We Are Living (And Dying) in Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”

Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 tale “The Masque of the Red Death” is a story about class.  Poe’s tale contrasts the fates of rich and poor during a plague even more lethal than the coronavirus.  Poe’s characters—a thousand members of the aristocracy and their hangers-on—repair to one of the “crenellated abbeys” of the wealthy Prince Prospero.  Sealed within the abbey’s iron gates and high walls, they are confident that they are safe from the agonizing death which has killed half of the subjects of Prospero’s realm.

While the world outside dies, the aristocrats play:

The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure.  There were buffoons, there were improvisators, there were ballet dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine.  All these and security were within.  Without was the “Red Death.”

“Without,” but not for long.  The revelers soon receive a lesson in applied virology.  Prince Prospero’s abbey becomes a mausoleum for a thousand corpses.

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All we know about Prince Prospero is the little Poe tells us in his brief tale.  What’s Prospero’s backstory?  What did Prince Prospero do before he scuttled behind those (he thought) protective walls?  Did Prospero reassure his people that the plague was nothing to worry about before hastily unloading his stock portfolio?  That appears to be what at least four US senators did following a classified briefing on the coronavirus in January.  The four senators (Richard Burr (R-NC), Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)) dumped millions of dollars in stock before the market crashed in February.  In public, Burr and Loeffler echoed President Donald Trump’s assurances that the virus was “under control.”  National Public Radio, however, obtained a secret recording in which Senator Burr privately warns a select group of well-heeled constituents, including campaign donors, that the coronavirus was “much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history.  It is probably more akin to the 1918 [influenza] pandemic.”  The 1918 pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, 675,000 of them in the US.[1]

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The agent of destruction in “The Masque of the Red Death” is a grotesque figure who appears during the Prince’s masked ball at the chiming of midnight.  This visitant is “tall and gaunt” and “shrouded in the habiliments of the grave.”  His face, covered in the “scarlet stains” the Red Death leaves on its victims, is that of a “stiffened corpse.”  It is the Red Death, who has come for Prince Prospero and his guests.

A pile of dead rich people is definitely an unhappy ending from the standpoint of the 1%.  For the rest of us, it’s satisfying wish fulfillment.  We want these arrogant aristocrats to get their comeuppance—arrogant because they think they are above the death ravaging the “lesser” mortals outside the abbey’s walls.  Poe, who never had any money, and died in poverty at age 40, must have found it satisfying too.

Wish fulfillment, though, is all that the story’s climax is.  Today’s wealthy know better than to crowd together like Poe’s characters; that’s a recipe for disaster during an infectious disease pandemic.  We don’t know how large Prospero’s “crenellated abbey” is, but the action of the story takes place within the limited confines of seven “densely crowded” chambers, each lit in a different color—blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and scarlet (“a deep blood color”)—an effect Prospero has achieved with stained glass windows.

Today’s wealthy, by contrast, are adept at social distancing.  Consider David Geffen.  The billionaire music producer managed to piss off the entire online world when he posted an Instagram photo of his “isolation” in the Caribbean aboard his $590 million 454-foot superyacht.  (Geffen was “isolated” except for his 45-member crew.)  Within hours, Singer John Mayer captured Geffen’s excess in a catchy tune called “Drone Shot of My Yacht.”

Other affluent Americans escape to the apparent safety of the countryside, much to the annoyance of the locals.  BuzzFeed News observes that “The virus travels via people, and the people who travel the most, both domestically and internationally, are rich people.”  A modern Prince Prospero would have a second or third home in Telluride or Vail and would carry the coronavirus there.  (The seven chambers with their fancy stained windows would get a nice write-up in Architectural Digest.)

Many of the wealthy shelter comfortably in place, an easy thing to do when you don’t have to work.  Most people, though, do have to work.  What happens to them?

Some are lucky enough to be able to work from home.  However, working remotely isn’t an option for many Americans.  Farm laborers can’t work remotely.  “You can’t pick strawberries over Zoom,” says Lucas Zucker, who represents a farm workers’ advocacy group.  Blacks and Hispanics are the least able to work from home.

Americans who can’t work remotely face an agonizing choice between staying home and losing a paycheck or going into work and risking infection.  Right-wingers like radio host Glenn Beck who are urging that Americans go back to work don’t face this dilemma.  What does Beck care if ordinary people die?

We can’t expect a supernatural nemesis to save us.  Congress won’t either.  The coronavirus stimulus package—the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”)—which became law on March 27 primarily benefits corporations and the 1%.

We must look to workers.  Amazon workers successfully won paid time off for the 800,000 temporary workers at Amazon’s 75 warehouses (“fulfillment centers”) across the US—a right which was already guaranteed in Amazon’s employees’ manual, but was not honored by management.  Now workers from Amazon and other retailing giants like Instacart, Whole Foods, and McDonald’s are striking for protective gear, hygienic work spaces, and paid sick time off.  A general strike may be looming.

The bosses are scared.  Christian Smalls, an Amazon warehouse worker, was fired after leading a walkout at Amazon’s Staten Island “fulfillment center.”  Vice News obtained notes from a meeting of high-level Amazon executives, including CEO Jeff Bezos, which reveal that the company planned to smear Smalls as “not smart or articulate.”

The Prince Prosperos of today have more to fear than COVID-19.


[1]  Burr, incidentally, is one of only three senators to vote against the 2012 Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, which bars insider trading by members of Congress.


Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.