How should one now live? Insights from Pale Horse, Pale Rider

Katherine Ann Porter’s 1939 novella, set in late 1918 and the struggle against the Spanish influenza, is a call to reconsider what is essential and nonessential.

Detail from "The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse)" (1900) by Albert Pinkham Ryder (

This past Wednesday marked the one year anniversary of my hometown going into lockdown. It was Lent then, it is Lent now, and every step forward comes with warnings from public officials that we are not out of the woods yet.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel, hope at the sight of Spring, and what survivors of the pandemic face next – whether survivors of physical, financial, or emotional suffering – is a lazarean question: having been saved from death, how should one now live? As we approach reopening and contemplate both personal and collective healing, Katherine Ann Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) can help us to answer that question, giving us a timely reflection on the value of life, regardless of the terms.

Set during October and November of 1918 in an unnamed American town, the story chronicles a young woman’s month-long struggle against the Spanish influenza, which claimed over 600,000 American lives and 50 million worldwide, further adding to the already devastating death toll of World War I. Miranda is an unremarkable heroine but her insignificance and ordinariness are precisely what make her such a relatable character. At twenty-four, she barely scrapes by a living as a theater critic for a local newspaper. She rents a room in a boarding house, eats in cheap diners, smokes countless cigarettes, worries about money, and, like so many young women her age, is going out with a freshly uniformed soldier who is waiting to be deployed to the Western Front.

Like anyone during a global pandemic, not to mention a world war, she is merely one of millions trying to get by, doing the best she can to live and stay alive. In the grand scheme of creation, her life is a speck, but, by compelling us to care about what happens to Miranda, Porter subtly reminds her readers that life is good and worth having, no matter the person or their circumstances.

As she lies bedridden with influenza, (her symptoms strikingly similar to some of those of COVID-19: excruciating headaches, loss of smell, mental fog, debilitating fever, and exhaustion) waiting two days for an ambulance due to the surge in cases, she tells her beau, Adam, “I just lived and never thought about it.” But despite the hardship and mediocrity of her life, she would be “glad enough” to have it back, even with no improvements.

Faced with death and the prospect of not living at all, Miranda grasps at what makes life worth living in the first place. “Don’t you love being alive?” she asks Adam, whose tender bedside care will save her life at the cost of his own. “Don’t you love weather and the colors at different times of day, and all the sounds and noises like children screaming in the next lot, and automobile horns and little bands playing in the street and the smell of food cooking?” None of the things she mentions have any material or practical worth, but practicality is exactly what Miranda is no longer worried about as she contemplates death. Everyone has struggles and failures, banal routines and trivial pleasures.

It is not what we do that matters so much as what is, without our doing anything at all – even the poor and disadvantaged can hear the birds sing, feel the sun’s warmth, or see the stars shine. From her little room, in humble recognition that, by the world’s standards, her life is nothing impressive, Miranda is able to see that life itself is abundant, intrinsically good.

After finally receiving medical attention, Miranda spends nearly a month in the hospital slipping in and out of consciousness, delirious with fever, tirelessly cared for by a kind nurse. Porter invites us into Miranda’s stream of consciousness and allows us to see her beatific vision as she wavers on the threshold of eternity: the faces of all the people she has ever known “transfigured, each in its own beauty, beyond what she remembered of them, their eyes were clear and untroubled as good weather, and they cast no shadows. They were pure identities.”

With her compelling prose, Porter is able to craft a nuanced perspective on death and life. She doesn’t oversimplify death as bad and life as good, or life as pain and death as release. Instead of being a qualitative dilemma, life vs. death is a question of timing. Just as Miranda’s subconscious is readying to consent to death, she is called back to earthly life. For what purpose we do not know, except that she has left something “unfinished”.

Symbolically, she returns to consciousness to the sound of cheering in the streets. It is a beautiful day outside, the Armistice has been signed, and her temporary victory over Death coincides with the temporary peace the world will enjoy until the next war, the next pandemic.

Given a second chance, does Miranda live her life differently? What did Lazarus do after he was called back to life? We do not know for certain, but Porter’s insight is that the survivor’s life is not meant to be extraordinary but grateful. Readers are not told what happens to Miranda after she is discharged from the hospital, though we learn she needs a walking stick and that her loving Adam himself died from the influenza shortly after she went to the hospital. It seems she will pick up the pieces by returning to her old room, her old job, and will go on much as she did before, though with an altered perspective. “I shall be glad when I hear that someone I know has escaped from death. I shall visit the escaped ones and help them dress and tell them how lucky they are, and how lucky I am still to have them.”

