“And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all” is the line that famously ends Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” a story that has been resurfacing again and again lately. On March 10, in a letter to the New York Times, a reader said that one article about the wealthy’s response to the virus reminded her of the story’s prince, partying in an abbey while destruction reigns outside. In response to a Guardian piece headlined “Super-Rich Jet Off to Disaster Bunkers Amid Coronavirus Outbreak,” Twitter user @lyon_laurel wrote, “The attentive reader may be reminded of the Edgar Allen Poe story, The Masque of the Red Death. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for the self-isolating super-rich.” And last week, to make up for the fact that the final concert of her world tour was canceled, Amanda Palmer livestreamed an event in an empty church in Wellington, New Zealand. Her husband, the author Neil Gaiman, read “Red Death” at the pulpit.
In “The Masque of the Red Death,” a gruesomely masked guest inexplicably crashes the apocalyptic soiree and is eventually revealed to be the plague itself personified, killing the prince and his fellow revelers alike. As a historic pandemic further highlights the economic and social disparities in societies around the world, Poe’s story underlines how the selfish, limited purview of entitled members of a society more concerned about comfort and capital during a disaster only causes more destruction. In the end, no one gets out alive.
It’s easy to read “Red Death,” which was published in 1842, as a morality tale, though some critics resist it, insisting that Poe was simply interested in telling a horror story. Perhaps that’s true, but here Poe’s definition of horror extends beyond the gruesome presentation of the disease itself. After opening the story with a grotesque description of its symptoms (“bleeding at the pores,” “scarlet stains,” and various other nightmarish Romero-style affects), he strikes us with a gauche contrast: “But Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious.” More important than the image of the foolish prince hidden away in his castle is the society he represents, one in which the privileged are insulated from the biological reality of the sickness outside the abbey’s walls, or at least believe themselves to be.
In Poe’s story, the outside world appears as a distant fiction, one we have no occasion to imagine beyond the briefest mentions. The people are absent, and their deaths are only mentioned dismissively, with no reckoning of the human loss. Poe casually refers to Prince Prospero’s “dominions” being “half depopulated,” before launching into an account of the prince’s invitation to his friends to join him in seclusion. The bloodless fraction echoes the growing insistence, from the White House on down, that it’s worth risking a small percentage of American lives in order to get the economy moving again.
This isolated framing of an emergency, the close-quarters perspective that values dramatic and ornate circumstances while turning away from the larger societal ramifications, is as much of a horror as the Red Death itself. In the economy of crisis, industries often supersede individuals—though recessions (like the one we’re inevitably facing) have more vulnerable casualties who aren’t as able to bounce back. The administration’s approach to the crisis has gone from laissez-faire to willful tunnel vision, and has advanced to the point now where it’s actively arguing that it’s worth risking the lives of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, to keep the economy afloat—not that the people making those suggestions plan to be anywhere near the front lines. An administration that ushers people back to work during a global health emergency, risking its population for a financial bounce back while also denying its citizens basic access to care, is a disgraceful representation of an American politics hypothetically versed in high standards of equality and justice. Like Poe’s revelers, our leaders will stay safe inside while the less fortunate suffer elsewhere: “All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death.’ ”
The pandemic has highlighted the fact that the ability to either draw borders—whether between nations or individuals—or reject them is a matter of privilege. Prince Prospero has the means to isolate himself and a thousand of his BFFs for months; similarly, many of us also have the privilege to define the means of our isolation for the sake of our own health. We may be able to work from home and hoard bread and toilet paper, or, if we’re young and medically sound, we may be confident in our advantaged state of health. Like Poe’s prince, in New York, the wealthy and able have been fleeing their Manhattan penthouses to shelter at their Hamptons summer homes, hoping to outrun the ’rona. But even beyond the commonly referenced high-risk individuals like the elderly and the immunocompromised, there is a whole stratum of citizens disadvantaged and at risk for various other reasons of circumstance: the disabled, the pregnant, the people in “essential” jobs like grocery store clerks and hospital staff, young children, and the incarcerated, like the inmates at the densely packed and populated Rikers Island, where confirmed infections continue to grow. If Trump pushes on with the plan to allow people back to work in a matter of weeks, many will be forced to go in, because the alternative would put them in a position where they could not seek medical care if they did get sick.
What Poe created in “The Masque of the Red Death” was not simply a disease but a monster, a terror once rooted to the host and now divorced from anything human, anything material at all. We have given other diseases form, condensed them to an image: a child with a distended belly or a young man covered in pox. The horror, like the masked guest in Prospero’s party, is suddenly identifiable. We see it and empathize with the victims; the disease becomes real. Our tale of the coronavirus is missing this image and scope. It is either everywhere or nowhere, depending on how privileged you are, how much your circumstances can allow you to dismiss it as fearmongering or simply irrelevant to your life. But whether we acknowledge the masked guest at the party or not, the end of Poe’s story still holds true. A society that opts for blind privilege is nothing but a party of fools, unaware that the disease is very much present, both outside and in.