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The Masque of the Red Death: Reading our way out of a crisis

Devanshika Bajpai explores what we may learn from Edgar Allan Poe's unsettling short story.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote his short story, the Masque of the Red Death, after his wife had been diagnosed with the then-incurable disease, tuberculosis. Some have seen it as a horror story, others as a commentary on feudalism, its metaphors representing everything from government incapacity to xenophobia. It seems like a tale inordinately applicable to current times– a devastating plague to which the only solution is to isolate ourselves, away from the rest of the world.  Rather than reading it – as many have recently done, including the Washington Post and Slate – as an obvious allegory for the ways in which issues of class and privilege are magnified during crises, we need to consider its specific examination of what is essentially the phenomenon of social distancing. 

The story’s Prince Prospero is undeniably callous: while “his dominions were half depopulated” he chooses not to intervene, instead looking after himself and his court first. The ruler and nobility all know about the Red Death – it takes only a half hour to cause a visibly painful demise for its victims, and has “long devastated the land” – but they assume that simply locking themselves away will be enough to save them. If there was no chance of transmission, wouldn’t we all enjoy a huge party with our friends and family right now? In a very literal sense, you might similarly presume none of your loved ones have contracted Covid and invite them to this massive house party – yet the disease could be brought in by them, and stalk through the party just as the Red Death did through the seven masquerade rooms, affecting not only the invitees but the host themselves. This is then a story about the devil you do know, the overwhelming trust one places in those closest to them, when the reality is that disease doesn’t account for character, just as it doesn’t consider money or class. Even though Prospero is doing all this to a large extent for the “knights and dames of his court”, they are the only practical answer as to who allowed the now-personified Red Death to appear inside, and to ultimately kill them all. 

On a deeper level, when Prospero throws his titular, epic masquerade he is significantly de-problematising the realities of the disease outside. His courtiers consequently followed their leader in believing that “the external world could take care of itself”, while they were still safe, safe enough to attend the prince’s celebrations. They were living out the paradox of isolating together because higher authorities either did not give them the relevant information or downplayed it. Think of the doubts regarding the virus for months before it was officially recognised by nationwide or worldwide authorities, or more specific cases – such as the Chinese government preventing further Covid-19 research and editing data from their experience of the disease. The lack of clarity on infection, testing and death figures, evident in governmental policy and media releases all over the world, conditions public responses more than almost any other factor. Who wouldn’t take their government easing lockdown restrictions as a sign that things are rapidly improving, even if a closer study of the data might say otherwise?  Depending on how far the nobles are in touch with the on-ground situations – considering its feudal context, they are likely geographically, as well as socially, disconnected from their social inferiors – the inside of Prospero’s abbey represents a den of ignorance or misinformation. If “security [was] within. Without was the Red Death” then this was obviously a false sense of security, perpetuated by authorities aiming to avoid mass panic, perhaps, and retain the trust of the powerful elite just as leaders in modern democracy are hoping for a re-election. The public’s reaction was then based on inaccurate information, and their actions did not take into account the seriousness of the threat.

James B Reece, in an article for Modern Language Notes, cites Campbell’s Life of Petrarch as a likely historical source for Poe’s account because he reviewed it for Graham’s in 1842. The real-life fourteenth century nobles in Campbell’s work are ascribed a very specific reasoning for their celebrations – “it was the general persuasion that sadness accelerated the infection of the malady… the living, being persuaded that diversions and songs of gaiety could alone preserve them from the pestilence, kept up their revels.” Though this context does not fit in with the usual implications of the Masque, which is seen as the selfish action of an uncaring elite à la ‘let them eat cake’. It almost humanises these partygoers: allowing us to comprehend rather than demonise them as an oppressive group deserving their bloody end. Reading the story as class polemic doesn’t help but understanding even those who are ‘wrong’ in the wider Covid-19 narrative such as protesters in America or your neighbour gathering four friends in her garden, will allow us to navigate this crisis without an added social disaster. Where the crisis threatens to divide and highlight differences between communities and classes– think of minorities being more susceptible to Covid-19 due to their socio-economic circumstances, racism against Asians or growing class antagonism after the coming recession – we must strive for unity, which can only come from a willingness to understand and to compromise.

As for the Masque attendees’ idea that having the medieval equivalent of an invite-only kegger keeps viruses at bay, of course no one today is arguing that a positive attitude and a smile will stop you from contracting Covid-19. Yet every individual has found obstacles during this crisis, whether in adapting to new work environments or being far away from those we love, and we are in danger of being mentally just as much as physically overwhelmed. A Kaiser poll shows that 45% of Americans feel the virus has taken a negative toll on their mental health, and studies predict upto 75,000 ‘deaths of despair’ as a result of the crisis. In these circumstances, the loneliness and stress of social distancing mean that maybe we can learn from the Masque, not just from their mistakes – throwing huge gatherings or refusing to aid others around us – but from their mostly non-malevolent intentions of pursuing happiness in any way possible. 

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