A Tale of Two Pandemics: Looking at Katherine Porters’ ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider,’ During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo Credit: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/31/us/coronavirus-covid-triage-rationing-ventilators.html

Sam Travis 

Staff Writer

stravis1@umassd.edu

When it comes to relating to any piece of literature, I never thought I would relate to one about the 1918 influenza pandemic. It always seemed so long ago to me, a tragic event of the past, something that could never happen in the 21st century. But yet here we are today. When I read Katherine Anne Porter’s novel “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” for one of my English classes, I suddenly felt a deep connection with the characters, understanding all the struggles they go through and the loss that they feel from the pandemic. It is the perfect novel to use when it comes to comparing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

            The story takes place in Denver during 1918, America suffering from the pandemic and the First World War altogether. The main character, Miranda, is a journalist and in a relationship with Adam, who is home on leave waiting to go to war. The two are expecting Adam to not make it back home, and Miranda mentions how she hates how war makes everyone patriots for all the wrong reasons, war bonds a way for people to benefit and make money from those dying overseas. Suddenly, Miranda becomes ill with influenza, but cannot make it to the hospital since there are no ambulances, doctors or beds to take her. This is all too familiar from the beginning of this pandemic, when thousands were sick and there were not enough people to help. Adam stays and takes care of her, the two of them singing the song “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” a song about being left behind when Death takes away friends and family. Miranda soon loses a state of consciousness and is rushed to a makeshift hospital. 

Photo Credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/446771225507794507/  

At the hospital, Miranda has fever dreams of riding on a Pale Horse, symbolization of running away from death. When she wakes up, she receives a letter from an army camp, telling her that Adam died from the flu overseas, which he most likely got while taking care of Miranda. His death is written so quickly in the story, that it makes it seem like he is another casualty of war, soon to be forgotten. Her friends try to help her move on, but Miranda wants to go back to her dream riding on the Pale Horse, riding to death to be with Adam. Yet she knows she must continue life without him. 

            “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” has many themes from the past pandemic that we have experienced with COVID-19, such as death, fear, and the fragility of life. The story also has a lack of closure for Miranda, the same as many people who have lost loved ones to COVID. There aren’t many pieces of literature about the 1918 pandemic, most likely because of the way and trauma people experienced afterwards. But now we know keeping loss or trauma bottled up will not make the pain of this pandemic go away. We need to learn from our mistakes, open up about our struggles and learn from the past. We need to write our stories, our own “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” in hopes to ever find closure from this pandemic. 

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