Edgar Allen Poe – “The Masque of the Red Death”
Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” like many of his gothic tales, is concerned with the aristocracy of the old country. As the story opens, the red death is spilling over the countryside causing symptoms such as “sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores.” Juxtaposed against this grim depiction, Poe introduces the only character with a proper name: “But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious.” In the midst of a national pandemic, Prospero has locked the castle gates in an attempt to form a damn between him and the waves of the red death, and the prince even plans a gaudy gala for the occasion.
Of course, because this is a gothic tale, things do not end well for Prince Prospero. After one of Poe’s typically phantasmagoric description of the prince’s seven chambers – each chamber is lit through different colored stained glass and decorated in a similar color scheme – the author introduces us to the decadent fashions of Prospero’s guests: “There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.” Throughout the evening a pendulum driving clock marks the passage of each hour so loudly that the band playing must stop until the bells have finished their toll. This carnival of the grotesque is interrupted by a lone figure whose costume far and away exceeded that of the party goers, or, in the words of Poe, the intruder “out-Heroded Herod.” When he finally summons the courage, Prospero lunges towards this party crasher but quickly falls dead on the floor. The other partiers rip at the intruder’s garb only to discover that the pieces of cloth covered no tangible form underneath, and then they too succumb to the affects of the red death.
Poe’s story deals with themes important to the new American democracy, particularly the anxiety over the old world’s titled aristocracy and whether that aristocracy exists in the United States under a different name. Prospero’s attempt to shield himself from the outside world is indicative of a society built on two tiers. Prospero assumes the atrocities outside his walled castle have no bearing on what goes on behind those walls. Natural law does not apply to Prospero and his guests. Nature, as suggested by the loud incessant clock, eventually catches up to each of, and the same is true of Prospero and his aristocratic friends. Death is the ultimate democracy because it is the only true assurance of equality. The theme of a masque suggests Bactin’s concept of carnival, whereby the natural order of society is upturned. Indeed, while Prince Prospero believes himself above those who must suffer the red death, he finds himself mired in the same bloody death as the peasantry.
Much of Edgar Allen Poe’s story seems timely today. It is easy to think back to Prince Prospero when you hear about billion dollar ponzi schemes, business men faking their own death and banks receiving taxpayer funds with little asked, while homeowners are being chastised for lack of personal responsibility. As Prospero’s name suggests, the real difference between the aristocrat and those suffering an agonizing death outside of his castle isn’t the title of Prince but rather the acquisition of wealth. There is a reason Poe’s story would have resonated in a country without such titles, and that is the fear that the double tier of prosperity still existed. And of course it did. There is more than a little catharsis found in “The Masque of the Red Death,” and I challenge anyone not to root for the red death just a little. Of course, catharsis can only go so far. What the United States needs now is a complete re-imagining of our economy so that no matter one’s class, the aristocracy cannot profit while the rest of us vacillate outside their wall.