“The Masque of the Red Death,” COVID-19, and the Aesthetics of Safety

 

Julia Dauer

Saint Mary's College

 

     Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842) describes a deadly plague sweeping through Prince Prospero’s kingdom.  As the plague intensifies, Prospero takes a thousand of his closest friends “to the deep seclusion of one of his crenellated abbeys” to wait it out – and party.  Six months in, Prospero throws “a masked ball of the most unusual significance” in his magnificently colored personal apartments.  Late in the ball, a tall, gaunt figure appears dressed as the Red Death itself and proceeds through the chambers, methodically killing the prince and all those present. This unhappy story illustrates the ways spatial seclusion and aesthetic cues can contribute to feelings of safety in a time of plague, but also how quickly such apparent safety can unravel.[1]

     In March 2021, while many colleges and universities were still offering classes online, I stood in my classroom teaching “The Masque of the Read Death.”  I myself was masked, and I looked out at masked students, their desks spaced six feet apart.  Prospero’s abbey, a carefully protected retreat from illness, seemed to hover around us in the room.  In early 2021, Poe’s depiction of the abbey in a time of plague felt all too real.[2]  Last spring, I found my students eager to consider, with Poe, the many ways illness can transform the spaces in which people live, work, gather, celebrate, and die.  The story’s spaces helped us see our own surroundings and their pandemic transformations anew.  

     I taught “Masque” in a Literature and Medicine class, in a unit on contagion and cure.  When we arrived at Poe’s story, we’d been moving across the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries for several weeks, so students were prepared to engage with the story’s historical context and ornate language.  I told my students I’d had to physically draw the layout of Prospero’s abbey to understand it.  I encouraged them to do the same and to think about possible connections to the spaces of COVID-19.  

     Before we dug in, I introduced my students to the idea of an “aesthetics of safety.”  This phrase helped us think about the cues, features, arrangements, and practices designed to communicate that an environment or situation is “safe.” I like this term because it can describe both the cues that indicate health precautions are in place (like arrows on the floor or “masks required” signs) and the role of the beautiful in producing a sense of safety (the idea of a stylish, stately enclave protected from harm).  In Poe’s story, the abbey is an “extensive and magnificent structure” whose iron gates are bolted shut after the arrival of the guests, visibly performing the abbey’s status as a protected space.  But the “deep seclusion” of the abbey is not the only thing that makes it feel safe.  Life at the abbey is characterized by “the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste” and its display.  Within the abbey, the opulence of Propsero’s furnishings, the lavish attire of the guests, and the stream of constant amusements reinforce the idea that this place is a world unto itself, cordoned off from the plague outside its walls.  As Poe puts it, “there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine.”  And while readers are likely filled with foreboding long before the text’s conclusion, Propsero clings to both the physical security of his abbey and the power of his taste, “bid[ding] defiance to contagion” right up until the Red Death stalks through the brightly colored chambers of his hall.  

     At the masked ball itself, the style of the guests’ dress and surroundings, which might contribute to an assurance that they are proceeding in a protected bubble, careen in the opposite direction.  The opulence of the event turns horrific, intensifying unease as the figure of the Red Death arrives on the scene.  “Masque” makes it clear that these features are unstable, as they are quickly turned on their heads by a breach in physical boundaries and a violation of decorum.

     In “Masque,” the roles of class and political privilege in producing safety are obvious.  As my students and I extended our conversation to consider the story’s nineteenth-century contexts and contemporary resonance, we also considered the ways race, gender, and sexuality intersect with and shape access to safety.[3]  Prior to “Masque,” we’d read Richard Allen and Absalom Jones’s A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People of Philadelphia during the Late Awful Calamity of 1793, which focuses on the experiences of Black nurses during a major yellow fever epidemic.  Linking Poe’s text to Allen and Jones helped foreground Prospero’s self-appointed position as a white sovereign leveraging his power to decrease his vulnerability to illness.  Fleeing, as we had already discussed, is what rich people – especially rich white people – often do in times of crisis.

     With these ideas in mind, we tackled Poe’s setting, mapping Prospero’s ostensibly safe space.  I projected monochromatic slides on a large screen, moving us through the blue, purple, green, orange, white, and violet chambers of Prospero’s hall and into the red-windowed black room at its end.  The slide show gave us an experience of Prospero’s chambers, which my students described as weird, creepy, secluded, and opulent – an over-the-top mansion still shaken by flashes of fear.  