There is no indication that Miranda’s life will be easier or better than before. Perhaps it will even be more difficult due to the aftereffects of the illness and the grief of losing a loved one, and yet she will go on living with deeper appreciation for life as a gift – an appreciation she will share with others. “No more war, no more plague…Now there would be time for everything.” No more war or plague, for now that is; nothing but time, until our time is up, but the temporality of earthly resurrection is irrelevant to the resurrected because to be at all is cause for joy, no matter the conditions.

When everything shut down a year ago, we were made to reconsider what was essential and nonessential in our daily lives. As it turns out, most of what we are used to having and doing was nonessential, and having and doing less was a humbling reminder that being alive is blessing enough. Not when things go how we expect or want them to, not because we enjoy the freedom to do this or that, but because life is and continues to be good, regardless of what is happening in the world. And even in the darkest times, we are given so much more than merely breath: the beauty of creation, human kindness, like that of Miranda’s devoted nurse, divine love, like Adam’s self-sacrifice. To be and to belong to Being is to share in abundance, always.

How should we live having survived COVID-19? Pale Horse, Pale Rider suggests a simple answer: with gratitude.

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About Mary Dudro Gordon 2 Articles
Mary Dudro Gordon holds a Bachelor’s in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley and a Master’s in Comparative and World Literature from San Francisco State University, where she is now a part-time lecturer. She has also translated two books from French to English for Ignatius Press: Salt and Light: The Spiritual Journey of Élisabeth and Félix Leseur by Bernadette Chovelon and A Time to Die by Nicolas Diat.


  1. I should like to give the author a different perspective. My area went into a shutdown same as most others. The town went with a mask mandate, the town about 30% of county population, the county had no mandate.

    Rates stayed low until the first of June and businesses reopened and stayed open. Then, as nationwide, began a steady climb in cases, with rapid acceleration beginning Nov. with a huge spike in cases, followed by rapid decline in Jan. We now are back to pre-June daily infection average numbers, with not enough vaccine distributed to make a difference, not even 3/4 million statewide fully vaccinated.

    The town accounted for about 3/4 of all county infections, and OFFICIAL numbers for the town have 1:4 diagnosed with the virus. The rapidly declining numbers suggest actual infections are twice that, and herd immunity kicking in here, county, and statewide.

    The masks made no difference at all and with all the masked face touching, may have caused even more cases. Only a shutdown helped, which was unsustainable in a poorer state, where staying home meant starvation.

    We are already exiting this pandemic, the state even stopped detailed daily reports, and now only weekly when the entire state went a day without a single case. In town, we have gone from 50 per day to average of 3.

    But, I worry for all the major metro areas who have stayed locked down, minimizing population exposure. They are entirely dependent upon vaccine, and meanwhile, if it gets loose in their areas, they will have their hands full, as unlike areas such as ours, they are NOT accustomed to making things work in a hostile environment, and are extremely vulnerable.

    Barring a new strain which gets around acquired immunity, this thing is done for huge swaths of the country, but the vulnerable swaths could still not only take a hit, but serve as that breeding ground for that new strain. Their efforts at self preservation could be the cause of an even worse outbreak. This is worrisome.

  2. That life is worth living is a given. Archbishop Sheen made that very clear in his historic TV series. That masks are now promoted by politics for purposes of control and by corporate propaganda for a billion dollar mask business is a given. That there is no credible scientific evidence to prove that masks do in fact protect us is the elephant in the room that we dare not openly discuss.

    • I don’t see wearing masks as a binary choice. Masks in some tight quarters may be beneficial, though secondary to hands and face hygiene. I have seen no credible evidence whatsoever that wearing masks outdoors with others at a distance is of any value. In my career, I visited hundreds of wastewater treatment plants and never saw anyone wearing a mask (though I’ve been told this occasionally occurred), and what enters a wastewater plant contains almost every imaginable pathogen. What I was taught then, and still practice now, is hands and face hygiene. No eating or touching the face until you’re cleaned up. Even then, no measures are perfect, but we should focus on the highest impact measures.

  3. I discuss masks everywhere, but to no avail. I cannot wear one due to lungs damaged from wearing assorted respirators in immediately fatal environments, biological/organic/chemical, for entire working career. I know what masks do and do not do. Any of these recommended masks do no more than what a tissue would do, except tissues are thrown away and masks are not. The boxes plainly state they provide zero protection from infection. Wearing one of these unrated masks a year and a half ago in a hazardous environment would have been cause for heavy fines and shutdown due to known effectivity. They help catch droplets if someone is sneezing or coughing, and that is all they do. Nature published a study last spring showing coronavirus not ejected unless a cough or a sneeze. A tissue paper job, IF slobs would use one. The same slobs who wear a mask improperly anyhow.

