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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a trio of short novels published by the writer Katherine Anne Porter in 1939.

The titles of those three short novels are Old Mortality, Noon Wine, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Here, we will briefly summarize each of these.

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Pale Horse, Pale Rider is a trio of short novels published by the writer Katherine Anne Porter in 1939.

The titles of those three short novels are Old Mortality, Noon Wine, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Here, we will briefly summarize each of these.

Let us begin with the title story, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. This short novel, set in Denver during World War I and the influenza epidemic of 1918, is based loosely on Porter's own life story and centers around themes of death, mortality, and young love. The narrative tells the story of a youthful couple: Miranda, a journalist, and Adam, a soldier. Adam is awaiting orders to go to fight in the war, and both characters are anxious. Then, Miranda contracts influenza. Adam takes care of her at first, but she's transferred to a hospital. She falls into a state of unconsciousness there. When Miranda wakes, she learns that Adam has also contracted the disease——and that he has died. Despite her misery, Miranda's friends coax her back into the world of the living.

Noon Wine and Old Mortality are the other two novellas.

The former is set on a Texan dairy farm in the 1890s. The story centers around Royal Earle Thompson, the farmer, and Olaf Helton, a Swedish farm hand whom Thompson employs. One day, a stranger named Homer T. Hatch shows up at the farm, claiming that Helton is a dangerous criminal and a former mental hospital patient who must return to the institution. There's a conflict and Thompson kills Hatch. Thompson is put on trial, and though he's acquitted (his actions are judged as self-defense), he is never able to recover from the trauma of having murdered a man, nor his feeling that his wife and sons now fear him. The story ends with Thompson killing himself with a shotgun.

Old Mortality traces the life of its protagonist, Miranda, from childhood through adolescence and young adulthood. The story starts when she's eight and ends when she's eighteen. As a child, Miranda is obsessed with the idea of her late Aunt Amy, who looks so beautiful in the photos from her wedding day: Miranda wants to be like Amy, both in terms of beauty and horsemanship. Through old letters and stories told by family members, Miranda pieces together the life that her aunt led and thinks about mortality and death.

A few years later, Miranda meets Amy's onetime husband, Gabriel, who's since remarried, and she is surprised to see his sloppy appearance and apparent discontent with his life.

Eight years after that, Miranda learns that Gabriel has died (it's implied that he drank himself to death). She's on a train ride home when she receives this information, delivered by a gruff old lady, Cousin Eva, who's on her way to Gabriel's funeral. Eva talks to Miranda about how Gabriel never recovered from Amy's death.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 645

The story begins in a first-person dream sequence with a southern gothic setting, complete with a five-times-removed cousin, a decrepit hound, horses used for fox hunting, and a “stranger” who will ride with the speaker at dawn. As the narrative shifts to the third person and Miranda wakes up to her dreary job on a small-town paper, her problems with adjusting to reality are shared by the reader, who is never given any clearer explanation of Miranda’s past and its relation to her present situation.

Although both past and future are only suggested, the present is depicted in grimly realistic detail. Miranda’s colleagues on the paper are a collection of semifailures, all haunted by a sense of inadequacy and badgered by a Liberty Bond seller who is not above real as well as moral blackmail. The war is the overpowering external reality, dictating proper conduct for everyday actions from drinking coffee to knitting.

Miranda’s conflict with the external reality of the war arises from her attempts to establish and maintain an internal sense of personal order and priority. Her struggles are illustrated by encounters with the Liberty Bond salesperson, an actor whose performance she reviewed negatively, men at the hospital where she does volunteer work, and with Adam, the man with whom she is in love. Miranda’s mind shrinks from the external reality of the war, but—as her internal sense of priorities is not firmly established—finds no other clear focus; thus, she always seems to be thinking about something other than the matter at hand.

The only exception to this is Adam, but even with him Miranda is overpowered by externals. She thinks more often of his “olive and tan and tawny” exterior, of his splendid and seemingly indestructible youth, than she does of her feelings for him or of their mutual plans. He is about to be shipped overseas, so their future is entirely dominated by the war. Miranda struggles against this but is at the same time aware that without the war, Adam would have remained in Texas and unknown to her. They both make a conscious attempt to live in and for the present, but the constant intrusion of war-related songs and situations and of the many funerals resulting from an influenza epidemic make this impossible. They had no time together in the past and they will have no time together in the immediate future, but their awareness of this seems to leave them no time in the present.

Miranda continually complains of feeling dizzy and disoriented, and the reader puts this down to her struggles with internal and external realities until a much more prosaic reality manifests itself: Miranda develops influenza. She is seriously ill, but because of the shortage of hospital beds, Adam tries to nurse her in the rooming house where she lives. Finally, at the insistence of her editor, two interns come to take Miranda to the hospital. They arrive while Adam is out buying more food and medicine, and she is later given a note saying that he will come to see her as soon as the doctors will allow it and that he loves her.

Miranda’s fever dreams leave her (and the reader) confused about the following sequence of events. She is seriously ill for several weeks and in her dreams makes a series of choices that lead her back to reality and life with Adam. She awakes to the bells celebrating the Armistice. As she begins to recover, the nurse forces her to read her mail, which includes a note telling her that Adam died of influenza in the camp hospital. Miranda makes meticulously detailed plans to return to a world without war, without influenza, and without Adam, a world in which there is nothing but “dazed silence,” the “dead cold light of tomorrow,” and “time for everything.”

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