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  • Katherine Anne Porter’s Faithful and Relentless Vision of Death in Pale Horse, Pale Rider
  • Kodai Iuchi (bio)

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William Blake. Death on a Pale Horse. Pen, Indian ink, gray wash, and watercolor on paper, c. 1800.

© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

[End Page 152]

Think death and the American South in literature, and William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor spring to mind. But what of Katherine Anne Porter? She is also unmistakably a Southern writer, one that exercises a metaphysical and philosophical urgency in the space of the South and manages to extend that urgency beyond the boundaries of the South into the universal. At the same time we feel that without the particulars, without the Southern context, what Porter has expressed would remain ineffable. An example is Porter’s story cycle Pale Horse, Pale Rider, consisting of three tales: in order, they are “Old Mortality,” “Noon Wine,” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” Porter mercilessly binds and permeates the cycle with relentless and harmful discourses of death that force us to contend with mortality in all its agony. We also see that considering the three stories all together is crucial if we are to interpret and appreciate Porter’s vision for a faithful and uncompromising portrayal of death.

The Romanticized Glorification of Death and the Past

The first story centers on a wealthy Southern family’s obsession with the storytelling of death. In “Old Mortality,” Miranda’s family glorifies the deceased Aunt Amy—Miranda is a child not older than ten for the majority of the story, and her relatives’ idealization of death and the past shapes her life, as we will see. As the story and the cycle open, death is at the forefront of Miranda and her sister Maria’s very young minds as they examine Aunt Amy’s portrait: “Quite often they wondered why every older person who looked at the picture said, ‘How lovely’; and why everyone who had known [End Page 153] her thought her so beautiful and charming” (181). Miranda and Maria instead feel that the portrait gives off a “faded merriment,” with objects “no one would have any more”; “the whole affair was associated, in the minds of the little girls, with dead things” (Porter 4). At this point, Miranda and Maria do not glorify or romanticize death and they cannot deem it “beautiful”; this is probably a healthy disposition for such young children, though preferably they would not be so concerned with death yet at all considering their ages.

Death will only increasingly preoccupy them as they grow older, for they belong to a family that encourages such preoccupations and continually looks to the past and to deceased ancestors. Their relatives romanticize and sentimentalize death and the past to an extent or with a self-indulgence that Miranda at first can only find somewhat disturbing or desolate:

Grandmother … would sit nearly all of one day beside old trunks and boxes in the lumber room, unfolding layers of garments and small keepsakes; she spread them out on sheets on the floor around her, crying over certain things, nearly always the same things, looking again at pictures in velvet cases, unwrapping locks of hair and dried flowers, crying gently and easily as if tears were the only pleasure she had left … Miranda, without knowing why, felt melancholy.


The grandmother’s almost ritualistic and performative mourning is not a genuine sorrow but something that comes “gently” and “easily” and that is done for “pleasure.” It is also rather a habit as it comes with “the change of seasons” (183). But “no, Maria and Miranda found it impossible to sympathize with those [dead] persons” (183). Instead, “they were drawn and held by the mysterious love of the living, who remembered and cherished these dead” (Porter 7). With this, the children manage to set themselves apart from their older relatives, who actually fail to adequately appreciate or recognize them in return—the family’s romanticized recollections of Aunt Amy automatically take the past and the dead as superior to the living. But before long Maria and Miranda are quickly initiated into their relatives’ beliefs. They quickly come to no longer...


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pp. 152-170
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