    1 in 4 officially locally has caught this bug, 1 in 2 actually with herd immunity kicking in, and I have dodged it simply by following original CDC guidelines, standard infection/hazmat control measures, by keeping my distance, minimizing time in any one place, keeping hands off face, sanitizing hands and anything brought in from outside, as well as any personal objects touched with contaminated hands (keys/cards/phone/etc).

    As our state found out, if you cannot do that (such as workers spending hours per day away from home), then it is going to work its way through the population, and no stopping it minus certified masks and lots of them as them disposed of regularly when touched/removed (ie trained users) and THOSE we still lack.

  4. First, let’s be clear what a “pandemic” is. There are millions of hits when you look for the definition.
    This one is quite clear:

    Pandemic: An epidemic (a sudden outbreak) that becomes very widespread and affects a whole region, a continent, or the world due to a susceptible population. By definition, a true pandemic causes a high degree of mortality (death)

    Now, let’s pull this definition apart and insert some facts.

    1. “sudden outbreak” – so far so good. SARS-CoV-2 – yes
    2. “very widespread and affects a whole region, a continent, or the world” – SARS-CoV-2 yes.
    So, the author’s use of “global” pandemic is redundant.
    3. “susceptible population” – SARS-CoV-2 – yes and no.
    Here is where is gets tricky. This is one of the aspects of the virus that has been grossly overstated.

    First, let’s get the medical definition of the word “case”.

    Case: A set of standard criteria for diagnosing a particular disease or health-related condition, by specifying clinical criteria and limitations on time, place, and person.

    For the last year, all news outlets and pretty much every non-medical person has incorrectly used the word “case”. A “case” is not a person, it is a set of criteria. For example: A cat jumps in my lap. My eyes start watering and I sneeze repeatedly. The cat leaves, I wash my hands and face, and no more sneezing and eyes dry up. The “case” in this example is the criteria. The criteria is watery eyes and sneezing. A “case” is not a person.

    Why is this important? Because every time a person tests “positive” – I’ll give the caveats on that later – everyone who is either unknowledgeable or seeks to fearmonger says that it is a “case”. Actually, no. If a person does not have any symptoms, then there is no “case” to diagnose. Which leads to the next point. The inventor of the PCR test made it clear that it was to be used in a research setting, not as a diagnostic tool. He didn’t invent it for that and so it doesn’t diagnose a virus or any other disease. Even if the virus is seemingly found, there is a 50% “false positive” rate. Look at this way; The vast majority of people who were labeled as a “case” would not have known that they supposedly had the virus without being tested because they would have never exhibited symptoms. Plus, if you run the so-called test incorrectly, which has been found to be happening in most places, you will find some kind of virus-leftover from when you previously had the flu last year or many years ago. This virus is not wholly different from the seasonal flu, so a strand from a seasonal flu virus can look like SARS-CoV-2.

    Let me be clear – the way that the word “case” has been used is solely to make and keep you afraid, to have an excuse to control you and every aspect of society, and to sell the idea of a “new normal”. There was nothing wrong with the previous “normal”, but that doesn’t further the agenda of those blowing this way out of proportion. The number of “cases” as currently used means nothing. Until someone gets ill and shows symptoms that exhibit the correct criteria, there has been no diagnosis of the virus, so no “case”, period.

    Now, as to susceptible persons. The average stats of a person who seemingly died of the virus was 79 years old with 2.9 co-morbidities such as heart disease, diabetes or COPD. 78% of those were overweight or obese. The average lifespan for an American ranges from 75-78, so the average age of 79 is 1-4 years older. This includes a variety of ages, but, and this is important, the vast majority were over the age of 70. So the “susceptible population” is the unhealthy elderly, but you wouldn’t know that from all of the lies out there. If you are under 70 and healthy, your chances of survival, if you actually get sick, not just test “positive”, is 99.97%. For those under 20 it is virtually 100%. Children are not super-spreaders so it is outrageous that they were prevented from going back to school after May. The risk of them giving it to the teacher is less than nil. Masks are harmful to children because they lower the amount of oxygen to their developing brains. It’s harmful for adults, too, though why it is varies from person to person.

