The Plague is Feminist

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.

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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.


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  1. Guys, great post.
    I really like the style and your way of pointing out very interesting details. (Just had to say that).

    However, as someone(if I’m not mistaking) talked about the role of women at that time, I want to bring up the question of whether a degradation of women really took place.
    So did women really degrade?
    As was mentioned in class, women had to work hard, like men at that time.
    To me, that was the actual time women had to, on the contrary, expand their abilities, work for both the men’s and women’s sides. Furthermore, although patriotism might have degraded the image of the woman, it strengthened the woman at the same time. Patriotism was the attribute that made men go to war and leave all the other problems to women, patriotism made women realize that they are capable of living without men, patriotism showed that women can be a lot stronger than those “young apples who had never had a pain in their lives”.

    • Emily already commented with a few insights (down) but to add to that, we were looking deeper; yes, women entered the workforce in large numbers during the World War, but their “equality” was still conditional. I think it was much less rosy than you describe: men were sent off to war and women did the equal work for unequal wages — even today, sadly, there is still a gender gap in pay. What we are saying is that the public perception of gender and social roles didn’t change drastically. Women were still the “weaker” sex.

      It was actually Sheba who showed me this a while ago: Some of them correspond to the time in question and I think they’re pretty self-explanatory. Looking at the discourses in the novel, we recognized a specific patriarchal, male-centric portrayal of women with strictly delineated gender-normative social roles, even through the eyes of a female narrator. Women weren’t degraded further per se, we just pointed out how the women-bashing attitude permeates the narrative. Were they as capable as men? Sure. But did the men (and by extension the society they control) believe that? I don’t think so. And I think the novel doesn’t either.

  2. I wanted to get your opinion on whether there is a link between patriotism and the disease that lurks the city. The idea was sparked into my mind while I was reading the passage in which two men come to collect money for the liberty bonds from the office. With your description they are “ …anonymous, hostile, and similar to gang members, holding enormous power over civilians through politically illegitimate sources.”
    Now you can draw a weak parallel between the characteristics of the plague and the characteristics of two men as the spreaders of Patriotism. Plague is anonymous, plague definitely is hostile and it holds and enormous power over civilians but what I found more interesting is the way the two men tried to spread Patriotism. They tried to convince Townsey and Miranda that they were the only people who did not buy the liberty bonds, basically saying that everyone else is a patriot you should be patriot as well. This seems oddly similar to how diseases work, If everyone else is infected chances are you will be infected as well.
    Also in my comment I might be slightly influenced by a really smart individual.
    Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.
    – Albert Einstein

  3. Awesome post!

    I think the translation issue with the white horse is particularly interesting. You guys mention that some understand the white horse to be Conquest, while in an alternative translation, the horse is Pestilence. Perhaps we can consider, in context of the story, the horse representing both victory and disease. Didn’t the disease, in some way, conquer Miranda? It took her lover, muddled her mind, and destroyed whatever remaining happiness she had. In this sense, Influenza was the Conquerer.

    Even if we think of the horse as solely Conquest, I believe there is still more to this symbolism than just Americans winning the war. Going back to the novel’s pervading notion of the subjugation of women, would it be reasonable to assume that Miranda was also conquered by the patriarchy? Wasn’t she being influenced and put-down by the men in her community? The two men, her editor, and even Dr. Hildesheim and Adam all conquered her life and mind, forcing her to think about her community and the war perhaps differently than she would have otherwise thought without their influence.

    • Sarah! that’s really great. Miranda is conquered by the patriarchy!! I just connected the dots. Patriotism stems from the greek roots ‘patrios’ (of one’s fathers), ‘patris’ (fatherland), and ‘pater’ (father). The patriotism that I delineated in the first paragraph is indeed the patriarchy, linguistically speaking. These men in her community and the male culture of patriotism are all part of the grand scheme to “enslave her mind,” as John Stuart Mill would say. 😀

    • AND! I just looked up the original context of chauvinism. Guess what it means?

      Oxford English Dictionary says, “Exaggerated or aggressive patriotism; Origin: late 19th century: named after Nicolas Chauvin, a Napoleonic veteran noted for his extreme patriotism, popularized as a character by the Cogniard brothers in Cocarde Tricolore (1831)”

      Nowadays, we basically only use this term to accuse males of misogyny and pig-likeness. But hey, it had to come from somewhere. It actually probably came from the intolerent civic education of the United States (and other countries) that taught its students that the meaning of a citizen is a citizenship-holding, cisgender, non-minority, flag-waving, allegiance-pledging individual that would give up its life for its country. Patriotism means intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and fitted boxes for each individual in society. Buy your Liberty Bonds now!

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