As the Wadhawans raced across empty highways to their Mahabaleshwar retreat, media professionals across the country were furious at the flagrant disregard for the national lockdown. Accusations of crony favouritism pointed at elite privilege even as migrant workers trudged across state borders facing the uncertainty of life and livelihood. The socioeconomic distancing caused by the infectious Covid-19 has been evident not just in India but around the world. As Lorena Tacco, an Italian factory worker is quoted in Max Fisher and Emma Bubola report, “Who cares about the workers’ health, while the rich run away”, the rich sit in their high towers, mostly unaffected it seeme, similar to the protagonist in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.
As was true nearly two centuries ago, socioeconomic status has afforded barriers to Covid 19’s indiscriminate spread around the world. According to Irma T. Elo’s analysis of ‘Social Class Differentials in Health and Mortality’, while “educational attainment influences occupational trajectories and earnings…many researchers in public health and sociology interpret the income-health gradient to be causal from income to health,” since a decent income often “facilitates access to health-generating resources.” But Poe, the quintessential twister of tales, had other plans for Prince Prospero in The Masque of the Red Death. Among Poe’s most allegorical works, the mid-19th century tale of social distancing delves into Prospero’s quarantine in a fortified abbey with more than a thousand royal compatriots and the celebratory mood-lifting party after months of isolation against the infection.
Set against the backdrop of the Red Death, a fictitious plague-like disease ravaging the populace in the kingdoms of Prince Prospero, The Masque of the Red Death explores the ubiquity of disease in the luxurious halls of Prospero’s royal hideout while his dominion outside, battles the burdens of widespread sickness. Describing the opulence of Prospero’s masked ball with its extravagant costumes and eclectic entertainment, Poe details the septuple imperial suite which served as the masquerade’s polychromatic venue. Furnished according to a particular colour theme, each of the seven chambers was lit by the stained glass in the Gothic window adjacent to each room, filtering light from torchfire blazing across the corridor. While the first six rooms corresponded to the colour of the stained glass in blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, the seventh apartment… closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries, and scarlet panes… was ghastly in the extreme. Brett Zimmerman considers the polychromatic symbolism as alluding to the journey of life, from “blue representing Neo-Platonic notion of pre-birth and birth,” to “black as gloom, woe, death, mental degradation, criminality, and red as disease or plague, along with a red-black combination representing infernal love, egotism, and possibly even damnation.”
Perhaps the seventh room’s ebony clock itself was the allegorical representation, its dreadful hourly chime interrupting the merrymaking as the orchestra paused, the masked dancers squirmed, and it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. Coincidently, Poe’s ironic clock resonates in the apocalyptic Doomsday Clock as it presently contemplates the end of the world at “100 seconds to midnight.” The seemingly prescient Edgar Allan Poe describes the final moments of Prospero’s masquerade when the clock strikes midnight announcing the arrival “of a masked figure (who) had out-Heroded Herod” with accoutrements resembling the countenance of a stiffened corpse… besprinkled with the scarlet horror of the Red Death.” The sight of Red Death personified filled Prospero with rage, and he shouted, “Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him — that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!” Of course, that is not the end of Poe’s twisted tale!
While the world grapples with Covid-19, it has already realised that although socioeconomic disparities can exacerbate the infectious spread, the virus is indiscriminate in its gong of mortality, as Poe stated a couple of centuries ago, “and now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night”, not unlike the coronavirus infection which had even the World Health Organisation fooled until January this year. There is still hope that the impact of Covid-19 can be curtailed, before reaching the pandemic devastation of the deadly Spanish flu in 1918, which killed more people than World War I at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. As millions cope with the havoc caused by the latest coronavirus, it must be said again– STAY SAFE!