Katherine Anne Porter’s collection of three short novels Pale Horse, Pale Rider was published in 1939. The short novel in focus for us is entitled Pale Horse, Pale Rider and we accompany the main character Miranda in 1918 through American civilian life during WWI, the influenza epidemic, and love and life, lost and found.
The permeating patriotism in the novel seems to be linked to the subjugation of women. When the two men come into Miranda’s office at the newspaper and threaten her to buy liberty bonds, they are anonymous, hostile, and similar to gang members, holding enormous power over civilians through politically illegitimate sources. They threaten Townsey and Miranda, the two women in the office who barely earn any money. When Miranda and her colleague Townsey refused to report on the ugly details of an abusive affair due to respect for the female victim, the rival newspaper published it instead and Miranda and Townsey were demoted into writing in “routine female” sectors, “one to the theaters, the other to society” (149). Men throughout the novel constantly pick on women and point out their lack of worth. Chuck Rouncivale, Miranda’s colleague says that “women should just keep out of [the war]. They just add skirts to the horrors of war” (165). Miranda additionally notices that all the rejected men had “a guarded resentment which said, ‘Don’t pin a white feather on me, you bloodthirsty female. I’ve offered my meat to the crows and they won’t have it'” (171). The story points out the overwhelmingly threatening patriotism that pervades the community and the resulting degradation of women in society during this time period. Perhaps all this war is a big testosterone party, and those who weren’t invited feel emasculated and those who are women… too bad. America is just a man’s club, and patriotism seems to be the best way to participate.
Happy International Women’s Day, guys.
Patriotism in this novel is certainly not glorified but rather eerie-fied, with the accompaniment of apocalyptic Biblical references. The title of the book comes from one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, namely the fourth Horseman, Death. Each of the four horsemen are allegorized in the novel. There is War, obviously, embodied by the Red Horse armed with a bow. Bow and Arrows, as you may remember, make an appearance in Miranda’s dream in which “the arrows struck her cleanly through the heart and through his body and he lay dead, and she still lived” (191). Ah, a premonition of the things to come. Famine, embodied by the Black Horse, strikes home, while the soldiers are off in foreign lands. In the hospitals during the influenza epidemic, there are a lack of resources, simply because the country needs the people to “buy Liberty bonds and do without sugar and wool socks” (175) to devote more resources for the soldiers at war. The White Horse, understood as Conquest, appears at the end of the novel when the Americans win the war. But some argue that the white horse, in an alternative translation, is actually pestilence. The pestilence in this novel is influenza, “this funny new disease” because of which “[t]he men are dying like flies out there” (158) and which gets political connotations when people speculate that “it is really caused by germs brought by a German ship to Boston” (162). The last horse to come is the Pale Horse, who lends his name to the novel’s title. It is Death, the sum of all that came before.
Religious imagery is also evoked in one of Miranda’s trance-like and prophetic dream states: she describes seeing everyone she had ever known, recognizing them as pure identities without distinguishing their names. An idea of the afterworld not unlike Christian heaven, especially accompanied by idyllic nature scenes, Christian prayers, and spiritual songs. “Death always leaves one singer to mourn” (190) is how one of them ends – and it did, death left Miranda while taking her lover. Perhaps it’s meaningful that the flushed, sickly Miranda with “one foot in either world” (207) survived whereas her lover Adam, a fresh, manly soldier with a large appetite who “had never had a pain in his life” (160) succumbed to the plague (not war!). Perhaps the plague is feminist.