It is March 21, 2020 and the coronavirus is a pandemic threatening everyone on Earth. In my relative isolation of social distancing, I have had more time to read and I was drawn to a tale I hadn’t read for decades: Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842). It wasn’t out of morbid curiosity that I revisited this story. Rather, I figured Poe would have something to teach us. I was impressed by what I discovered and I would like to share some insights here. But first a brief summary of the plot.
The tale speaks of a Red Death, a pestilence that has been devastating the country for about half a year, whose signs are “sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution.” In these troubled times one Prince Prospero, an eccentric ruler of august taste and immoral character, retreats into one of his castellated and provisioned abbeys surrounded with a “thousand hale and light-hearted friends.” Here he will pass the time with endless diversions and wait while the Red Death, which exists in his dominions outside the castle, slowly passes by. Prospero’s featured entertainment is, of course, an astonishing masque marked by costumes ranging from the beautiful to the bizarre.
The Prince’s “bold and fiery” plans are unfolding just fine until someone appears in a costume which goes “beyond the bounds of even the prince’s indefinite decorum”, namely, one “dabbled in blood” with all the symptoms of the Red Death. This “blasphemous mockery” elicits visceral reactions of disgust even in those who love the grotesque. Outraged, Prospero finally attempts to arrest the mysterious guest but immediately dies once the intruder confronts him. His followers then violently remove the mask and are horrified to find that it is “untenanted by any tangible form.” This revelation leads to their death in turn and “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
Of course this quick summary can do no justice to Poe’s detailed and macabre imagery of the outlandish castle and its guests. But it is sufficient for gleaning the following ten closely related pieces of wisdom from his cautionary tale:
(1) In the opening paragraph we learn that a victim of the Red Death acquired “a pest ban which shut him out from the aid and the sympathy of his fellow-men.” It is one thing to not be able to aid others; it is another to not sympathize with them. Propsero is the perfect manifestation of this lack of sympathy. For him, “the external world would take care of itself.” Indeed, during the crisis he is “happy and dauntless and sagacious.” One wonders whether this attitude towards those who he rules played an important role in the spread of the pestilence. Reading this, we must all ask ourselves: do we have the appropriate emotional reactions to others in our pandemic? Do we want to help or just retire to a secure world of entertainment with plenty of “ballet dancers” and “buffoons”?
(2) Closely related to this first point is something which comes up in the second paragraph: for those in the castle keep, “it was folly to grieve, or to think.” Not only is there a lack of grieving which would flow from a lack of sympathy; there is also thoughtlessness. And do we not see endless examples of thoughtlessness around us right now? People being careless, willfully uninformed, jumping to conclusions, and disposed to accept and spread all kinds of misinformation and conspiracy theories? Poe writes of a “nameless awe with which the mad assumptions of the mummer had inspired the whole party” once the red figure appears. Mad assumptions are indeed made when the unknown appears and, with the help of social media, can now spread through not just the whole party but the whole world.
(3) Thoughtlessness can flow from defiance. As Poe writes after describing the so-called secure inclosure of the abbey: “With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to the contagion.” This defiance has been on display recently with people actively flaunting efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. They are the rugged individuals who won’t be told what to do and who apparently can decide whether the virus will get them or not. Such hubris is quickly destroyed in the story and, if it becomes prevalent enough in our society, it will have dire consequences.
(4) Pandemics, as the name itself specifies, can reach everywhere and aren’t concerned with class status! In the story Prospero is wealthy and could care less about the poor. In our time, many who are well-off may not be interested in getting the poor resources they need to survive the loss of work and other necessities. In Poe’s story this a self-defeating strategy. In our interconnected world it may be one as well.
(5) The mysterious red intruder had, as we saw above, no “tangible form.” I vividly recall this bothering me when I first read the story in middle school. I was waiting for a horrific face but there was…nothing. But this nothing is certainly something as far as thoughtful horror goes. Here we can interpret this formlessness in many ways. But given our context I think it is appropriate to link it to the many strands, mutations, and unknowns we face when dealing with viruses. The wisdom here is simple: don’t think you can catch a virus, label it with a fixed nature, and say you have eradicated it once and for all. Rather, assume it has the mysterious capacity to mutate, flow through whatever iron doors you erect, and come, as Poe puts it, “like a thief in the night.”
