Reading Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’
By Nishi Pulugurtha
Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is a text that I have been teaching for some years now. Plague figures importantly in the text and is the reason why things move in the direction that they do leading on to the tragedy of Oedipus. This year as I have been reading the play and discussing various aspects of it, what strikes me most is the reference to an epidemic that is wreaking havoc in the lives of the citizens of Thebes. The resonance with our times, as we live through a pandemic that is affecting us in so many different ways, is constantly with me as I teach the text. This is not the only text from classical literature that deals with such an epidemic. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War too has references to the plague that wreak havoc in the lives of the people. Homer’s Iliad begins with a plague sent upon the Greek camp at Troy by Apollo to punish the Greeks for Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis. In The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio, set during the Black Death, ten people in isolation in a villa outside Florence take turns to tell stories of morality, love, sexual politics, trade and power. The stories offer the listeners and readers ways in which their lives have changed due to the epidemic.
I refer to these iconic texts to foreground my reading of a short story by Edgar Allen Poe – The Masque of the Red Death (1842). This story depicts the failures of authority figures to properly, adequately, and humanely respond to disease and disaster that afflict people. This is an all too familiar scenario in COVID-19 times. Poe named his fictional disease ‘Red’ death, possibly to differentiate it from ‘Black’ death, another name by which the plague that wreaked havoc in the fourteenth century was known. It also brings in allusions to deaths that marked plagues and other epidemics that ravaged the world many times. ‘Red’ death is also descriptive of the profuse bleeding that this disease in the story denotes. By describing the disease as mysterious and fatal, Poe increases the intensity of the horror of the disease that afflicts many.
The Masque of the Red Death begins with the news of a deadly disease, ‘Red Death’: “No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous.” This is how the symptoms of the disease are described in the story:
sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.
The Red Death causes bleeding from the pores that leads to death. Poe’s description of the disease that afflicts the people in this story is fictional, but the resonances with the world we live in at the moment and our reactions to what is happening around us are remarkable.
The protagonist in the story, Prince Prospero is, however, not moved by all these happenings. He decides to close his castle to the common people of his kingdom. Only about a thousand of his friends, those belonging to the rich and noble classes would be allowed into his castle at a time when there is suffering and destruction causing devastation in the world beyond his castle.
When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.
His castle is out of bounds to those who contract the illness. The rich and influential are protected from the disease, but those stranded outside are left to suffer and die. It is with this idea that Prince Prospero gathers his courtiers and the aristocracy into a secluded and luxurious abbey. He orders for the gates to be welded shut so that no one but those whom he decides on can be inside. And then he hosts a masked ball:
With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure.
The epidemic rages and kills the poor who are left outside to fend for themselves. It is almost six months that the prince and the nobility have been able to avoid the contagion. As Prospero decides to celebrate with his friends within the sealed confines of the abbey, the disease suddenly invades this safe sanctuary and kills everyone.
Outside the abbey, once an infected person exhibits symptoms, the others “shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.” It is ironic that that the death rate is the highest in the abbey as all those confined inside die, while only half of those left outside do.
The ball that Prince Prospero arranges is held in seven different coloured rooms of the abbey. The first six rooms are blue, purple, green, orange, white, and violet respectively. The last room is black and is lit by a red light, “a deep blood colour”, a light that is cast from the stained-glass windows. It is these colours that endow an ominous look to this room and it is because of this that very few guests are brave enough to venture into this seventh room, the last one. The room has a large ebony clock that chimes each hour, adding to the eeriness associated with the room. When it chimes, everyone stops talking or dancing and the orchestra stops playing, too: “while the chimes of the clock yet rang it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation.” When the chiming stops, everyone again resumes the masquerade.
At midnight, the revellers and Prospero notice a figure in a dark, blood-splattered robe that look like a funeral shroud:
In such a group as this, only a very strange masquerader could have caused such a feeling. Even among those who laugh at both life and death, some matters cannot be laughed at. Everyone seemed now deeply to feel that the stranger should not have been allowed to come among them dressed in such clothes. He was tall and very thin, and covered from head to foot like a dead man prepared for the grave.
