Today’s Red Death
I have been shut in my house, my yard, and my neighborhood for the past two months, and I am getting frustrated with how drawn out all the government’s coronavirus safety measures have become. I have not seen my grandparents or friends during all of that time, been able to go to public places or restaurants, or even attend church in person. I feel as if my world has shrunk to within the walls of my house. Recently, in my English class, my professor had us read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” and I could not help but notice how similar it is to the current lockdown situation happening worldwide.
The first similarity I have seen between Poe’s story and the onset of the coronavirus is how people underestimated each disease and did not know much about it. In the story, Poe emphasizes that many people had already died from the disease before the reader is introduced to the story. Poe says “the Red Death had long devastated the country;” reading this, I understand that, like today’s epidemic, everyone had to figure out how the disease spread and that, unfortunately, many died before that discovery. Poe’s words remind me of the pandemic we are currently going through, because in the beginning it spread like wildfire and people did not know how it was being spread so rapidly. Some areas in the world have been hit much harder than we have here in Knoxville, Tennessee, such as New York City, Italy, and Spain, to name a few. This magnitude is just like the people in Prospero’s country, as Poe writes: “his dominions were half populated.” Some areas have lost thousands to this plague that is running rampant right now.
The second way “The Masque of the Red Death” reminds me of our current situation is that as each event wore on, people were panicking, hoarding supplies and resources, and holing themselves up in their houses without once thinking about other people’s needs. This behavior is very similar to how Prince Prospero “retired to the deep seclusion of one of his . . . amply provisioned abbeys.” In Poe’s story, the people in the abbey find ways to entertain themselves with “buffoons, improvisatori, ballet dancers and musicians.” Today, my family and I are streaming movies, walking in our neighborhood, and shopping online as ways to pass the time while in quarantine. The people in Prospero’s abbey act very similar to how the people do today: they are terrified of getting the disease and are trying everything they can to avoid catching it. I can see this by noticing the way the guests of Prince Prospero react when finding out that someone inside the abbey has the Red Death, “the vast assembly, as with one impulse, shrank from the centers of the room to the walls.” The abbey’s inhabitants become cowards when they move as far away from the unwelcome intruder as they possibly can. Compare that response to now, when many people are reacting the same way to the coronavirus by being too afraid to leave their houses unless it is an absolute necessity, and wearing masks and gloves when they do go out. One of the few times I have been out of my neighborhood since the lockdown began, I saw a person driving by himself with his windows up, and he was wearing a mask. The level of fear in the community is almost contagious itself.
Another comparison is seen when Poe says, “the Red Death had long devastated the country.” I think about how the virus really has devastated many people’s daily routines. Events of all types have either been cancelled or delayed, tens of thousands of people worldwide have died from the virus, and many people have lost their jobs due to various shut downs across the globe. Currently, the unemployment rate is the highest it has been in a half-century, and many people are scared of no longer having a job to return to once the lockdown ends. My dad’s own job in the healthcare field has been impacted to the point of him being required to take off time from work, and my family has been living with the fear of his job being in jeopardy. My classes at my local community college have been moved online, my homeschool co-op has been closed since spring break, and my church has not met in person since early March. I miss seeing my friends at all of these places. I also work as a lifeguard at my neighborhood’s pool in the summer, and, at this point, I am not sure if the pool will even be able to open this season. Unfortunately, my ability to earn money this summer will possibly be very limited due to the coronavirus shutdown. I, along with many other high school or college seniors, have had our spring sports seasons cancelled. My final end of the season nationals basketball tournament was cancelled, and I do not know if I will see many of my friends or coaches from the team ever again. However, when I compare my situation to the other seniors who were relying on this sports season for college scholarships, or, perhaps, making it into a professional league of their sport, I feel bad for them, and I have a weird sense of relief that I was not relying on this sports season like they were.
Overall, what is happening with the coronavirus in this day and age makes me feel like Poe’s story was transported from the 19th century to the present. For now, I can only hope that the ending of Poe’s story will not be how the coronavirus pandemic ends for us. At the conclusion of Poe’s story, everyone inside Prince Prospero’s abbey gets the Red Death and meets their collective demise. I would certainly like to believe that the present pandemic will not end the same for us, because our medical and scientific communities are working around the clock to find a cure, and because the thought of my loved ones dying from the disease is horrifying. Now that things are starting to open back up, I am hopeful that the quarantine and social distancing efforts we have been following have been successful in slowing the progression of the virus. However, we have no way of knowing just how successful our attempts are until businesses, schools, and the community as a whole reopens; then, our lives can go back to normal if the coronavirus has been mitigated.
Paul Hester is a recent high school graduate who plans to pursue a business major at Pellissippi State Community College in the fall. He loves camping and hiking in the outdoors and enjoys hanging out with friends.
**Featured Image: Reaching hands sculpture, Thialand, Wat Rong Khun / Artist, Mr. Chalermchai Kositpipat / Source – ph