Image courtesy of Warhorn Media

The Masque of the Red Death

The coronavirus represents necropolitics in action, an extension of Edgar Allan Poe’s nightmare vision where the rich live in luxury while shutting out those who are dying.

Apr 4, 2020

This article is a contribution to a short series on literary pieces centered on plagues.
In 1842, Virginia Clemm Poe, wife of the famous Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe, contracted tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed Poe’s mother when he was only a toddler and would ultimately kill her five years later. In the same year, Poe published a short story that no doubt uses the devastation he witnessed in his own life to explore wider themes about wealth and elitism. That short story is The Masque of the Red Death.
While his kingdom succumbs to the devastation of a deadly disease known as the Red Death, Prince Prospero brings one thousand of his rich friends to one of his massive abbeys, where they continue to live in luxury as the Red Death rages. Six months later, Prospero decides to throw an opulent masquerade ball, and one of the guests, who appears to be dressed as a Red Death victim with the trademark blood-encrusted face, is discovered later in the evening. The Prince and courtiers are outraged and attempt to catch and kill him for his “blasphemous mockery” but discover that the masked man is actually the Red Death itself in a ghostly form. The Red Death swiftly infects the abbey, and once all of the aristocrats had died gruesome deaths, “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
The story is often interpreted as a commentary on how death is the great equalizer that comes to us all, rich or poor. I think that the allegory is much more specific than that, especially in its portrayal of the callousness of the rich, which still resonates today during the coronavirus pandemic.
Just as the “happy and dauntless” Prospero shut himself away “when his dominions were half depopulated” to surround himself with “hale and light-hearted” friends, we have seen those who already live in luxury dismissing the lives of those less fortunate in favor of their personal health and comfort, even claiming their privilege as a point of pride and positivity during a time of unmitigated crisis. Several politicians have advocated for sacrificing elderly lives in the name of protecting the economy, Russian oligarchs are buying ventilators for personal use while they are in short supply elsewhere and Jamie Dimon, the CEO of J.P Morgan Chase declared in a radio interview: “I don't look at recessions as a bad thing. I mean, it's bad for America. It's bad for the people that are unemployed. It's usually an opportunity for J.P. Morgan." This advocacy for the interests of the wealthy and powerful in a time of crisis is a prime example of what philosopher Achille Mbembe called necropolitics: “the ultimate expression of sovereignty [which] resides, to a large degree, in the power and capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.”
It is not just the upper echelons of society that are shielded from the coronavirus. Poe explains that within the secure abbey, “the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.” This is an impulse that I think many have shared while in quarantine: remain indoors and let the world sort itself out. The fact that we are able to do this is in itself a privilege we often take for granted. As we remain in the comfort of our dwellings, 200,000 Hong Kong residents live in “coffin homes” that are so small that preparing food indoors is less hygienic than going out to eat, and social distancing is impossible. This is even more true for an estimated 70 million refugees, who aren’t guaranteed hospitalization if they get sick because they aren’t citizens and reside in camps that already lacked basic hygiene supplies like soap before the outbreak. The circumstances these people live in are a far cry from the spacious intricately decorated abbey Prospero and his friends live in.
While Prospero and his friends had the option to flee from the illness to protect themselves, if the wealthy in our society contract coronavirus they are much more likely to get tested, diagnosed and treated. News of celebrities such as Prince Charles and various NBA players being promptly tested and treated sat so uneasily with people that even the articles covering these events couldn’t help but mention the thousands of sick people still awaiting testing and care. For the average American a lack of financial support in the healthcare sector is a key reason for the lack of testing; less money means fewer test kits so doctors have to ration them, and even then, people who are deemed to be at risk may have to fight tooth and nail to get tested.
This is necropolitics in action, an extension of Poe’s nightmare vision where the courtiers are not only throwing lavish parties while shutting out dying people, but also explicitly insisting that they are in the moral right to do so. While the short story was set in an obviously feudal society at a time where class relationships were much more unequal, the privilege displayed by the neglect, isolationism and attempts at shutting out the Red Death resemble the actions of many in the public eye who are supposed to have the interests of their fellow people at heart. Our world is being run by Prosperos and we have to hold our courtiers to account. Only then will nobody be seen as “having to die.”
Oscar Bray is a columnist. Email him at
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