Angered at this sudden entry of an unwelcome guest, Prospero demands to know the identity of this mysterious figure so that he could be dealt with. The other guests are afraid to approach the figure and let him pass through all the rooms: “The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat.” The Prince pursues him with a dagger and finally accosts the figure in the seventh room. As the figure turns to face him, Prince Prospero lets out a cry and falls dead. The enraged and terrified guests rush to the black room and remove the mask and robe of this intruder to find, to their horror, that there was nothing underneath. All the guests contract the disease and succumb to it, “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion overall.”
“The Masque of the Red Death” follows many traditions of the Gothic genre – the setting of the story in a castle, the eerie feeling that lingers, the element of the supernatural and the ominous. The story is also often read as an allegory about the inevitability of death, though many critics question such a reading as Poe disapproved of didacticism in literature. As one reads the story, two important ideas surface, ideas that find resonance in the times we are in: the impossibility of subverting the ends of nature and the way those in power and authority behave.
Although Prospero’s castle is meant to keep the sickness out, it is ultimately an oppressive structure. Its maze-like design and tall and narrow windows become even more bizarre in the final black room, and so very oppressive that “there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.” The castle is an enclosed space, yet the stranger is able to sneak inside, signifying the idea that trying to control everything in life is an illusion.
First published in April 1842 in Graham’s Magazine, the name of the protagonist in “The Masque of the Red Death” has an association with prosperity. The name also recalls Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Prince Prospero in Poe’s story, like Prospero in Shakespeare’s play, is cut off from others; he secludes himself within the confines of his abbey. Both characters are thereby insulated in smaller places, places they control and have power over. However, this seclusion in Poe’s story is disturbed by the twist when a masked visitor barges in and kills all. Prospero’s lines from The Tempest ring out to us as we read Poe’s story:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. (Act IV, scene I, ll. 148-158)
What is interesting to note about texts that deal with epidemics/pandemics is that there seems to be an inherent similarity about the human response to it. Prince Prospero in Poe’s short story exploits his power and wealth and decides to shield himself and his friends. It is soon proven that no one can escape disease and death. In the presentation of the feudal hierarchy in the story, Poe also points out to the unfairness of the feudal system that is so very divisive. It is interesting to note that at the time of composition of the story, Poe’s wife Virginia had been suffering from tuberculosis, an incurable disease in those times. The original title of the story was “The Mask of the Red Death: A Fantasy” but three years later Poe changed the title. Perhaps he wanted to highlight the significance of the “masquerade” that is so central to the story. As many feasted, the plague that ravaged Europe in the fourteenth century actually wiped out entire towns. Boccaccio in The Decameron writes about how some people believed that one way to deal with the Black Death, as the plague was called, was to hide and feast.
In The Plague, Albert Camus writes, “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” Poe and, in different ways, Camus and other writers depict the fear and the destruction that are so much a part of any epidemic. Living in an era when we are in the throes of one, these resonances are uncanny.
Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Penguin, 1980
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Masque of the Red Death” https://www.poemuseum.org/the-masque-of-the-red-death
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. The Arden Shakespeare (3rd edition), eds. Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, Bloomsbury Publishing India Private Limited, New Delhi, 2011 (rev. edn.).
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor, Department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College, Kolkata. Her areas of interest are British Romantic literature, Indian writing in English, diaspora literature and Shakespeare adaptations in film. She has published papers in refereed international and national journals and books. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of travel essays, Out in the Open (2019). She guest edited the June 2018 issue of Café Dissensus on Travel: Cities, Places, People. Her recent book is an edited volume of essays on travel, Across and Beyond (2020) and a volume of poems The Real and The Unreal and Other Poems (2020). She also writes short stories and on Alzheimer’s Disease. She is Secretary of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library, Kolkata.
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