Masque of the Red Death and Today’s Ebola Crisis

In case you missed it, check out my post (just one post above) of the Full Text of Edgar Allen Poe’s 1842 short story, The Masque of the Red Death.

Go on.  Read it.  It isn’t that long.  Seriously, what are you going to miss if you turn off the TV for a minute?  The Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo?


The population of a fictional country has been decimated by a plague called, “The Red Death,” so-named because it causes its victims to bleed out of their pores and all over their faces before they bite the big one.  The aptly named Prince Prospero (Poe’s subtle hint to let you know the dude is lousy with cash, i.e. he’s very “prosperous”) could use his resources to help his countrymen, but instead, decides to protect himself and his friends by walling off his castle so as to keep out the infected riff-raff.  Inside, the wealthy aristocrats spend half-a-year having fun and being entertained by various performers.

Prince Prospero throws a masquerade party.  He holds it in an area of his home that has a winding pathway that takes visitors through several rooms, each decorated in various shades of colors, starting with lighter tones until the end, which is all black with scarlet red windows.  Notice that like the passing of a day, lighter colors are found in the beginning, while the colors get darker as the end of the path through the rooms approaches, all the way till black at the end, and like the eternal night that comes with death, everyone is afraid of the black room.

During the festivities, a spooky clock in the black room is so loud every time it causes all of the guests to cease their amusement every time it chimes the hour.

All are having a grand ole time until an uninvited guest arrives.  This individual costume’s is that of a sufferer of the Red Death.  He wears a funeral shroud for his clothing and a mask that appears to be a dead man’s face covered with blood, similar to the deceased victims of the disease.

Prospero and guests are outraged that someone would ruin their good time by providing a ghastly reminder of the Red Death that they are trying to avoid thinking about.  In the black room, Prospero confronts the individual but dies from the disease.  The party goers, once too scared to go into the black room, become resolute upon the death of their leader and charge into the black room.  They unmask the party crasher only to find that there’s no one underneath the mask.  They then all contract the Red Death and die immediately.


So, in other words, a group of rich people have fun and are punished for their neglect of the disease ridden masses by contracting the disease they thought they could avoid by walling themselves off in a castle under the assumption that doing so would immunize them from harm.  Poe, the author, if you’ve read his other works, has a death fixation.  Whether it is this story or The Raven’s chirp to the narrator of “Nevermore!” his works serve as a reminder that try as they might, everyone sooner or later faces death.  Prospero and his band of aristocrats were foolish to think they could avoid a plague in their backyard.  At the end of the day, they’re still human and their money and power was not enough to save them.  Had they thought of their countrymen, perhaps they could have slowed the disease and perhaps saved the day.  Instead, they were selfish and died.

Well, given today’s news headlines, kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?  Ebola is tearing through West Africa with thousands of deaths already.  Occasionally, there is a case or two in America and it causes a mass panic and fear that a plague might be headed this way.

The average American is far removed from this mess – sitting in an easy chair and watching TV, enjoying all the comforts of life, taking for granted medical care and sanitation services (i.e. indoor plumbing, clean water and trash pickup – things that are lacking in third world countries that often lead to rampant disease).  I can’t really argue that Americans are as obtuse to the situation as Prospero’s compatriots were.  Like Cicero, who played his violin while Rome burned, Prospero’s aristocrats party hard while completely ignoring the situation.  Meanwhile, today Americans are constantly bombarded with reminders of the Ebola problem by the media.  Many of us feel bad for the people of West Africa though there is not a lot we can do as individuals.  And the occasional outbreak within America causes much panic, so it cannot be said that our society is completely oblivious to the situation.

That being said, I’ve always been a critic of the UN.  The UN is an organization that was built in the wake of World War II, founded on the principle that like minded countries were going to get together and say ‘Never Again!” in the face of atrocities such as those that occurred thanks to the Nazis.  Yet, the UN does nothing about ISIS, Boko Haram, they did nothing about Rwanda, etc.  Understandably, no one wants to go to war, especially a war weary America that has just spent the last ten years fighting, so the result is many world atrocities are ignored.

But here is a chance for the civilized world to help the third world that does not require involvement in a war.  America has sent troops to help West Africa contain the Ebola outbreak.  Other countries have pitched in.   World organizations like the UN need to help third world nations build up their health care and sanitation infrastructures.  A few people in America get Ebola and it is contained due to our modern hospitals.  A few people in the third world get Ebola and it spreads like wild fire because they lack the basic facilities required to combat the disease.

And the leaders of those countries are not completely blameless.  Schools, roads, hospitals, sanitation – these are the basic services that any government should provide and if they are not providing them then they aren’t doing their jobs.

We could throw up our hands, shrug our shoulders, and say “Not our problem” but then we’d be like Prospero because, sure, Ebola is one of those problems that is “over there” and we don’t need to worry about things that happen “over there” but left unchecked and allowed to spread throughout the third world, a virus like Ebola could eventually grow so out of control that it could make its way to the civilized world with a vengeance and be impossible to stop.

So let’s not be a bunch of Prosperos, locking ourselves up in our castle while fools entertain us while there is a problem “for those people” that could one day become a problem for us.

Thanks for stopping by, fellow book enthusiasts.  Remember ‘s celebration of Halloween Literature is a month long event, with daily posts, so check back tomorrow.  And I’m always tweeting away on Twitter, mostly about literature, but often about pop culture in general.  Follow me @bookshelfbattle and check out my hashtag – #tweettheraven where I prove my nerdyness to the world by tweeting Poe’s infamous poem throughout the month.

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