What Poe Would Have Thought About Covid-19
The subjective nature of symbolism and how it manifests through emotions
Precedent gives us comfort in a crisis, and the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic is by and large the most unprecedented global issue humans have faced in a very long time. This pandemic soft-pedals the uncertainty that ensued during events like 9/11, World War 1 and the Black Plague. Precedent existed in those crises … terrorists have brought fear to U.S. soil in the past, wars have waged since the dawn of man and villages in the Middle Ages might as well have been waiting for something else to kill them if not Bubonic Plague. But never before has a modern, hyper-connected world like the one we live in today existed as a stage for a virus of such infectious capabilities to completely steamroll it. And yet, we are still willing to dish out criticism in mass towards anyone who crosses a fickle and imperceptible line.
I will not pretend to be some medical expert or socio-political genius, but I do a lot of reading and I believe more precedent does in fact exist to be used to our advantage at this juncture of history. Not in some tangible or inductive way, but more ethereally. One of the best places to better understand this notion is in the works of the late Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe’s body of work is often perceived as wholly melancholic; a perfect sample for an insightful case study into the concept of mortal life and the ways we approach such a daunting idea as conscious, civilized beings. In such regard, Poe’s work could almost be considered a test of one’s character … though, a test with highly-debatable outcomes.
One work stands out amongst the rest as a short story with a debatable moral lesson that bears a near perfect resemblance to the current pandemic’s effects in society; “The Masque of the Red Death”. The story is one of Poe’s most famous attempts to exemplify the negative outcomes of hiding away from and ignoring unstoppable forces of nature, which consequently reveals truly sobering yet hidden layers of ourselves that we frequently try to forget exist.
Chris Semtner has been the curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Poe’s childhood town of Richmond Virginia for upwards of 20 years. Though a deep fanatic for Poe, Semtner used to work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art before making a leap from his normal realm of experiences and taking the reins at a literary museum.
“Poe’s work has stuck with me over the years ever since grade school,” Semtner said. “Along the way I really got interested in different artists and writers, often to find out they were inspired by Poe, like Rene Magritte or Salvador Dali.”
This is why Semtner took the job and left his comfort zone. Poe’s legacy is such a rich one that doing so made it worth the risk. Whether it be authors or film directors, Poe’s ideas still transcend not only genres and eras of art, but mediums of it as well.
“Kurt Vonnegut, Frank Kafka … even Alfred Hitchcock,” Semtner said. “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once said that Poe basically invented the mystery novel.”
“The Masque of the Red Death” was published in 1842 while Poe was working as an editor for the obscure Graham’s Magazine. Though bleak and dreary, the story sticks with many readers because it is also deeply pensive and weighing on the mind.
“Poe is really tapping into some fundamental fear that people have of this plague and how to escape it,” Semtner said. “But, in the end, it’s all inevitable … you can’t escape it.”
The story is set in a nondescript country that is ruled by a wealthy and wanton Prince named Prospero. A harrowing illness, named the Red Pestilence, is ravaging this country and killing its victims within half an hour by intense pains and profuse bleeding from every orifice. Prospero takes it upon himself to flee from the worst of things with a thousand other elites to a distant and uncanny manor, which Poe meticulously describes as consisting of many winding hallways and only seven rooms. The seventh and final room is all black, save for its red stained windows, and it houses a spooky grandfather clock. The room’s atmosphere is so eerie that no partygoer will dare enter it.
One night, Prospero throws an extravagant masquerade ball. As each hour passes, the clock chimes and the partygoers — even the band — are frightened to the point of being momentarily frozen in mortal fear, but every time they laugh off their fright and swiftly return to partying. Once midnight arrives however, the clock chimes for an unsettlingly long time and the partygoers notice a new guest has arrived: a tall figure in a crimson hood and mask that resembles a mangled corpse. This figure’s presence infuriates Prospero, and he demands the person under the hood be arrested. But, the figure then begins to walk through each room as the crowd, too terrified to act upon Prospero’s enraged demands, makes a path for him. Finally, Prospero grabs a dagger to slay the menacing entity, only to drop dead from Red Pestilence as he approaches the hooded figure. The crowd then attacks the hooded figure, only to realise there is nothing underneath, and the story ends with every last partygoer succumbing to the plague.
Though this abridged synopsis may cause “The Masque of the Red Death” to sound purely cynical, the story was actually catharsis for Poe. It was a response to the 1832 Cholera Pandemic that affected the entire planet, similarly in fashion to the current pandemic caused by an outbreak in a novel strain of Coronavirus that has been named “Covid-19” by researchers.
The previously unheard of virus, with an estimated basic reproduction number (R0) of 2.2, originated in Wuhan, China in 2019. Though the Cholera outbreak Poe survived was far from the world’s first, the one in question began in Asia (India being what most experts speculate) around 1829. It gradually spread across the globe to reach places like Russia, much of Europe and the Americas, leaving the global economy in shambles and hundreds of thousands of people dead in its wake. And just to twist the knife a bit more, Cholera has an estimated R0 of 2.72, but that is basically irrelevant information in a time period when germ theory did not yet exist!
