Pale Horse, Pale Rider Analysis
by Katherine Anne Porter

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Pale Horse, Pale Rider Analysis

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.

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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

(Great Characters in Literature)


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

(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 3,858 words.)