Pale Horse, Pale Rider

by Katherine Anne Porter

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2151

Pale Horse, Pale Rider is an important book in the literary career of Katherine Anne Porter. Following, as it did, her highly esteemed first collection of short stories, Flowering Judas (1930), this collection composed of three novellas marks an advance in technical interest and resources. It demonstrates clearly the artist’s ability to handle the expansive complexity of forms larger than the conventional short story. The artistic success of the forms in Pale Horse, Pale Rider is complete; Porter is one of the few American masters of the short novel. She matches the weight and density of many fine conventional novels in her shorter form.

One should begin by acknowledging the real daring of Pale Horse, Pale Rider. When it was written, the short story of conventional length was difficult enough to place and publish, and a collection of short stories was, in fact, a rare thing. It was easier to publish a collection of poems than a book of stories. There were many reasons for that condition, some of them economic, others the whimsical rationale of publishers. In view of these facts, it is quite remarkable that Pale Horse, Pale Rider ever appeared. There could have been small encouragement for Porter to produce anything except a novel. Moreover, the short novel as a form was even more rare in the United States than a collection of short stories, for its difficulties began at the common marketplace. The magazines would from time to time publish a serious short story among their lighter and more conventional fiction, never willing to surrender the space necessary for the long story or short novel. The choice of the form, then, whether at the outset or as a result of the demands of the material in the process of making, represented a major decision on the part of the artist. In the face of such pressure and such an element of risk, it is a wonder and a triumph that Porter not only created exemplary models of the form but also managed to overcome all the odds so that these stories are now simply and beautifully a part of the American literary heritage.

From the beginning, Porter has been accepted and acknowledged as a master stylist. While this view may be true, it has certainly been misleading. Taxonomy, or classification, seems to be an essential part of human consciousness. It is a great strength that permits people to think and relate; yet it is also a dangerous weakness in that the rigid and unquestioning exercise of this power can quickly lead to nonthinking, to the comfortable, narcotic illusion that a label has a life of its own as valid as the thing that is so named and tagged. The arts are difficult enough to think about and have not been spared from this kind of danger. To call attention to Porter’s style is a useful observation, but it is rather like describing an oak tree exclusively in terms of the shape and color of its leaves. Moreover, associatively, emphasis on style tends to imply virtuosity for its own sake and a certain absence of content, with the result that the critic need not come to terms with content at all. In the case of Porter, this habit or cliché of critics is particularly disappointing.

Porter writes very well indeed, sentence by sentence, but it is the supreme virtue of her style that it is designed not to call attention to itself but to fit hand-in-glove the matter and content of her stories, to carry the weight and to suggest the depth of complexity without once interrupting the magic spell that gives fiction its reality. All her virtuosity is at the service of her story and her characters. It is easy enough for a writer to divert the reader away from content and character by dazzling and intriguing verbal performance. Porter has never chosen that way. Her method has been the more difficult one; clearly, the reader is intended to weigh the story in a total and meaningful sense and not to stop short with admiration for its surface and decoration. What she has to say is important, and it is a critical mistake to ignore this fact.

The three novellas of Pale Horse, Pale Rider are arranged in a structure to make a larger, single statement and effect, and each demonstrates a different way of handling the short novel. The first, Old Mortality, is in three parts and is, in a sense, a smaller version of the whole book. It is superficially a romantic tale of America around the beginning of the twentieth century. Part 1 is set in the shifting, complex world of a large family, gossip and the tall tales of the past being its imitative form. The point of view is of the two young sisters, Maria and Miranda, and the thematic concern is the romance and tragedy of their beautiful Aunt Amy. A great deal, the whole substance of what might have been a romantic novel of the period, is packed into a few pages, filtered through the consciousness of the two sisters. Somehow it all seems leisurely, even digressive, as it should. Describing the way the family passed on its own history, Porter is able to give simultaneously a clue to her own method in this section and to indicate the flaw at the heart of her family’s, and the reader’s, history, a romantic commitment of the heart and the imagination to the past.

In part 2, Maria and Miranda are schoolgirls in a New Orleans convent. They are now characterized as quite different from the unquestioning girls they were. There is a single, central event—their meeting with Uncle Gabriel—the dashing figure of the tragic legend of Aunt Amy. The girls have a confrontation with the reality of the family story. Here, beautifully executing her chosen point of view, Porter avoids the easy way out—of letting this event have a shattering and instant impact on the two girls. The impact is implied. Readers see what the girls see and feel what the girls feel; however, readers are not invited, as they might be in the much more conventional story of youthful disillusionment, to greater and false intimacy. Nor is the romantic past neatly (and falsely) discredited. It is modified. In part 2, the center of consciousness is Miranda, a young woman now, going home to the funeral of Uncle Gabriel and sharing her train ride by coincidence with the practical and worldly Cousin Eva, who had always been the antithesis of Aunt Amy. Miranda is capable, up to a point, of judging and evaluating the events of the past and able to decide to break with it. However, the story, which has evolved and emerged as the story of Miranda growing up, is subtly and carefully shown to be incomplete. Porter, unlike many contemporary writers, is not willing to settle for the simplistic truth of young idealism. Miranda’s resolution at the end changes nothing as finally as she imagines, yet is in itself an inevitable change.

