Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Masque of the Red Death

A literature lover cannot fully embrace the October reading season without devouring work by Edgar Allan Poe.  He truly captures a dark and suspenseful mood in his writing, and his eerie articulation is equally chilling and fascinating.  I will probably bring up more than one of his works, but I want to start with his short story, "The Masque of the Red Death."

I first read this story in high school, and even when I started to forget the details, I never forgot the essence of the story.  There was something about this story that really stuck with me, though I have never studied it closely or previously written about it.  But it's a quick read and easily accessible, so I reread it recently and encourage you to do the same.

In my opinion, Poe's real skill is his word choice.  He seems to carefully select every word in his writing so that it delivers precisely the feelings and connotations he wants to convey.  I am willing to bet that a remarkable number of the words he uses are only mentioned once each, thus creating a rich and diverse text to explore.  He is also a master of description, incorporating color, lighting, and sounds so thoughtfully that it delivers a distinct mood to readers.  In this story, Poe describes the eccentric castle of Prince Prospero, which is made of seven unique and symbolic rooms.  Each room is a different color and situated so that guests can only see one at a time.  The black room with blood-red windows is the most ominous, and everyone avoids it until they are forced to go there in retreat.

The setup of the story is that the country in which Prospero lives has been ravaged by the "Red Death," a plague gruesomely affecting a significant portion of the peasant population.  Yet rather than trying to help his citizens, Prospero hosts a masked party to cover up the ugliness with food, drink, and merriment.  He has invited all the important officials of the country and sealed off the walls of the castle so they can pretend the plague isn't really happening.  However, the Red Death enters the party amongst them and takes them all.  The final line of the story is awesome:

"And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."

However, this story is not good just because it is creepy and dark.  I would not include it in my blog if I thought its only merit was to offer a little October fun.  It is actually a thoughtful satire, and I think Poe sends a riveting and important message.  The easiest way to read this is to conclude that those in the highest class should share in the pain and desperation of the rest of citizens rather than pretend that they are immune to the country's problems.  (Maybe I'm overly exposed to "Occupy Wall Street," but this sounds eerily relevant right now.)  The Red Death invades their superficial pleasure-seeking and rips the false sense of security away from them in a stroke of righteous justice. 

Although I recognize this condemnation of the rich and selfish, I want to take this to a more personal level.  I think that this is actually the way we all live our lives.  We can easily fool ourselves into thinking that we have control in our lives, and it gives us a sense of security.  We build our own castles around us, made up of school, work, friends, family, and endless future plans.  However, the reality of life is that something can creep in among all of these things we have built and take them down in an instant.  I have had this happen a couple times in my life already, and it shows me just how vulnerable I am to circumstances outside of my control.  Moreover, we can also easily present ourselves with a mask on our faces, painted to look like the person we wish others to see.  I am often no better than the partiers in Prospero's castle, as I laugh nervously whenever hints of trouble sound around me and dive back into comfort and ease.  But then a time comes when we can no longer ignore the striking clock and must face the Masque of the Red Death or whatever it is that gets in our way.  Despite the morose nature of this, I think it is useful to recognize how true this can be so we can humble ourselves and appreciate the depth in the things we have while we do have them.

This is turning out to be kind of a strange post for me, as I can feel myself being influenced by the current cultural movement as well as some things going on in my personal life as I write this.  If I had created this post just a month ago, I'm sure I would have said something much different.  And while I feel a little more exposed than usual, I'm going to post this anyway, because I think it's cathartic and there's a chance it may be relevant to someone reading this as well.  Nevertheless, I can still appreciate this story as a creepy addition to a collection of October reading, and I hope you can too.

No comments: