Fictional Power: The Collapse of Feminism in Pale Horse, Pale Rider and Diary of a Madman


Fiction has long been marshalled by activists of various causes, ANG KIA YEE notes, but closer examination of texts can reveal its very undoing after having raised its politics.  “There cannot be collapse without something built”, she writes, tracing the feminist energetics in both Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’ and Lu Xun’s ‘Diary of a Madman’, before unravelling how the patriarchal associations of women with caretaking and madness respectively are defied and inverted, only for both narratives to violently “resume hegemonic gender conventions”. In comparing the infliction of psychological and physical violence, and the contrasting narrative focalizing strategies from Porter’s “intimate first-person approach” to Lu Xun’s distancing narration, Ang’s proposal that feminism in fiction can turn out to merely be “fictional feminisms” raises a careful warning of the failure of activism in fiction, with caution to the world outside our pages.

“Never confuse movement with action.”
― Ernest Hemingway

Fiction as a site for activism is a notion that has endured a long history; it drives new and developing critical fields such as ecocriticism and queer theory. Building on this premise, I will engage with Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” (“Pale Horse”) and Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman” (“Madman”) not merely as stories but experiences that can alter mindsets, and therefore to be examined for their embedded politics.

Both texts possess a feminist spark in which gender conventions are transformed and women are elevated to a space usually occupied by men: subject rather than object, central figure rather than secondary character. They also articulate resistance against patriarchal forces. However, these traces of feminism disintegrate and reveal themselves as mostly phantasm. Fiction manifests the power for change but in “Pale Horse” and “Madman”, this power largely remains fictional. However, though both texts present the collapse of feminism, they situate the feminist struggle in different places: one in the mind and spirit, the other on the physical body.

There cannot be collapse without something built; before I probe the disintegration of feminism in the texts, I must first address how feminist potential and subversion of gender norms are set up in them. At surface level, the narratives bear one key difference: while “Pale Horse” has a female protagonist, “Madman” has a male one. However, they ultimately both present the woman at the centre of the narrative. While “Pale Horse” has a female protagonist through whom we experience the story not just in first person but in the highly personal stream of consciousness mode, “Madman” positions madness, “a female malady” (Showalter 4), at its core. Jane Ussher, in referencing Showalter, defines the relationship: Science, the rising authority of the Victorian age which would govern mental institutions and public asylums, was dominated by “the gentleman doctor – the masculine scientist… [and] personified as male. Nature was female.” (68). Just as Science as a governing body in England became a tool by which “men could uncover and control nature, and, by extension, uncover and control women” (69), “brutal treatment of women in China over the centuries had its support, if not its origins, in Confucianism”, a “state-sponsored…patriarchy” (Nyitray 145, 143) which is explicitly criticized in “Madman”. Given that “madness” and its root word are inscribed as female and the “equation between femininity and insanity” (3) so interminable[1], to use the word is to corporealize the woman. As such the title “Diary of a Madman”, as well as its first-person narrative of the madman in opposition to patriarchal Confucianism, coalesce with these contextual and linguistic presences to centre the woman at the heart of the narrative. The female is thus ascribed individuality and narrative authority in both texts.

Furthermore, there are multiple ways of reading “Madman”, which altogether frame madness positively. Carlos Rojas notes three readings: we might take the diary literally as depicting “an infectious disease that…transforms its victims into cannibals,”, “a symptom of a delusional mental illness… that causes the madman to believe he is surrounded by cannibals,” (47) or “an allegorical critique of China’s “cannibalistic” illness” (48). I disagree with his segregation of the readings; they necessarily overlap, and it is reading the narrative as simultaneously embodying all interpretations that provokes deeper reflection. Nonetheless, it can be agreed that they are all manifestations of truth that each possess some authenticity or validity. Madness, and in turn, femininity, is presented positively as a mode of illuminating truth.

Feminist expectations are built upon further in “Pale Horse,” though not so much in “Madman”. In Porter’s story, the traditionally female function of caretaking is both challenged and transformed by Adam and the nurse respectively. Though his time with her is brief, Adam is proactive and loving as Miranda’s caretaker. He “wash[es] her face with a wet towel” (346), “leap[s] up with an alarmed face, and almost at once…holding a cup of hot coffee to her mouth” (349) when she sits up in a panic (350-1). From his alarm at her condition, Adam acts in “the gentlest sort of way” (351), colouring him with maternal, feminine energy. His embodiment of the feminine echoes the madman of Lu Xun’s story, and subverts the gendered expectations of women as carers and mothers.

Despite manifesting a stereotype, the nurse also defies gender conventions. She is spirited, confident and persistent; she nurses back to health Miranda, “this patient [who becomes] visible proof of [her] theory” (360). The word “theory” is particularly powerful, for it attaches intelligence to the nurse – one who has a scientific edge. It is as though the nurse herself is a scientist; she conceives of a hypothesis and proves it. She is thus on par with men, the dominant demographic of science. Interestingly, the nurse’s efforts only amount to Miranda’s spiritual void in the wake of survival. This desolation can be read as a further subversion of the gendered stereotype surrounding nursing, for it retains the signifier – the persistence and strength of spirit – while removing the expected signified result. As her experiment successfully establishes theory; the nurse is thus more of a scientist than a caretaker.

Although both texts resume hegemonic gender conventions, “Pale Horse” depicts psychological oppression whereas “Madman” is returned to gender conventions in a physically brutal way. The feminism in “Pale Horse” diminishes early on, from the men pressurizing her to purchase Liberty Bonds to the caution exercised by Miranda and a female counterpart in speaking ill of the inherently patriarchal war. Miranda, a woman, is infantilized (“[t]he man wagged his finger at her…as if…prompting an obstinate child”). While they claim to be “just asking [Miranda] why [she hasn’t] bought” a Liberty Bond (318), their tone and physical cues indicate otherwise. They decide for Miranda that her poverty is “no excuse at all”, and that “[she] can pay for it five dollars a week” (318). In doing so they remove Miranda’s individual agency; they reject her knowledge of her own financial situation and attempt to rewrite her personal narrative. When speaking to the girl about her resentment of the “errand” of comforting men in cantonment hospitals, Miranda “turn[s] cautious also” when the girl replies to her “cautiously” (322-3). They seem to possess an internalized patriarchy, demonstrating the extent to which gender conventions have been seared into the very flesh of women’s social code so much that they come to silence themselves.

While women are very much present in “Pale Horse”, they are almost completely absent in “Madman”. Men dominate the narrative, evoking “cold fear” (22) in the madman just as the Liberty Bond agents evoke fear in Miranda. There is something decidedly animalistic, “fearful… [and] savage” (23) about their appearance and physicality in “Madman”, which suggests greater propensity for brutality than the men in “Pale Horse”. This persistent violence in “Madman” crystallizes most clearly in its almost complete absence of women, an invisibility with violent undertones. In his list of cannibalism’s accomplices, the madman mentions “fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, wives, friends, teachers, pupils, enemies, perfect strangers”. Male classifiers occur repeatedly, whereas female ones occur only once: “wives”. Mothers, daughters and sisters are conspicuously absent, highlighting the lack of women in the narrative and signalling the collapse of the reproductive function. Subsequently, humanity has no possibility of renewal and evolution. A feminist reading of this suggests an annihilation of femininity by the patriarchy, represented here by Confucianism, and subsequent hopelessness in the face of oppressive gender codes. While the undoing of feminism in “Pale Horse” rests more upon psychological and spiritual torment, in “Madman” the collapse rests more on brutality against the body.

The texts’ differing presentations of collapsed feminism is reflected in their dissimilar narrative frames. “Pale Horse” adopts an intimate first-person approach which situates readers inside Miranda’s psyche, whereas the framing of “Madman” distances readers and even objectifies the madman. In “Pale Horse”, distance between readers and Miranda is minimized by bringing the receiver of the narrative to its contextual inner source – Miranda’s mind. By doing so the narrative becomes a vessel for, or indeed, becomes the female voice itself, unfiltered and unedited by other characters or Miranda herself. This privilege of unfiltered speech is a feminist act, and becomes more sharply so when examined alongside “Madman”, whose narrative is reshaped and supervised through multiple frames. For one, the narrator’s prologue precedes the diary “entries” and recounts his acquisition of the diary, his “extract[ion] of occasional flashes of coherence” (21). The “entries” thus undergo multiple overlapping editorial processes of varying motives: for clarity, or for “medical research”. Even the title given to the collected “entries” is manipulation, firstly because the recovered individual conceiving the title is no longer the madman, secondly because the title is retrospectively constructed. As such, the original, “authentic” narrative is lost, buried beneath agendas outside of the madman. Also of note is that every frame is one constructed and applied by a man, corroborating my reading of them as manifestations of patriarchal oppression.

Perhaps the most damaging edit lies in the intent of “medical research”, which determines which “entries” are included in the first place. Furthermore, such a framing undermines the text’s emotional weight, instead objectifying the madman by reducing him and his terror to a case study. This dehumanization of the subject mirrors the objectification of women as mentally inferior and prone to madness by scientists in the Victorian age, and signals a regression into misogyny. Whatever power the madman possessed by being positioned as the protagonist is extinguished. Madness is distanced yet again, and the madwoman is returned to the attic.