    Never in the history of the world have the healthy been locked down, ordinary rights taken away, and mask and distancing mandates put in place for a virus that has a low death rate among the vast majority of the population. Perhaps, at first, some of the actions taken were wise because there was no knowledge of the characteristics of the disease; however, after the first couple of months, the continuation and enforcement of these mandates was unwarranted and are now a form of abuse and are politically driven. (Remember “14 days to flatten the curve”? What liars. They never intended on loosening their grip after 14 days) Once it was made clear who were most likely to die from the virus, only those persons should have been protected and restricted in their movement, period. The world should have been opened up 100% to pre-virus levels; in other words, we should have gone back to “normal” in May. Sweden never locked down nor instituted any mandates. The Swedes never changed their normal lives, and they were “done” with the pandemic in their country by mid-July.

    By using the word “case” incorrectly, it is implied that all of these “positive” persons are going around infecting everybody. No, not even close. You cannot pass on a virus you do not have; and, if you never develop symptoms, then you never had the virus. One more thing. The CDC changed the criteria for coding a death as being from Covid-19 at the beginning the outbreak. Not only is this illegal, but it is immoral and unethical. Then, the day after Biden took the oath, the CDC magically reverted back to the previous criteria and the number of deaths from the virus in 2020 were amended and the result was a much, much lower number. So, wait for it, as of now, the actual number of persons who died in the U.S. where Covid-19 was listed as the sole cause of death is under 10,000. Most had been wearing masks diligently and yet they still got sick and died. The remaining number of the supposed deaths are those who died with the virus, but not from the virus, and it is not known whether the virus even played a part. Case in point: a young man was killed instantly when he was thrown from his motorcycle after being hit by a car. His corpse tested “positive”, so the death was coded with “Covid-19” as one of the reasons. Are you understanding how widespread the deceit is now?

    4. “high degree of mortality (death)” – SARS-CoV-2 – No, no, no.
    Even the elderly have a survival rate of 99.5%. A “high degree of mortality (death)” is when 30% or more of the population dies from a virus and all ages are affected, not just the elderly. That’s 30% of the total population (Think “Black plague”). If you look at the fatality rate of just those who got sick, the percentage would be much higher. Remember: Those under 70 who got sick and died from Covid-19 accounted for only .03% of those who got sick. Comparing that to the average number of deaths from the seasonal flu each year, SARS-CoV-2 is less deadly. One sadly humorous fact is that there were virtually no deaths from the seasonal flu in 2020 and very few deaths from other serious diseases like cancer. Wasn’t it nice of the other diseases to be so considerate and not cause anyone’s death? Yeah, right. No, because all of those deaths that would have been recorded correctly in previous years were coded as Covid-19.

    It’s appalling that our government, social media, corporations (Whose online revenue went up 40%), mainstream media – cable, network, print – feel justified in lying to everyone. The supposed “bad news” is horribly exaggerated. The good news is never mentioned. I will say one thing – if we do not push back against these useless, humiliating mandates, we will not only never reacquire our rights, but we will likely lose more. The entities I mentioned above do not have our best interest at heart. As a matter of fact, they feel superior to the “masses”, which are about 95% of the world’s population. They feel that they alone know how the world should be run, and of course, they are the only ones capable of doing so. They want to be our masters. Another way of saying this is that they want to be our shepherds, but that entails us being the sheep. “Like a lamb led to the slaughter, He uttered not a word”. Jesus died a horrible death out of love and so that our souls could be saved. Do you think that you should act like a lamb just because the government commands you to do so? Even the clergy are enjoying the new-found power of telling people what to do. They care more about obtaining our obedience than saving our souls. From the beginning, the closure of churches and the suspension of the Sacraments indicated that they care more about bodily health than our spiritual health. What is being done here in the U.S. is unforgivable. There have been more deaths due to suicide, delayed diagnoses and delayed medical care than the exaggerated number of virus deaths. And because of the stoppage of the flow of goods, around 150 million persons around the world died of hunger last year. None of this is about our health! What I have written is simplified and is in no way complete. If there are any errors, it is wholly unintentional.

    Lockdowns, masks, distancing are not only useless, but they are incredibly harmful. It will take decades to recover, and that’s if the current regime in the White House even lets our country recover. Please research the “vaccines”. They are not vaccines in the traditional sense. They are “experimental biological agents”. mRNA ones are “gene therapy”. They are approved by the FDA only for “emergency use”. If they ever get final approval it will be years from now. They do not prevent you from getting the virus. Their only claim is that they will lessen the symptoms if you do get ill. That’s all.

    Thank you for reading

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