Themes in Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Porter
Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a semi-autobiographical novella by Katherine Anne Porter that chronicles the story of a young woman, Miranda, who survives the 1918 influenza epidemic and World War I. Miranda is a newspaper columnist suffering from a sense of impending doom and the inability to connect with the people around her. She is nursed through her influenza delirium by Adam, a young soldier, and regains consciousness to discover that the war has ended and Adam caught influenza and died in a military hospital. The main themes of Pale Horse, Pale Rider are patriotism, mortality, and alienation.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Porter
Firstly, patriotism is a prevalent theme in the story since its events occur approximately a year after the United States entered World War I. In the beginning of the story, Miranda is coerced into buying liberty bonds that she cannot afford as a “pledge of good faith that she was a loyal American doing her duty” (Porter 187). The amount of money she contributes is insignificant; however, the gesture is necessary to prove that Miranda is a virtuous, loyal patriot. The same theatricality and symbolic value are ascribed to other acts of patriotism. Theater performances are interrupted to praise “the war to end wars”, and women volunteer to visit “picturesquely bandaged soldiers” with “girlish laughter meant to be refreshingly gay” (Porter 221, 192). Porter reveals the performative hollowness and virtue-signaling nature of patriotism during wartime with these descriptions.
Secondly, mortality is an omnipresent theme that haunts Miranda’s life and subconsciousness, although she refuses to acknowledge it explicitly. The story opens with Miranda’s dream of running away from a “lank greenish stranger”; she states that “we must outrun Death and the Devil” (Porter 181). This sequence perfectly encapsulates Miranda’s denial of death, further evidenced by her seemingly cavalier attitude toward Adam’s impending dispatch to fight the war in Europe. His inevitable demise is not discussed beyond the phrase “so that’s all settled” and the futility of quitting cigarettes (Porter 224). Beset by the possibility of death from all sides, the protagonists prefer to deny its existence altogether and resort to black humor. The author displays how the human mind defends itself against the knowledge of its own mortality, even in extreme circumstances.
Thirdly, there is a pervasive sense of alienation and disaffection throughout the novella. Miranda laments the fact that she is in “pain all over” and that she and Adam can “not save each other” (Porter 226). Her perpetual misery and loneliness cannot be alleviated even through a romantic relationship. In general, people during the war “pulled down the shutters over their minds and their hearts” (Porter 222-223). Even after Miranda recovers from her illness and the war ends, she feels a “flick of distrust in her joy…she had lost something, she had left something valuable in another country” (Porter 254). Porter illustrates that alienation is not a condition of wartime but rather inherent to the human condition.
In conclusion, Pale Horse, Pale Rider demonstrates how the human mind operates in extreme conditions such as wartime and global health pandemics. The three most pertinent themes are patriotism, mortality, and alienation. The first is revealed as performative virtue-signaling without any emotional authenticity. The protagonists refuse to acknowledge the possibility of their own death despite being surrounded by it. Alienation and misery persist even after the war ends, and influenza subsides. In 2022, after the COVID-19 pandemic and during fears of the impending European war, Pale Horse, Pale Rider remained a deeply relevant work of literature.
Porter, Katherine A. Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Random House, 1939.