     Once we had a shared understanding of the twisted rooms and burning braziers of Prospero’s apartments, we used Sari Altschuler’s “The Gothic Origins of Global Health” to contextualize the story’s representation of a pandemic.  As Altschuler shows, Poe’s colored rooms draw on the visual cures commonly associated with nineteenth-century cholera outbreaks.   When the masked figure of the Red Death arrives, he shows up in the “eastern or blue chamber,” whose blue windows cast their light over partygoers.  Altschuler argues that nineteenth-century readers would have likely connected these bodies cast in blue light to “popular descriptions of cholera’s effects,” applying their knowledge about contemporary illness to the story (566).  This interpretation gives a clear example of the ways an aesthetic element like color might contribute to or undermine feelings of safety: blue light might call up cholera and its rapid, deadly progress, encouraging readers to connect the Red Death to a real and equally terrifying illness.  

     In 1842, Poe had plenty of reasons to explore fantasies of isolation, sociality, and plague, among them the global cholera pandemic of 1832.  The pandemic brought cholera to the U.S. and marked the beginning of decades of cholera resurgence across the country, including in the East Coast cities where Poe lived and worked.  The bloody emissions caused by the fictional Red Death also resonate with tuberculosis, of which several members of Poe’s family died.  Those suffering with tuberculosis often coughed up blood, which calls to mind with the “scarlet marks upon the body” that are the hallmarks of the Red Death.  

     In addition to reflecting these illnesses, “Masque” contributes to Poe’s obsession with pollution and bodily deterioration more broadly.  Poe’s fictions often dramatize the instability of white male power in the 1830s and 1840s, and the particular focus on blood in “Masque” connects with concerns about secret racial genealogies hidden in the blood and the fragility of racial categories themselves.  As Colin Dayan puts it, Poe’s fantasy of bloody bodies contributes to “an analytics of blood that ushered in a complex of color: the ineradicable stain, the drop that could not be seen but must be feared.”[4]  Prospero’s failed attempt to contain disease thus reflects larger concerns about supposedly contaminated blood, legal status, and whiteness.  

     Reading “Masque” in a time of COVID-19 invites us to consider visual transformations of space amid the pandemic, as well as questions about whose bodies are protected from illness and on what terms.  In our own time, seemingly innumerable visible cues have appeared to mark spaces as safe, and, like Prospero, the privileged have often decamped to cloistered retreats to party despite the plague, even in the pre-vaccine days of 2020 and early 2021.  My students and I began with the foundational question of how visual cues communicate that a space is safe.  What visual, spatial, and iconographic clues contribute to the idea of a space as “safe,” and for whom?  I asked my students to reflect on this question, putting the concept of an aesthetics of safety into practice with reference to their own surroundings. Students considered their experiences with spaces deemed “safe” and “unsafe” during the pandemic, as well as shifts in campus spaces, work spaces, living spaces, and a public spaces.  I also asked students to consider whether alterations of and cues within spaces – like signage encouraging masking, arrows on the floor directing traffic, and plastic partitions – make them seem “safer,” as well as the changing impacts of these cues over time.  The cues we noticed sometimes seemed to align with genuine investments in collective care, through effective preventative strategies like mask wearing.  Other cues seemed to be pieces of hygiene theater or strategies designed to force vulnerable laborers back to work regardless of the pandemic’s progress.  All of us struggled to disentangle the real desire for safer spaces and communities from the economic privileges and imperatives shaping pandemic life in the U.S.  While none of this writing asked students to make direct links between COVID-19 and Poe, each question suggested a possible relationship between our ongoing experiences of transformed space and Poe’s fiction.  

     Primed with this personal reflection, we returned to Poe’s pandemic spatiality.  This second part of our conversation unfolded more directly around privileged safe spaces.  How, I asked, does the space of Prospero’s abbey help us understand pandemic safe-havens?  We considered several examples; I’ll share two that were especially fruitful. 

     Example one: Kim Kardashian’s island retreat birthday party.  Most students were familiar with Kardashian’s October 2020 retreat to a private island and the subsequent memeification of her tweets.  Kardashian posted photos on Twitter and described her party: “After 2 weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine, I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where we could pretend things were normal for just a brief moment in time.”  The links between Kardashian and Prospero, who secluded himself with a thousand of his closest friends, were immediate.  Like Prospero, Kardashian assembled a substantial party crew and choreographed their departure to a “private island” for an extravagant celebration.  And like Prospero, who carefully sealed the gates of his abbey, Kardashian signaled an adherence to resource-intensive safety protocols, including “health screens” and “quarantine” designed to ensure the safety of her entourage.  Dressed in their typical array of designer wares akin to the elaborate costumes at Prospero’s ball, Kim and company posed for photos as usual, suggesting, as Poe might put it, that “it was folly to grieve or think” of those outside Kardashian’s circle of immense privilege.     

