Pale Horse, Pale Rider

by Katherine Anne Porter

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Death and mortality—and passion, and the complexities of human relationships—are central themes in Katherine Anne Porter's 1939 Pale Horse, Pale Rider. It's not one book, but a collection of three short novels. (Their titles are Old Mortality, Noon Wine, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider.) Here, we'll review the basic narratives of these three novels and talk about how these themes function within them.

Let's start with Old Mortality, a story that follows the life of its youthful protagonist, Miranda, from age 8 to 18. From the start of the book, Miranda is very interested in her deceased Aunt Amy, a beautiful, passionate, rule-breaking woman who has been immortalized in family lore and whose story plays out in a series of old letters that Miranda and her sister read. Later, Miranda meets Amy's onetime husband, Gabriel, and he's not the handsome or clever man she expects. He's sloppy-looking and seems unhappy.

At the end of the book, he's dead, Miranda learns, after a hard later life of excessive drinking. Miranda, although only a teenager, is captivated by the story of Amy and Gabriel, of the fleeting nature of life, and of how their passions brought about their own downfalls. At the end of the book, for instance, Cousin Eva tells Miranda that Amy, despite her beauty and courage, suffered for her own impulsiveness. “She was simply sex-ridden, like the rest,” Eva tells Miranda. It's as if Amy's life, and the love story of Amy and Gabriel, is a cautionary tale.

Noon Wine tells the story of Royal Earle Thompson, a Texas dairy farmer who accidentally gets wrapped up in a drama between two other people—namely, his farmhand, Olaf Helton, and another man who shows up to accuse Olaf of past crimes, demanding that he return to the mental hospital where he was once held. Thompson acts impulsively and kills the second man. And even though he is later acquitted for the crime, he's gripped with residual feelings after the fact. He's traumatized by the act he's committed, and he's sure that his own wife and children have lost their trust and respect for him. He kills himself at the end of the book.

Again, the themes of death and passion are central to the story. The farmer acts in passion, causes a death, and eventually chooses his own death. The complexities of human relationships are also on display here: part of the reason the farmer takes his own life is because he can't stand to be seen badly by people he loves, his family.

Finally, we will look at the titular story, Pale Horse, Pale Rider. This story, set in Denver during the influenza epidemic of 1918, tells the story of a young couple who both fall ill. Initially it's just Miranda who's sick; Adam, her soldier boyfriend, who she's afraid will be sent off to war, takes care of her at first. But she loses consciousness after being transferred to a hospital. And when she wakes up, she learns that Adam has died of influenza, even though she herself is in recovery.

This story is about death and the fragility of human life, and about the delicate relationship between two lovers. Both of the young characters are worried about Adam being sent off to war. But it's disease that claims him, quickly (as far as Miranda perceives it, anyway) leaving the other partner to recover and go on with life without him.

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