Tuesday, October 11, 2011
The Masque of the Red Death
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.