Of the few Edgar Allen Poe stories I read in high school, The Masque of the Red Death was probably the most mysterious to the teenage mind. Looking back, I believe I lacked the life experience to fully understand the depths of the story; even in my adult years I only perceived some facets of it. Recently I revisited the tale and was fascinated by how relevant it is in 2021, especially as we’ve dealt with COVID-19 and the societal effects of our mitigation strategies.
Anyone can clearly see the similarity in the story and our reality of a pestilence in the land, the outbreak of a disease which terrifies even the most powerful as it sweeps through the population. However, the Red Death in the story is far more devastating, laying waste to half of the kingdom as its victims die in the most gruesome way.
What’s striking about the description of how those who are dying are dealt with by most is the fundamental lack of compassion as they’re kicked out of homes to die in the streets. It’s as if men’s hearts have waxed cold and they no longer have a shred of humanity left. As we’ve seen with the pandemic in 2020 into 2021, some people become mean, selfish, and vindictive when they feel everything is falling apart. This can be manifested in a variety of behaviors, including self-righteously.
The reaction of Prince Prospero to the situation is telling. Instead of encouraging his friends and those who have sworn fealty to him to help the population through a most difficult time, he has all of them retreat into a “castellated abbey” or a highly secure structure so they can celebrate their having seemingly escaped the horrors of the outside world. It’s curious that Poe mentions the prince has several of these structures. Some scholars have argued they’re symbolic of government or religion, which are signs of power and are walled off from the commoners. I would say in a more general sense they’re a symbol of the aloof, elitist, and disconnected nature of many leaders who bask in the kind words of the public when all is going well, but the moment things take a turn and they themselves must engage in some sort of true personal sacrifice to serve those they lead, those leaders instead flee to safety from the reality the people have no choice but to live through. We’ve seen this in 2020 and 2021 as different governors, mayors, members of their staff, etc. have been caught vacationing somewhere else or using forbidden services when they’ve actively prevented citizens from doing the same.
The fact the prince and his friends had the door to the abbey welded shut from the inside, not only to keep the commoners out but to also keep anyone in the structure from fleeing is also significant. After all, some feel there should be castes in society and the unanointed shouldn’t mix with the elite as a means to maintain social order. This prohibition works just as effectively on commoners trying to infiltrate elitists circles as the privileged mixing with those of lower stations.
As an aside, “prospero” in Latin means to prosper or succeed. That detail wasn’t deployed by Poe out of a mere whim – he was making a point. Immediately what comes to mind is irony: while the prince is successful in that he’s a ruler of a kingdom, something many would find enviable, he’s not prosperous in other ways. Obviously given to hedonism, his pursuit of pleasure and abdication of monarchical duties to his people in their desperate hour of need proves disastrous, becoming quite literally the exact opposite of prosperity.
Poe mentions this castellated abbey has been stocked with all means of entertainment to keep everyone inside feeling great and to distract them from the suffering world outside. Immediately, I thought of people shut up in their homes under order of the government as they streamed Netflix or engaged in other sedentary escapist activities to forget about the situation. Speaking of hedonism, it was this avoidance of pain or suffering, combined with the unfettered pursuit of pleasurable activities while avoiding the normal day-to-day responsibilities seemed to drive much of the enthusiasm when we were told to stay home.
That the celebrations in this structure took on a decadent tone isn’t surprising since it furthers the theme of hedonistic tendencies. Since we can overindulge out appetites at will as we live in the lap of luxury compared to what kind of existence people enjoyed even just a century ago, that has resulted in many making the focus of their existence pursuing pleasure, mistakenly perceiving that’s a vehicle to self-fulfillment and happiness.
Prospero told his guests to wear “grotesque” attire to the masquerade. The fact they were wearing masks as part of their attire made me chuckle since that’s unfortunately become a part of daily life for many. Even more interesting was the direction to wear raiment which would be repulsive under normal conditions. Not too long ago, I checked out the mall in Scottsdale with my daughter, since I hadn’t been there since my college days. If you don’t know, the mall in Scottsdale is a high-end luxury mall with all the brands which would impress people who care about that sort of a thing. For me and my daughter it was stomach-turning to see such opulence flaunted casually. On top of that, what was promoted as “fashion” was, in my opinion, grotesque. Throughout history, this has occurred among the elites or aristocracy of different societies as they indulge in increasingly bizarre trends, ostensibly to prove how much more sophisticated they are than the general populace. In reality, their attempts at being fashion-forward bear a striking resemblance with that tale of the emperor’s interesting new clothes and those who, in desperation of becoming part of the aristocracy or with the promise of receiving even a fraction of praise from those in a higher station, gush about how brilliant and amazing those fashions are. A more modern reference to this is found in The Hunger Games.
Just as has been the case with the pandemic, Prince Prospero’s attempt to create an alternate reality of decadence without a price was abruptly interrupted during the masquerade. When in life we try to behave as if things aren’t the way they truly are, eventually the situation builds to the point reality kicks in the front door and it assaults us, forcing us to deal with reality in all its awfulness. Reality not only was represented by Red Death itself treading into the party at the end of the story, it was also represented by the clock which interrupted the festivities every hour, reminding all the guests what they were engaging in was an unsustainable farce. Rather than face that reality as it encroached on their festivities, everyone chose to laugh the reminder off after each disturbing reminder. You can change how you refer to things and try to force others to do the same, but you cannot alter reality and the immutable laws which accompany it. To ignore the truthfulness of reality is to invite disaster.
With the perspective of world events in 2020 and 2021, I can never read The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe the same way again.
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