The Red Death and Other Catastrophes

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842) tells the story of a prince and his court who flee to the countryside to escape an outbreak of infectious disease.  Unfortunately, the disease, taking the form of a masked reveler, slips in along with the thousand members of his court.  Once locked inside the abbey, its doors and windows welded shut, the prince and all his court contract the disease and die.  Their clever plan of escape turns out to be their downfall.

Poe entitled the story "The Masque of the Red Death" to emphasize the masked ball that Prince Prospero orders to celebrate his victory over the illness.  This crowded celebration is the worst possible response to an infectious disease.  As the revelers come in contact with the ghostly figure of death, they fall dead to the floor.  Had they been practicing social distancing, they might have survived, but then Poe and his contemporaries knew little about bacteria and viruses.  It was not until the 1850s that scientists first began to understand the "invisible enemy" behind infectious disease.

Even with early discoveries such as the relationship of bacteria with cholera, the role of bacteria and viruses did not become generally known until the 20th century, and even then, precautions such as hand-washing on the part of doctors and nurses were often ignored.  Once infection had occurred, there were no options for treatment; antibiotics were not widely available until after WWII.

Poe and his contemporaries had little knowledge of what caused the spread of infectious disease, but they had plenty of firsthand experience of the diseases themselves.  Poe survived a deadly cholera epidemic in 1831, and Poe's mother, brother, wife, and others close to him died of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.  Diseases like typhoid, cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, measles, syphilis, tuberculosis, malaria, and influenza ravaged 19th-century America.  Along with widespread alcoholism, drug addiction, violent crime, workplace injuries, childbirth deaths, and brutal warfare, America in Poe's day was not a place for the faint of heart.

Nor, as it turns out, is America in the 21st century.

Until January of this year, many believed that we were on track for another year of unprecedented prosperity.  The seasonal flu would carry off some thousands of elderly and medically compromised, but most of us would go on living, and living as we had never done before.  Like Prospero and his court, we thought we could control everything around us.  There was full employment, wages were rising, and the market could only go up.  The coronavirus has shown us that we are never entirely safe and secure.

The virus is not President Trump's fault; nothing was done under Obama, Bush, or Clinton to prepare for the next devastating event, but it wasn't their fault, either.  There are just too many eventualities to prepare for.  To line up resources in advance to prepare for every possible flood, fire, earthquake, or epidemic would bankrupt the nation.  All we can do is be vigilant respond quickly when danger arises, and this the president has done.

With our understanding of the causes of infectious disease, we should soon be able to stop the spread of this pandemic.  It is not necessary to withdraw into a fortified abbey in the countryside; all that is needed is careful use of hand-washing, face masks, and social distancing.

What we must not do is to follow the example of Prospero and his court.  Celebrations won't be in order for a long time.  We'd be better served by a little humility, not just toward infectious disease, but toward national defense, economic security, terrorist attacks, and tyranny at home.  History shows that we have always faced crises, and the tipping point has always been just one virus or one war away.  Our liberties have always been at risk.  The vulnerability portrayed in Poe's story was not just a product of his time; it is a permanent attribute of existence.

The president has issued a thoughtful three-stage plan for opening up the economy.  He and his advisers have led us through this crisis with great skill and courage.  No one should attack the president for his tireless effort, but many will.

Government, however, is not the answer.  It was not preparedness or planning, or even Spitfires, that prevented Britain from surrendering to Hitler in the early days of WWII.  It was the unshakable faith of the British people in their country and its civilization.  A less resolute people would have supported a compromise that would have allowed fascism to rule Europe in perpetuity.  We will face the likes of Hitler again, just as we will face fiscal crises, civil unrest, and pandemics even more destructive than the coronavirus.  Strong leaders can rally the nation, but government is no substitute for the faith of individuals.  A weak population, demoralized and defeatist as a result of liberal policies, will not easily survive a great crisis.

Pandemics have been around since biblical days, and long before.  They are prominent in every ancient book of wisdom.  The answer to the coronavirus pandemic and every other crisis has been strong faith in the goodness and purposefulness of life.  There is a force greater than the coronavirus.  It is there with the arrival of every child born on Earth.  It is the source of beauty and happiness, and of comfort in times like these.  Every generation has learned the importance of faith in God's love.  Now it is our turn.

Academics like to call Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" a "cautionary tale," often without understanding just what this really means.  It is, indeed, a cautionary tale, but not just about how to better prepare for the next pandemic.  It's important to have a supply of masks and respirators, but the more important preparation, as Poe understood so well, lies in the heart.  We must never forget that we are creatures of limited power and resources.  Human beings are the wonder of creation, and every human life should be cherished.  But we will never escape the power of greater forces, no matter how advanced we think we are.

The lesson of the current pandemic is the same as that of Poe's Red Death: arrogance invites destruction.  Once the coronavirus is under control, we may think we are in charge again, but the next catastrophe is just years away.  Rejoice, to be sure, but with the understanding that our powers are partial and imperfect.

That way, the pandemic, or war, or economic decline can't touch us.  Fleeing to a castellated abbey is a mark of man's arrogant faith in his own powers to control the course of events.  No need to flee to underground bunkers in New Zealand or South Dakota, as some wealthy Americans have done.  Better to stay safe in our faith, which no war or famine or disease can ever destroy.  That, I believe, is what Poe was saying in "The Masque of the Red Death."  It will always be worth remembering as long as there's a chance of crises like the coronavirus pandemic.

Jeffrey Folks has published many books and articles on American culture and politics, including Heartland of the Imagination: Conservative Values in American Literature from Poe to O'Connor to Haruf.