In Old Mortality, certain basic conditions are firmly established that inform the character of the whole book. The subjects, the conflicts, are the past and the present, “romance” and “reality,” a history of how the times and the world changed and became what they are. The larger theme is change and mutability. All these things are shown through character. Characters grow and change credibly and with ever-increasing dimension. The framework is within the terms of the conventional serious story, but these conventions will be given renewed vigor and life; for precisely at the point at which the conventional response or reaction could end the story and be a solution, the author will give the story an unexpected resonance. Her stories do not “end,” then, but project a sense of life going on and echo afterward in the reader’s mind, an effect that is artistically consistent with her theme and subject of change.

The second of the short novels, Noon Wine, stands in apparently sharp contrast to Old Mortality. In time, it parallels the first two parts of the other and, in fact, stands in relation to Old Mortality much as the second part of that story does to its first part. It is a rural tragedy, plain and harshly realistic, the other side of the coin, so to speak, of a family’s romantic legends. There are two young people who grow up, too—grubby, small, towheaded—but they are not involved in the consciousness of the story. Told from an omniscient point of view, the story settles into the tragedy of Mr. Thompson, as unlikely a tragic figure as can be imagined, one who for a large part of the story is tagged with characteristics that are conventionally unsympathetic in modern writing. In the end, he changes in the reader’s view and estimation, his awful suicide becoming tragic, but not through the usual trick of the revelation of something new or unknown about his character. His character evolves, grows as things happen to him cumulatively, just as the character of Miranda grows and changes in Old Mortality, although in a rude and realistic setting and without the benefits of great intelligence or sensibility.

Taken together, the two short novels say: From these roots the living have grown to maturity. Both are part of the American heritage. The stories are related in such areas as theme, structure, and contrast, not in the areas of shared characters and plot. Noon Wine, like the other novellas, is about the mutability of understanding; what one sees is what one understands.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider combines elements of both the previous stories. There is a real, tragic romance, the love of Adam and Miranda, in many ways a parallel of the grand romance of Gabriel and Amy, in part a retelling of the Adam and Eve legend. There is the harsh reality of a country at war, in the closing days of World War I, and in the middle of the raging influenza epidemic that marked the end of that war. That sickness takes the life of Adam and almost kills Miranda as well. The story ends with the end of the war and Miranda leaving the hospital “cured.” The final image projects a future, but now a strangely bleak and bitter one. All things have changed. Part of the subtlety of this story lies in the author’s ability to use the war, conventionally, as the end of something of the old order and the loss of something indefinable from the American spirit, and yet to do this within the context of the home front. The raging epidemic, at first as seemingly remote as the bloody fields of France, gradually becomes part of the whole sickness that inflamed the world and destroyed so much. Miranda emerges as much a war casualty as any shell-shocked veteran.

The three short novels of Pale Horse, Pale Rider are related and designed to give a rich and complex social history. Porter is not often credited with being a social historian as well as a fine crafter of prose. Perhaps the reason is that she is only indirectly concerned with politics, and so those critics whose social vision is conditioned by their political views cannot grant the truth of her grand theme. Politics, however, is a two-dimensional enterprise, a game of “the image.” Porter’s fictional art is based upon the flesh and spirit of character, and none of her characters remains an “image” for long.

The social history of Ship of Fools (1962) or The Leaning Tower, and Other Stories (1944), for example, is evident, and it is equally present in Pale Horse, Pale Rider; but in a larger sense, social history is, however complex, merely part of her design. Social history becomes, by the examples of recurring and parallel events, much more than chronology. It becomes a stage on which human beings act out their lives. The scenes change, but the human heart and all its mystery does not. Mutability is a fact of life, but it is not life. Her deepest concern is with people, with character, and in this compassionate and always honest concern, she joins the ranks of the very few great artists of fiction. Pale Horse, Pale Rider, her three short and related novels, would guarantee her that place among the few had she never written another line.

In Porter’s rhetoric, there is great respect for the reader. She engages the reader’s imagination and lets it work too. The result is a highly condensed fiction that does not seem so because of the richness of echo she has managed to suggest and evoke. There is nothing small about her work. Its aims are the grandest to which a writer can aspire. Its glory is the remarkable and daring achievement of those aims.

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