Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Red Death’ in the Times of Coronavirus

Global events often influence pop culture in some way or the other, and the recent coronavirus outbreak is no different. It’s not surprising that Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 medical thriller film Contagion has surged in popularity, climbing up the charts of digital streaming platforms.

In case you are more inclined towards literature, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death, published in 1842, could be an excellent pick.

This macabre tale starts with the advent of a deadly disease called ‘Red Death’. Its symptoms include,

“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… And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.”

Sounds familiar? Not really. Poe’s description may be entirely fictional, but it is the behaviour of the story’s characters that resonate most with what is happening across the world today.

The central character, Prince Prospero, decides that barring a thousand-odd friends among the nobility and the rich, his castle would be closed off to those who contract the illness. In short, those with resources would be protected from the disease, but those stranded outside would be left to possibly die.

Also read: How Hollywood Films Portray Virus Outbreaks

Now that sounds familiar, right?

Every few years, the world witnesses an outbreak in some part of the world which threatens to claim thousands of lives across the globe. In the last two decades, we have seen outbreak of viruses such as SARS, H1N1 (swine flu), Ebola and so on.

This time around, the spotlight is on the COVID-19.

But how have leaders responded to the situation?

In China’s Hubei province, Xi Jinping’s regime initially tried to suppress the gravity of the situation in Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus outbreak. Reuters reported that though the symptoms of the disease first appeared around December 8 last year, China started reporting the number of cases only on December 31. Till date, more than 120,000 people have been affected by the virus across the globe.

The containment could have begun much earlier had the Chinese government not waited for so long to take the matter seriously. But they did and what we have on our hands now is a pandemic.

In Poe’s story, the masked intruder (who symbolises Death) descends upon a gala organised by the Prince, where the words of James Shirley’s ‘Death the Leveller’ come true:

“There is no armour against Fate; Death lays his icy hand on kings”.

This was evident in the UK and Iran, where even cabinet ministers tested positive.

German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said that the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history. Perhaps that is where the timeless appeal of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ lies – it resonates even today because those up above refuse to mend their ways.

Abhinav Chakraborty is a student of print journalism at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

Featured image credit: Sebastian Stam/Unsplash