Pale Horse, Pale Rider

by Katherine Anne Porter

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Katherine Anne Porter wrote this novella about a young woman named Miranda; but clearly Miranda is a stand-in for the author in this semi-autobiographical account of the flu pandemic that occurred in the United States in 1918 at the end of World War I. Both the war and the pandemic, although actual events, function as layered metaphors in the story. Both events cause dramatic loss of life, both cause trauma on an individual and national level, and both events underscore the fragility of life and the significance of relationships. Miranda's relationship with a young man named Adam is under a specter of death as he awaits his orders to serve in the army. This intensity of awareness informs the urgency of their relationship to one another—the idea that they may never see one another again if Adam is called to serve in the war, where many young men died. But Miranda's being stricken with the flu during the deadly pandemic is a similar source of urgency, since her life is also in danger.

The characters' names offer some implications for the story also: Miranda is the name of Prospero's daughter in Shakespeare's play The Tempest. In the play, Prospero tries to shelter Miranda from the world of men, and she only meets men when there is a battle and invasion of their island. Miranda's isolation from her severe bout of flu likens her to her namesake from The Tempest, where she is removed from the world of men and war in her hospital room. Adam of course is named for the first man in the Bible, and this gives the character a universal and naive quality. He doesn't know what fate awaits him, but he is also aware he must fulfill duty to be a "man." His biblical name also parallels the novella's title, a reference to a quote from the Book of Revelation, where Death is a rider on a pale horse.

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