Pale Horse, Pale Rider

by Katherine Anne Porter

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 323

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.

Old Mortality

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 196


Miranda, a young girl whose mother has died and who lives in a world created by romantic family legends. As she grows older, she gets hints that her beloved Aunt Amy and Uncle Gabriel are not the romantic couple she has idolized, but two people with problems. At the age of eighteen, by which time she is married, she confronts the most realistic member of her family, Eva, who reveals the past through different eyes. At the end, she decides to find the truth beneath the illusions.

Eva Parrington

Eva Parrington, Miranda’s cousin, a plain woman who taught Latin and was involved in the women’s rights movement. She sees Amy as she is, unadorned by romantic stereotypes. Her forthright explanation is the trigger for Miranda’s search for truth.


Amy, the young wife of Gabriel who died of tuberculosis after leading a life of scandalous but intriguing behavior. Her portrait hangs in the hallway of the house, forever a memento to lost times.


Gabriel, Amy’s husband, an owner of racehorses. He is attached to the romanticized memory of Amy. He dies as an alcoholic, married unhappily for the second time.

Noon Wine

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 191

Royal Earle Thompson

Royal Earle Thompson, the owner of a ramshackle dairy farm in Texas. Aspiring to a grander lifestyle, he hires Olaf Helton. His fortunes improve because he allows Olaf to direct the farm activities. Seeing only that things are improving, he misses the hint that something could be amiss with Helton. When Hatch appears, looking for Helton and wanting to return him to the mental hospital, Thompson seeks to defend Helton and kills Hatch. He commits suicide after trying in vain to convince his family and friends that the whole thing was an accident.

Olaf Helton

Olaf Helton, a Swede from North Dakota who hires on as a farmhand. Except for playing the harmonica, he works silently and industriously, bothering no one. Only once does he reveal the potential for violence in his character, but he keeps it under control. His death results from a tragic mistake.

Homer T. Hatch

Homer T. Hatch, who comes to return the escaped mental patient to North Dakota. His sneaky attitude and stereotyped remarks about Helton annoy Thompson because they threaten the smooth surface of his lifestyle. Because of this, Thompson kills him.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 113


Miranda, a theater critic on a small newspaper. Working for little pay amid the stress of wartime conditions and an influenza epidemic, she falls in love with Adam, a young officer who lives in the same rooming house. Falling prey to the epidemic, she goes through a near death experience. She regains her health only to find that Adam has died. These experiences initiate her to the world of real truths.

Adam Barclay

Adam Barclay, a handsome young officer on leave from the Army who falls in love with Miranda and nurses her until she can go to the hospital. He then falls victim to the disease and dies before Miranda recovers.

Form and Content

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Taken together, the three short novels in Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider provide a rather bleak account of life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Western United States. In “Old Mortality,” as Miranda matures she rejects her family’s romantic view of the past and determines to create her own version of truth. In “Noon Wine,” Thompson purportedly kills in self-defense, but, when he fails to convince others and ultimately even himself of his lack of guilt, he commits suicide. In “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Miranda confronts death and manages to escape, only to learn that her sweetheart has died and that she is left to face a bleak future alone.

“Old Mortality” begins in late nineteenth century Texas and is divided into three parts. In part 1, Miranda and Maria continually hear stories of their family’s romantic history, especially the tragic tale of their beautiful late Aunt Amy and her dashing beau and husband, Uncle Gabriel. In part 2, the sisters are sent to a convent school in New Orleans, where they feel “immured” in their cloistered existence. On a weekend escape, their father takes them to a horse show and introduces them to Uncle Gabriel, whose drunken state and slovenly appearance evoke skepticism about the romantic legends and force the girls to modify their view of the past. In part 3, the story is seen through Miranda’s consciousness as she boards a train on her way home and bumps into Cousin Eva, who is coming back for Gabriel’s funeral. The antithesis of Amy, Cousin Eva has devoted her life to the woman suffrage movement. She maintains that she was fond of Amy but that Amy “was simply sex-ridden, like the rest.” Miranda listens quietly but rejects Eva’s view of the past as equally romantic and false as the view the family has tried to force on her. She realizes that continual re-creation of the past through memory produces a lie, and she determines to detach herself from that past and to create her own version of truth and define her own future.

