First, I personally cannot see Miranda’s ‘pure love’ towards Adam. Well, I guess that my question is whether love can really be ‘pure’ or not? By saying that, I want to point out that love has reasons. I still do not believe that Miranda falls in love with Adam at the first sight and plans to use her whole life to memorize this arbitrary and short-termed love. Miranda is attracted by Adam because of some reasons. I assume that these reasons may be Adam’s representation of the true American values, that Miranda pretends that she is indifferent to. Therefore, her love with Adam reveal a confused state in Miranda’s depth of heart. She does not really know herself. She is unconsciously affected by the social environment.

      Also, thank you so much for pointing out the first person and third person narration in this book. I also do not have a standard answer for this question and am also confused by the shifts. However, I may propose that first person narration is crucial to this novel because this story mainly emphasizes Miranda’s mental struggles. The actual story line is relatively simple. Sometimes, however, first person narration can let the novel be lack of details and factual explanations, which can also be important to the story development. In order to make the story more complete, the author decided to add some environmental descriptions and details to this novel by not adopting a story only from Miranda’s own perspective.


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