Poe in the Time of Covid

Monday, June 15th, 2020 at 12:13 pm


Lit majors never stop processing everything through comparisons to stories, even decades after leaving school.   I have been thinking lately  about Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mask of the Red Death,” and how Prince Prospero and his noble friends barricaded themselves inside his palace partying it up while the plague raged outside.  Of course eventually it reaches them too, with predictable horror.

Masks, death, parties, isolation. Not hard to imagine why this story would come to mind. It’s not exactly a parable for our times, because in Poe’s story the wild partiers and the isolationists are one and the same. In real life, those of us trying to protect ourselves are isolated in our own homes, not gathered together inside a bolted palace.  We are not partying, because we know full well what is in store for those who are. Unfortunately, here, in real life, the attitude outside our nests of isolation seems more and more to be “Red Death? What Red Death?” The Grim Reaper figure of Poe’s story ( ironically the only one masked) goes about today methodically doing his work among those populating the beaches, the protest rallies, the funeral parlors, the family reunions. 

Texas and a few other states  keep marching toward full “normalcy” while their hospitals are screaming that they are already near capacity.  We hear about spikes, but often don’t realize that those cases would be on top of the 20,000+ new cases and 800-1000 deaths that have become the daily plateau in the US.

Poe’s point is clear.  The Grim Reaper can find us wherever we are. The great irony is that all those  who ignore precautions about crowds, all those  who don’t  wear a mask, may pick up that scythe and become Grim Reapers  themselves, all the while behaving as if he doesn’t exist, and death can’t come for them.  In the story, Prospero and his friends are safe until he  gets in.  In our world, he’s already here, and he looks just like us.

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