“Noon Wine” takes place in southern Texas from 1896 to 1905. Olaf Eric Helton appears on the farm of Royal Earle Thompson to ask for a job. Because Thompson’s wife is in poor health and he is more concerned about his dignity and reputation than in doing the necessary farm work, he has allowed his farm to fall into miserable condition. Helton begins work immediately, and his industriousness eventually makes the farm prosper. His only negative qualities, in the Thompsons’ view, are that he does not eat or talk enough and that he reacts violently when the young Thompson boys damage the harmonicas on which he daily plays the same haunting tune. Nine years after Helton’s arrival, Homer T. Hatch arrives, completely unexpectedly, to arrest Helton for a murder committed in North Dakota. Hatch, a bounty hunter, maintains that Helton killed his own brother in a quarrel over a lost harmonica. As Thompson orders Hatch to leave, he sees Helton approaching. When Helton charges in between the quarreling parties, Thompson, thinking that Helton is being stabbed, hits Hatch on the head with an ax and kills him. Thompson claims self-defense and a jury finds him not guilty, but he realizes that no one truly believes him despite his continual attempts to tell his story and to convince them and himself of his innocence. Finally, when he realizes that even his wife and children do not believe him, he commits suicide.

“Pale Horse, Pale Rider” returns to the character Miranda, now a twenty-four-year-old struggling drama critic for a newspaper in a small Western town near the Rocky Mountains. An opening dream summarizes the novel. Miranda envisions a stranger who has come to ride with her. Thinking that she must “outrun Death and the Devil,” Miranda selects the horse Graylie because he does not fear bridges, and she rides along with the stranger until she suddenly recognizes him, stops her horse, and declares that she will not ride with him this time. The stranger rides on, and Miranda awakens.

In a novel filled with realistically grim details of a life controlled by war and disease, the growing relationship between Miranda and Adam, a soldier of her age from a nearby camp, provides a positive contrast. Miranda becomes seriously ill with influenza, however, and Adam attempts to nurse her before she is finally provided a bed in an overcrowded hospital. Adam must return to camp, leaving Miranda with her feverish dreams. She lies seriously ill for several weeks, finally awakening to the sounds of bells celebrating the Armistice and to the news that Adam has died of influenza in the camp hospital.

Places Discussed

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*South Texas

*South Texas. Both Old Mortality and Noon Wine use Texas as their settings, but the Texases depicted in these stories are very different. Old Mortality is the first of Porter’s “Miranda” stories, generally agreed to be the most openly autobiographical portions of her work. The story is suffused with the culture of the Deep South, opening with a picture of Miranda’s dead Aunt Amy, whose idealized and romanticized memory continues to haunt the family. The family that Porter constructs for Miranda is in many ways the family Porter tries to give herself. While Porter was raised by her grandmother on a south Texas ranch on which money was tight, Miranda lives in something like a plantation, filled with books and music and dancing.

By contrast, Noon Wine features a hardscrabble Texas ranch far out in the country, inhabited by the decidedly nonaristocratic Thompson family. In all likelihood, the reality of Porter’s childhood is probably closer to this picture than to the one she constructs for Miranda. In contrast to the southern sensibilities implicit in Old Mortality, Noon Wine offers the life of plain dirt farmers trying to eke out livings from the soil. The isolation of the ranch provides a sense of the frontier rather than the flavor of the antebellum South.

*Deep South

*Deep South. The idea of the South plays a prominent role throughout Old Mortality. For example, New Orleans figures as the center of society for Miranda’s family. The city plays a triple role in the story: It is the place where Amy dies after her marriage, the location of the convent school that Miranda and her sister later attend, and the site of Miranda’s last glimpse of her Uncle Gabriel. In New Orleans, Miranda sees Gabriel not as the mythologized gallant of family memory, but as a drunk and seedy racer of horses. By offering these contrasts, Porter demonstrates how the mythology of the Deep South may be at odds with its reality.