Cholera is a disease that, at least in Poe’s time, has the capability to kill an infected human within hours. This factor alone strongly proposes a resemblance between Poe’s fictional Red Pestilence and Cholera; the very presence of both ailments acted as horrid and time-constraining pressures on those of any place to see an outbreak.
“New York City had about 300,000 people back then and it’s estimated that up to 100,000 people fled the city,” Semtner said. “They had no idea what was causing the illness, and pretty soon they started noticing that it was worse in poorer areas of cities. So, the idea became ‘maybe it’s the poor, sinful people, or maybe immigrants.’ This idea of fleeing and trying to shut yourself away from everything else was something they were even doing during other times of plague.”
Many readers of “The Masque of the Red Death”, if not for all of Poe’s works, get caught up on a speed bump composed of this same issue. It is unclear if the main character of the story, Prince Prospero, could be considered a protagonist or antagonist, and Poe’s intention to mistify this topic subsequently causes many readers to miss the point.
Dr. Gregory Donovan, a professor of creative writing and poetry at Virginia Commonwealth University, concurs with this belief.
“The first impression you might have when reading [the story] is that it’s an allegory about how the rich, the privileged, and the powerful may feel that they can gladly take themselves off to a safe sanctuary, isolating themselves from an epidemic,” Donovan said. “But despite their assumptions and their wealth, the disease will find its way to those privileged ones just as it does to everyone else.”
Prospero is not a character to be so easily passed off. His character is often interpreted as one meant altogether to represent the upper echelons of society. But Poe notoriously rejected the idea of needing concrete symbolism in works of art. Prospero more or less serves as a framework that can be occupied by people from all walks of life.
“Poe was growing up in Richmond during a time of collapse for the southern aristocracy,” Semtner said. “One way to look at Masque of the Red Death is Prince Prospero finally giving away to the inevitability of time and death.”
It is undeniable that Poe harked on his own memories of the Cholera pandemic to lend the appropriate imagery to Masque of the Red Death. According to Semtner, there was a similar masquerade ball that occurred in Paris as a response to the pandemic, which was reported on by one of Poe’s journalist acquaintances, Nathanial Parker Willis.
“The people of Paris were absolutely terrified of the outbreak,” Semtner said. “[Willis] once wrote about a big party they were throwing at the Paris Opera House [during the pandemic]. People figured ‘well, we’re dying anyway, so we might as well party.’ It was reprinted back in the states, so it’s likely that Poe read about it and had some inspiration.”
But Poe had other sources for inspiration as well, no shortage in fact. Poe is notable for leading a life plagued with misfortune, often at the hand of a plague. Poe’s grandmother and mother’s first husband both died in a Yellow Fever epidemic during the 1790s, according to Semtner. Poe’s mother passed away from tuberculosis, the same disease that also took the life of the man’s first wife.
Poe seemed to have a fascination with the idea of life’s inevitably finite nature. One of the strongest frames for a writer to help build this idea off of is with the conflict type of man vs. nature; the mortal vs. the plague, in Poe’s case.
“King Pest” is another short story of Poe’s that is set in an age where a plague ravages the world, although the ailment in question is almost certainly meant to be the real Bubonic Plague.
“Many of these stories would have been seen as in-bad-taste during that time,” Semtner said. “Robert Lewis Stevens, who was suffering from tuberculosis at the time, even said ‘whoever wrote [King Pest] has ceased to be human.’”
“King Pest” relates to “The Masque of the Red Death” quite well because they both recount similar scenes. In “King Pest”, two sailors arrive in a deserted city and happen upon a small gathering of six hideously decrepit people. A self-proclaimed king (King Pest) orders the two sailors to drink two gallons of beer. When the sailors reject the order, a heavy brawl ensues which ends in the room being flooded with liquor, drowning the king and several others. Though less on-the-nose than “The Masque of the Red Death”, “King Pest” touches on the way we as humans behave when faced with an issue that threatens our right to live in an impossible to ignore way.
“Poe may have been looking around and asking ‘how do people react when these things happen?’” Semtner said.
The wellspring of untimely deaths in Poe’s life provided him with the ability to masterfully penetrate elusive morals and themes in his writing. But this is only half of what made Poe so iconic, because the way he presented these very motifs were so eloquently vague that the meaning of his stories usually become intentionally subjective.
“Poe helped define what modernism is,” Semtner said. “He was saying that no longer should art have to teach you something or be a lesson. Art should eliminate didacticism and not try to educate people, it should be just for the emotional impact.”
“The Masque of the Red Death” is no exception to this trend in Poe’s practice. In fact, the story is a prominent example from Poe’s collection of this innovative technique.
“He probably had something in mind, but he kept it vague enough to let the story function on different levels,” Semtner said. “It’s easy to get caught up on the seven rooms alone. There are so many different interpretations … what do those colors mean? What is the purpose of the number seven? Poe leaves it open.”