     Example two: The White House Rose Garden ceremony celebrating the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the United States Supreme Court.  While my students knew about this ceremony, which also took place in October 2020, they were surprised to learn that several articles published in its aftermath made connections to Poe.  Like Kardashian’s party, this event was much-discussed on social media, as were its links to “Masque.”  A wry thread by the writer Anthony Oliveira helpfully showed how nineteenth-century stories like Poe’s continue to circulate widely not just in classrooms but on Twitter, not just among academics but like memes, continually remixed to quickly concretize the meaning of unfolding events as they occur.  

     Turning to Twitter illustrated the ways texts like “The Masque of the Red Death” continue to circulate, even as we also spoke about the limits of using the work of a white male U.S. writer like Poe as a vehicle for understanding diverse experiences of illness and risk.  On the topic of privilege and disparate risk, my students surprised me by drawing attention to the musicians playing at Prospero’s party – those string-players whose songs pause eerily at the hour mark to make room for the echoing ring of a pendulum clock.  As we mapped Poe’s rooms, we noted that while there was apparently no ingress or egress from Prospero’s abbey, there was certainly ample waitstaff.  In the context of our conversation about COVID-19, differential risk, and the retreats of the rich, my students were quick to draw parallels between the unnamed violinists subjected to the Red Death at Prospero’s party and the masked servers who facilitated Kim Kardashian’s island celebration.  Students likewise noted the vulnerability of White House staff to those gathered in the Rose Garden.  These links continued to resurface across the semester, in discussions of pandemic fiction and caretaking responsibilities.  

     When I teach “Masque” next, I want to give more time to these comparisons.  I’d like to talk more about the ways the stories we accumulate don’t map onto each other.  Kardashian did apparently test positive for COVID after her island retreat, but she publicly insisted she was not exposed during her birthday getaway and implied that she had pulled off a safe pandemic party.  The White House Rose Garden celebration marking the ascent of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court resulted in numerous COVID-19 cases, including that of a nearby college president whose own students berated him for failing to adhere to rigorous health and safety protocols.  But the nation’s COVID-19 policies did not dramatically shift as a result of this superspreader event.  These details demonstrate some of the ways public narratives about safety spun by those with power can be impervious to critique.  They also highlight the gulf of difference between the Red Death, which felled its victims in a mere half hour, and the slow, unpredictable onset of COVID-19, an illness with a wide and still uncertain range of health consequences that are experienced disproportionately across racial, class, and age categories.  

     These examples and “The Masque of the Red Death” itself look different with every phase of the pandemic.  Given the arrival of vaccines and their inequitable global distribution, the feted reopening of the U.S. across 2021, and the ravages of the Delta variant, the circumstances of 2020 already feel extraordinarily distant.  As the pandemic changes, “The Masque of the Red Death” continues to frame urgent questions about space, constructions of safety, and risk.  The text offered my class a point of entry into the spatial logics of the pandemic and allowed us to talk about questions that were already on everyone’s minds.  It also helped us consider the role aesthetics play in the production of safety.  Students gravitated to this framework, considering the nuanced and differential ways safety is constructed in Poe’s text and in the world being remade by COVID-19.

Acknowledgment: Many thanks to Britt Rusert, Don James McLaughlin, and Sari Edelstein for valuable feedback on this essay.

End Notes

[1] Prospero’s faith in the abbey’s walls aligns with what Priscilla Wald calls “the almost superstitious belief that national borders can afford protection against communicable disease” (Contagious, 8).   

  

[2] “Masque” has appeared on numerous  COVID-19 reading lists, including this syllabus published by Sari Altschuler and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon.

[3] My approach to talking about safety has been shaped by abolitionist thinkers including Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba who call for a reimagination of safety itself and ask whose safety is being achieved, through what means, and to whose detriment. 

[4] Dayan uses legal cases from the 1840s to connect the contaminating blood of the Red Death to legal and racial discourses of tainted blood and the instability of legal personhood, while contextualizing “Masque” in Poe’s oeuvre.  Dayan draws attention to the idea of “contaminated” nonwhite blood as a legal justification for slavery while foregrounding the problematic invisibility of the character and so-called quality of blood.  One can’t read the blood of another, though it must, in U.S. legal discourse, define one’s legal status.  Mara Karafilis focuses on the redness of the Red Death and reads the text’s racial politics in relationship to Indian removal, anti-Indigenous violence, and the possibility of white annihilation.