Western city

Western city. Unnamed city in the American West used in another Miranda story, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Details in this story allow readers to identify Denver as the story’s setting, although the city is never specifically named. During World War I, Porter lived in Denver, where she worked as a theater editor of the Rocky Mountain News—the same job she gives her character Miranda. It is also in the unnamed city that Miranda contracts the dreaded Spanish influenza, just as Porter did in Denver in 1918. Pale Horse, Pale Rider opens by connecting Miranda to her Texas roots. In a prophetic dream, she rides her horse Graylie across the plains in a race against the “pale rider,” death. Her waking reality in the unnamed city assumes a dreamlike fugue state as she perceives herself and those around her through the fog of the influenza that is overwhelming her body.

Porter’s choice of the unnamed western city is an important one for the story. The city is clearly in a place of natural beauty. In addition, the city seems remote from the rest of the country. The vaudevillians Miranda reviews refer to the city as the “boondocks.” These edenic images contrast starkly with the reality the rest of the country faces. Porter’s use of the isolated Western city lets her demonstrate how deeply World War I infiltrates even the lives of common people living at the edges of their culture.

In many ways, the evil of the war is present metaphorically in the unseen, deadly virus that ravages not only the large coastal cities but the interior of the country as well. Moreover, the pestilence kills indiscriminately, soldiers and civilians alike, in their very homes, thousands of miles from the front lines. The cost of the war is higher than anyone could have expected, and Porter’s story, with its dreamy, impressionistic prose brought about by Miranda’s illness, explores life and death and life after death.

Style and Technique

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Porter’s style, like that of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, shows the strong influence of the oral tradition of storytelling. In this story, however, she draws from this tradition not as an end in itself, but as a way of clearing the ground for her other concerns. Her ability to summon an entire personality from a detail of description or an idiosyncratic action allows her to exercise a narrative economy that, in turn, leaves time and space for her experiments with stream-of-consciousness interior monologues. The first description of Adam, for example, captures the essence of both his appearance and his manner:He was wearing his new uniform, and he was all olive and tan and tawny, hay colored and sand colored from hair to boots. She half noticed again that he always began by smiling at her; that his smile faded gradually; that his eyes became fixed and thoughtful as if he were reading in a poor light.

Like William Faulkner, Porter opens the mind of her character not only for the reader’s inspection, but also for the reader’s participation—for example, the reader’s confusion during the dream sequences is just as complete as is Miranda’s. Like Virginia Woolf, Porter uses this technique to stop space and move in time (as in the opening dream) or to stop time and move in space.

Form and Content

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These short novels—“Old Mortality,” “Noon Wine,” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”—vary considerably in form, but all are realistic and are concerned primarily with death and its effects on the living. “Old Mortality” is a kind of family chronicle in which two motherless girls, Miranda and Maria, grow up surrounded by a family which romanticizes some of its members. The chief subject of romantic memory is Aunt Amy, a beautiful and wild young woman who consistently rejected the advances of Gabriel, her chief suitor, and refused to allow illness to limit her activities. Amy finally gave in to Gabriel and died not long after marrying him. In the course of the story, the girls grow up. The most important episode in their maturation is an encounter with Gabriel at a racetrack near New Orleans and a subsequent meeting with the grim woman who is his second wife. Gabriel, present in family legend as slender and handsome, is grossly fat and obsequious, and not even the fact that each girl has won a hundred dollars betting on one of his horses can counteract his unromantic presence. Miranda eventually tries to escape the family by eloping, but an encounter with a relative on a train trip back home for a family funeral shows her that although she will keep rebelling, she will never truly escape the family.

“Noon Wine” deals with another social level. Royal Earl Thompson and his family farm a run-down place in South Texas. His wife is sickly, his sons are unthinking dullards, and he is lazy and selfish. Into their lives comes Olaf Helton, a handyman who sets everything straight on the farm, tames the boys, and through his labor, makes the farm prosper for the first time. This paradise is destroyed when Mr. Hatch arrives, a bounty hunter who brings the news that Helton is in fact an escaped murderer who killed his brother and was committed to an insane asylum. In the minutes that follow, Thompson tries to prevent Hatch from seizing Helton and in doing so somehow kills the bounty hunter with a knife. A posse tracks down Helton and manhandles him so roughly that he dies soon after being put in jail. Thompson is cleared of any wrongdoing, but he cannot come to terms with what has happened to him. He takes his wife with him on increasingly desperate visits to all of his neighbors, trying to explain to them what had happened and why he should not be blamed. The neighbors become increasingly tired of his rationalizing and more and more skeptical about what really happened. Eventually, unable to live with himself and his belief that people think he was guilty of murder, he takes a shotgun, writes an incoherent note trying once more to justify himself, and commits suicide.

