Each of the three novels is short and has a simple plot, but the meanings are quite complex and, for many readers, disturbing. An effective coming-of-age novel, “Old Mortality” centers on the conflict between romance and reality, between past and present. While the first two parts of the novel incorporate the viewpoint of both Miranda and her sister Maria, the third shifts entirely to Miranda’s consciousness. The action of the novel is designed to reveal Miranda’s growing awareness of how the past is shaped by persons in the present. Despite her growth toward maturity, however, Miranda’s journey is not complete, as the narrator subtly reveals in the final sentence of the novel: “At least I can know the truth about what happens to me, she assured herself silently, making a promise to herself, in her hopelessness, her ignorance.”
“Noon Wine” also focuses on the relationship between the past and the present, but the conclusion is more pessimistic. A greedy bounty hunter who has no concern for Helton as an individual, Hatch determines to turn Helton in and collect his money. This determination sets in motion the chain of events that destroys him, Helton, and Thompson. The other characters are not without weaknesses, however, and they too contribute to the tragic conclusion. Helton’s weakness is a passion for harmonicas so strong that he values them above life. Thompson is so overly concerned with appearances that he would allow his farm to deteriorate rather than do work that he considers unmanly or inappropriate for a landowner. Because Helton’s industriousness has enabled Thompson to prosper, Hatch poses a threat. Thus, Thompson’s motivation to protect Helton becomes questionable. Is it actually self-interest? Even Thompson does not know for certain, and without any support from community or family, he cannot bear his condition and commits suicide.
The characters are well developed and the scenes of the novel carefully built to lead to the ultimate tragedy. The use of foreshadowing is especially effective. For example, Helton’s overreaction to the boys’ playing with his harmonicas foreshadows the revelation that Helton earlier murdered his brother for a similar action.
In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” the major subjects are death and isolation. Although Miranda herself escapes death, she loses Adam. She reacts by determining to return to a world that is greatly changed—a world without plague, without war, without Adam. She faces a world of “noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow,” a world in which “there would be time for everything.”
The novel uses stream-of-consciousness techniques, carrying the reader directly into Miranda’s feverish dreams and at times leaving both Miranda and, consequently, the reader confused about the sequence of events. The use of war and death as metaphors emphasizes the helplessness of the individual. Allusions pervade the novel and contribute to its theme of mutability. The phrase “pale horse, pale rider” recalls both an old folk song and a biblical passage (Revelation 6:2). Adam’s name recalls the biblical first man, while Miranda’s evokes William Shakespeare’s heroine in The Tempest (1611).