Pale Horse, Pale Rider

by Katherine Anne Porter

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

This novella from 1939 is the semi-autobiographical story of the author Katharine Anne Porter's experience of nearly dying in the American flu pandemic of 1918. Flu pandemics also occurred in Great Britain; the loss of life, given the timing at the ending of the first World War, was catastrophic. The parallels of loss of life from both war and flu inform Porter's story. The title, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, is a reference to the Book of Revelation, beholding Death riding a pale horse. When the armistice is announced, Miranda (the main character in the story, based on Porter) has been severely ill in bed for some time but is awakened by the commotion of this news beings spread. Her consciousness shifts back to more awareness and she learns slowly of what has taken place while she was near death. These quotes are among the most powerful in the story.

The light came on, and Miss Tanner said in a furry voice, “Hear that? They’re celebrating. It’s the Armistice. The war is over, my dear.” Her hands trembled. She rattled a spoon in a cup, stopped to listen, held the cup out to Miranda. From the ward for old bedridden women down the hall floated a ragged chorus of cracked voices singing, “My country, ’tis of thee”

Miranda hears this and in the stupor and weakness of her flu, she drifts into a dreamlike state and thinks on the national anthem and her thoughts about the war and the loss of her loved ones. She thinks on mortality as she hears the sounds of old women in the ward nearby.

Sweet land . . . oh terrible land of this bitter world where the sound of rejoicing was a clamour of pain, where ragged tuneless old women, sitting up waiting for their evening bowl of cocoa, were singing, “Sweet land of Liberty—”

Having come through this illness that left her weak and near death, she likens her own experience and feeling of weakness and relief to those who survived the war, also left weak and ill. "Rejoicing" about the end of the war is a "clamour of pain." Hearing the old women sing, she is able to consider the arc of her life: having survived a deadly strain of flu and the "war to end all wars" at a young age, the remainder of her life, and its end, now feel like familiar territory.

“Oh, say, can you see?” their hopeless voices were asking next, the hammer strokes of metal tongues drowning them out. “The war is over,” said Miss Tanner, her underlap held firmly, her eyes blurred. Miranda said, “Please open the window, please, I smell death in here.”

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