“Pale Horse, Pale Rider” returns Miranda to the center of attention. During World War I, she is a reporter on a newspaper in an unnamed city which resembles Denver, Colorado. Her main job is reporting on bond drives and other war-related activities in the community, and in the course of her work, she meets a handsome young officer named Adam. About to be sent overseas, he has military duties that are almost certain to get him killed. They are beginning to fall in love when Miranda falls ill with the influenza that has become a national epidemic. Adam looks after her, as she becomes more and more delirious, until she can be taken to a hospital. In the next few days, Miranda becomes increasingly subject to hallucinations in which she sees Death as a figure on horseback. She is tended by a doctor named Hildesheim, and his German name evokes in her all the images of anti-German propaganda she has absorbed in her work; she fears and hates him, but he helps her through a near-death experience and she begins to recover. When she is finally able to read her mail, she comes across a note from a buddy of Adam, telling her that Adam had died of influenza. In the end, she is ready to return to the world, but it has become flat, dull, and empty.


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Of these three short novels, “Noon Wine” is the least concerned with women’s issues. Mrs. Thompson is a slight character, weak physically and personally, unable to control her sons, unable to do anything either to control or to comfort her husband. She is a type character, representing the image of farm wives as a beaten-down group, worn out by childbearing and by the hard physical labor of running a farm, especially if the husband is lazy and improvident.

In the stories about Miranda, however, Porter is presenting female figures who are struggling for independence against the forces of family and society. What happens to Aunt Amy in “Old Mortality” makes her a romantic figure to the young girls, but it is also a warning to Miranda of how strong the bonds of family can be; Miranda’s elopement into an unsuccessful marriage is still preferable to allowing herself to be buried in the family’s mythology. Whatever becomes of her, she will not be another Amy. Her meeting on the train with Cousin Eva, despised because of her unattractiveness, reinforces her determination. Eva has made a life for herself as a crusader for women’s suffrage, and Miranda promises herself that she will be equally independent. She is naive in her self-confidence, but she will learn.

What she learns in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is that life is indeed hard and precarious. As a reporter, she fights to avoid being assigned only to women’s interest stories, and she is attacked verbally in the newsroom by a hack performer resentful of one of her reviews. She struggles to avoid the fate of her friend Towney, condemned always to write the women’s page. As a person, she finds the beginning of love with the handsome soldier, only to be stricken by influenza and to learn that her lover is dead of the disease. She has gained the independence she wished for in “Old Mortality,” but her naivete is destroyed by the iron facts of life and death.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Explains Porter’s complex use of symbolism and irony. Asserts that the dream sequences of the Miranda stories reveal the unexpressed causes of her discontent.

DeMouy, Jane Krause. Katherine Anne Porter’s Women: The Eye of Her Fiction. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983. A feminist reading of Porter’s fiction, this book argues that Porter is a precursor of later feminism in her concentration on female characters trying to live independently in a world dominated by men.

Givner, Joan. Katherine Anne Porter: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. Explores key events that affected Porter’s work. Explains the connection, for example, between Porter’s near death experience and Pale Horse, Pale Rider.

Hendrick, George. Katherine Anne Porter. Boston: Twayne, 1965. Details Porter’s life and works. Explores the theme of innocence and experience in the stories in which Miranda appears.

Hilt, Kathryn. Katherine Anne Porter: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1990. A listing of all Porter’s works and the books and essays written about her through the mid-1980’s.

Lopez, Enrique Hank. Conversations with Katherine Anne Porter: Refugee from Indian Creek. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981. Stories about Porter’s life as she told them to the man who was her companion during the last years of her life.

Unrue, Darlene Harbour. Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter’s Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. Lists criticial sources. Studies the themes of Porter’s fiction, asserting that her works have a thematic unity built around Porter’s understanding of truth.

Warren, Robert Penn, ed. Katherine Anne Porter. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1979. A collection of essays about Porter’s work, by a variety of critics.

West, Ray. Katherine Anne Porter. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1963. Sets the novellas in the context of Porter’s Southern background. Develops the idea that historic memory uses myths to portray truths.

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