Poe has a long list of stories and poems that follow this ethos. One such example would be “The Conqueror Worm”, a five stanza poem that recounts an audience of cynical angels watching a play of “madness, sin and horror”, wherein the actors are described as puppet-like mimes. By the climax of the poem, the proclaimed “Conquerer Worm” appears on stage and begins devouring the mimes, until they are all gone and the crowd of angels concede that the play is a tragic allegory for man and mortal life.
“The Conquerer Worm” reinforces the aforementioned ethos of Poe’s work; that certain things in life are inevitable, and the wheel in the sky holds no favor towards anyone. Though this may sound disheartening, especially when cast against Poe’s equally-disheartening life story, there exists an ephemeral layer of hope in this and other works of his that appear to most readers as wholly melancholic.
“We’re really just pawns, whether it’s the Red Death or the Conquerer Worm,” Semtner said. “It makes us feel small when we read these types of works. These plagues and pandemics are much bigger than we are and no matter how wealthy Prince Prospero is or what precautions he took, it still comes after him.”
Indeed. Because in Masque of the Red Death, not even the prosperous and popular Prince Prospero could escape the grip of the Red Pestilence. Prospero’s foolhardy and cocky attempts to ignore the plague is ultimately what brings about his death.
“Prospero defied the plague, to the point of throwing a big costume party and shutting everyone else to die outside,” Semtner said. “He’s almost making a mockery of it.”
The very last words of Masque of the Red Death are as follows: “And darkness and decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” Poe did not believe that the artificially constructed facets of civilized society would ever prove to be adequate safeguards from inevitable happenings in life. Nor did he believe that every plague is an end-of-the-world scenario or even an inherit symbolic representation for the idea that everyone has the same odds of dying from it … not even the Red Pestilence.
To put it plainly, Poe seems to have believed that if you don’t die — or have some other form of life-changing moment — today, tomorrow could also be the day. The chance for unexpected and drastic alterations in life will always exist, and thinking any tangible object or concept will protect you from that truth is a fool’s errand.
This is what makes Masque of the Red Death so pertinent to the current Covid-19 pandemic. The clock in the seventh room, one of many open-ended symbols, is probably the most face value adumbration in the story. It verifies how Poe used his signature approach of unrestricted symbolism to cement his fascination with inevitable life circumstances. As Donovan points out, one could easily see the metaphor of each chime of the clock as an eerie echo to the way we all approach that unshakable fear of becoming one of the many victims of Covid-19. If the clock’s longer chimes be what brings this realization to the forefront of the partygoers minds, then the transition of Covid-19 from a Chinese epidemic to a global pandemic be the real world’s clock chimes.
“Such news awakens us to the frightening reality of our own time passing and how we are unavoidably going to one day meet our own demise,” Donovan said. “Yet, that intensity of realization also passes so that we re-enter our lives and carry on with the dreamlike illusion that we are not going to die, even though we know perfectly well that idea is an illusion.”
In “The Masque of the Red Death”, the crowd of partygoers and its agents find themselves startled every hour at the chime of a grandfather clock located in a black-colored room. But, each time they briskly return to their debauchery, seemingly unfazed. When the clock finally strikes midnight and chimes for much longer, they are left unnerved for long enough to finally look around and notice the ominous, crimson robed figure; they’ve finally noticed the inevitability of their mortal natures until it is too late.
“Poe seems always to have had in mind that his tales of mystery and horror should remind us all of these very old and completely inescapable truths,” Donovan said. “That we should value what is actually precious and yet which must, nevertheless, always be fleeting.”
I think we should not be so eager to jump on Vanessa Hudgens’ back for saying it’s “inevitable” that “a lot of people are going to die [from Covid-19].” And I also think we should not be so eager to assume Poe had a fascination with the concept of inevitability only in the context of death and not life as a whole.
Oftentimes, those who would be considered “fringe” to the majority of people end up being the ones who become immortalized down the winding road of history. Poe lived in squander his whole life, and it wasn’t until after he died that his ideas changed the course of art history across a multitude of mediums. I’m not saying that Vanessa Hudgens is going to be the next Edgar Allan Poe; if anything, Hudgens is merely a mark on a long list of creators who were happensantially influenced by Poe simply due to their respective passions to create.
But, her case lends itself well to the story’s point, as well as those in a great deal of Poe’s other works. The point is that there is no point; life and death are inevitable, and what actually matters is not wealth, objects, power or any other human construct. What matters is the only thing that is real to us as humans, yet can never be described with perfect wording: our emotions.
For Poe, that is why he wrote the way he did; for the emotion, the passion. He did this because he knew — as abstract as emotions are — they are real. They are what make us capable of achieving anything. Without them, we would have no means or reasons to come together as conscious beings and form a society. Without our emotions, we would have no ability to fear death — or, as Donovan calls it “the Great Leveler” — and ultimately, not want to do something when many others unexpectedly meet their ends.
When the possibility of death is drastically heightened — regardless of if that be due to a world war, a conquering worm or a microscopic virus — forgetting that veracity is the true viral killer.