(6) Poe notes that even to “utterly lost” people “to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made.” And it is the arrival of the Red Death that makes even the nihilists at the masque care. In our world there are plenty who fancy themselves jesters indeed. But they will not be jesting when they cannot breath or lose a loved one. The story offers a question to nihilists: are you prepared to jest when death shows up at your party? If not, perhaps it is time to take life seriously.
(7) Of course, even for those of us who do take life seriously the story can remind us of something which we tend to overlook: no one escapes death. In times of pandemics we may realize this more often than usual and this, in turn, can have a positive effect if we learn to live more authentically and realize that “the Time that flies”, represented so eerily in the story by the ticking and sounding of a gigantic ebony clock, is not always on our side and will, like everything else, come to an end: “And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay.” Those at the masque do, when the clock chimes its strange music on the hour, pause in “tremulousness and meditation” despite the madness around them. But these moments are quickly forgotten in “light laughter” until the longer meditation during the twelve strokes at midnight allows some of the more “thoughtful among those who revelled” to have more thoughts. And it is also during this suspension in the action that many become aware of the Red Death. Thus we see Poe’s story connects the awareness of time to thinking and thinking to an awareness of death. These connections may be illuminating for those of us who, unlike the “dreams” dancing at the masque, want to be awake in order to avoid the thoughtlessness mentioned above in point (2). Indeed, many people who are social distancing are already reporting the benefits of slowing down, thinking more about their lives, and realizing what really matters and what doesn’t.
(8) It is important to note how Prospero acts towards the red figure. He becomes maddened “with rage and shame of his momentary cowardice” and rushes towards the figure in order to stab it with a dagger. Notice here the lack of thought, intelligence, and level-headedness. The Prince, who thinks he governs so much, is essentially enslaved by the image of his own greatness and, when this image is comprised in the least, he acts impulsively from his vices with a crude act of violence which, given the elusive nature of his enemy, is truly comical. Naturally he falls dead to the ground immediately showing his so-called princely powers to be of no consequence. His followers attack with the same reckless abandon and fall as well. This makes sense since, while Poe notes some would think Prospero mad, “his followers felt he was not.” This is certainly a cautionary point for leaders to not only be thoughtful, sympathetic, and humble, but to also put their egos aside, act with intelligence, and avoid impulsive actions. In doing so they can be moral exemplars for others to follow in times of crisis. Have our leaders acted this way?
(9) It is impossible to overlook that the Red Death assumed the form of a guest at a party. This guest is not something that we could describe, as we would describe a virus, as matter in motion governed by the laws of physics without purpose or morality. Indeed, the Red Death’s actions in the castle are quite purposeful and possibly even moral. Perhaps it is this perceived moral dimension that gives the reader a morbid satisfaction that justice has been done to these uncaring hedonists. Now, most of us will have a tough time taking Poe’s personification of the Red Death into our educated, scientific view of the world. His gothic romanticism is one in which the boundaries between what is human and non-human often break down in uncanny ways that threaten our scientific understanding of the world. Thus I would be remiss if, in presenting Poe, I didn’t at least offer a chilling possibility: maybe the forms of pestilence we encounter are not amoral mechanisms but purposeful powers out to destroy us – we who do so many terrible things to each other, to animals, and to the Earth. Again, it is hard, seemingly impossible, to take this claim seriously. But the terrifying personification, even if fictional, can certainly be used as a literary device to reveal things about ourselves we may not want to, but certainly should, see.
(10) Let me close with one thing we might want to see, something related to Poe’s story and its ability to entertain. It may have crossed your mind by now that I am overthinking Poe’s story. Isn’t it really just for entertainment? Well, even if Poe’s intention was to entertain it doesn’t follow that the work of art itself can’t contain information that outruns that intention. To think that a work of art’s meaning has to be reduced to the artist’s intentions is to commit what in aesthetics is referred to as the “intentional fallacy”. But let’s grant the point that the story is, for the most part, intended for entertainment. Then I think we should ask ourselves: why do we find a fictional account of a pandemic so entertaining? And could it be that much of the hysteria swirling around our actual pandemic is, for many people in our media saturated society, quite entertaining? Poe’s story, even when seen as entertainment, has the capacity to leave us with a troubling question we should all ask ourselves.
Read Poe’s story here.
For my six part series on the educational value of solitude, something relevant to our social distancing experiences with the coronavirus, go here.