In the texts’ depiction of recovery, “Madman” once again emerges with more physically brutal misogyny. In “Pale Horse”, Miranda, a survivor, takes on the emotional labour typically assigned to women. As Arlie Hochschild noted, women are expected to carry out more emotional labour than men both at work and at home; “the world turns to women for mothering, and this fact silently attaches itself to many job requirements” (182). In Miranda’s case, she is trapped by the emotional labour of memory, of remembering the devastation of the pandemic. As David A. Davis articulates,

Miranda’s memory of Adam, a memory she cherishes, is entangled with her memory of the pandemic, a memory she abhors, and they are connected by the fact that Adam died from the virus. […] [S]he cannot allow herself to forget…without abdicating her love for [Adam]. (69) Emotional labour becomes mandatory for Miranda, a permanent weight on her heart. Miranda’s fate here is foreshadowed earlier in the text, in which “a little drab man” (333) confronts her about a bad review. The man employs a warped feminism in the process of imposing emotional labour upon Miranda (“I wanta know what you think is wrong with me”) (334). He takes her criticism seriously despite her rhetoric, “What does it matter what I think?” (334) and oppressively demands for her to justify them. The “female” function of emotional labour is thus explicitly forced upon Miranda. Furthermore, she is unable to fend him off until Chuck, her male colleague, steps in. Her timid responses reflect more broadly the helplessness of women against men, against demands for emotional labour, and offset the feminist efficacy of the strong, confident nurse. Ultimately, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” concludes with a collapsed feminism which subjects women to spiritual melancholy.

On a metanarrative level, however, Porter’s act of writing “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” is itself a feminist act of emotional labour, for it is one of the few narratives available that centres on the 1918 influenza pandemic. In fact, Davis argues that “Pale Horse” as a literary narrative “serves as the primary means of recovery (of the influenza pandemic), allowing survivors to recover their identity and allowing listeners to experience the trauma empathetically” (62). It is an act of emotional labour on behalf of survivors which facilitates their recovery process. This is unlike the emotional labour thrust upon Miranda, where the former is a feminist act because it works against the collective, oppressive suppression of memories. As such, while the narrative of “Pale Horse” does deviate into misogyny, the story as a whole retains a feminist edge.

In contrast to Miranda, the madman ends up “wait[ing] for an appropriate official post to fall vacant” (21) after his recovery, subsumed back into status quo. Specifically, he seeks to join the government, the gatekeeper and enforcer of state ideology which is implicitly blamed for the “cannibalism” in China. By attempting to join the government, the recovered man not only gives in to oppression but also becomes its perpetuator. Just as the women in “Madman” have been wiped out, the tormented madman is erased. As such, comparing the texts, it can be concluded that for “Pale Horse” the collapse of feminism occurs in the mind, whereas that of “Madman” rests in its brutal and abrupt disappearance of the tangible body. “Pale Horse” concludes with an outline of the woman still standing, her spirit emptied, whereas “Madman” subsumes and dissolves the feminine body.

In conclusion, while both texts attempt to surmount misogyny, they ultimately both resume hegemonic concepts of gender, one by dissolving the spirit, the other by dissolving the body. Through these fictional feminisms, they present contrasting philosophies as to the site of failure in feminism. They sustain memories of past violence against women, and also remind us that misogyny is not always public and visible in its brutality but manifests also in more insidious, spirit-breaking forms. Looking forward, I hope this comparison might inform a deeper understanding of feminism in reality, and contribute to existing discourse.

(1) Ussher writes, “[T]o be woman is often to be mad. […]We are all in danger of being positioned as mad.” (6)

Works Cited

Davis, David A. “The Forgotten Apocalypse: Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” Traumatic Memory, and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 43, no. 2, Spring 2011, pp. 55-74.

Hochschild, Arlie, and Anne Machung. The Second Shift. Viking Penguin, 1989.

Lu Xun. “Diary of a Madman.” The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun. Translated by Julia Lovell, Penguin Classics, 2009, pp. 21-31.

Nyitray, Vivian-Lee. “Confusion, Elision, and Erasure: Feminism, Religion, and Chinese Confucian Traditions.” Editorial. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 26, no. 1, Spring 2010, pp. 143-160.

Porter, Katherine Anne. Pale Horse, Pale Rider: The Selected Short Stories. Penguin Classics, 2011.

Rojas, Carlos. “Of Canons and Cannibalism: A Psycho-Immunological Reading of “Diary of a Madman”.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, special issue on Discourses of Disease, vol. 23, no. 1, Spring 2011, pp. 47-76.

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980. Virago, 1987.

Ussher, Jane. Women’s Madness: Misogyny or Mental Illness? Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.

ANG KIA YEE is a writer and artist studying at the University of Warwick. She can be found at

Photo Credit: Joanne Loo


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