If I'm Prince Prospero, as this character is described in Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Masque of the Red Death, I'm frightened of the plague sweeping the countryside, killing thousands of peasants. As Poe's unseen narrator notes, "No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous." The prince would know that those infected with this disease--a disease inspired by the real-life plagues of smallpox that ravaged much of Europe and parts of Asia in earlier times--would die horrible deaths. It is for this reason that Prince Prospero sought to isolate himself and 1,000 of his closest friends within the walls of his castle. It was his great mistake, however, to believe that stone walls could keep that pestilence at bay. Be that is it may, the prince was a "happy and dauntless and sagacious" autocrat who believed that he could 'ride-out' the plague in the comfort of his abbey, all the while being entertained and provisioned with copious amounts of wine. To quote the narrator, once again, "[t]here were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the 'Red Death'.” I, the prince, am convinced that I have cheated death.
I, the prince, am also a little eccentric, as evident by the design of my “imperial suite.” Each room is both shaped and decorated differently, with each assigned its own color scheme. There is one room that I have even decorated in black, with “scarlet window panes,” a particularly nice touch, if I don’t say so myself. That particular room, however, definitely gives off a more somber and even menacing vibe than the other, more gaily-decorated chambers. One could summarize the situation as follows:
“And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. But in the western or black chamber the effect of the firelight that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.”
After five or six months, I decide to host a huge ball for all of my friends and assorted hangers-on. There is, as expected, much merriment, as we have survived the plague that is causing millions now to die painful deaths outside my castle walls. In fact, we are doing quite well, and our revelry knows no bounds. Sure, there are those who may think me mad, but they’re pretty much at death’s door by now, as I wouldn’t deign to invite such critics into my sanctuary. The masquerade ball, however, is the ultimate in decadence:
“There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm—much of what has been since seen in “Hernani.” There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions.”
And, the big clock with the pendulum swinging back-and-forth and chiming at each passing hour even lends an air of mystique to the proceedings. It is strange, however, that, at midnight, the clock’s usual chime is met with a noticeable change in the tenor of the night’s entertainments. Something peculiar is happening. All of a sudden, my guests are noticing a “masked figure” who had previously “arrested the attention of no single individual before.” This strange figure is actually scary. Everyone is gazing upon him (it?) with expressions of “disapprobation and surprise—then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.” It actually appears as though this masked figure has disguised himself as the dreaded “red death” itself. Is he mocking me? Has my success in shielding myself from the plague inspired him to suggest that my impregnable fortress is anything but? This guy’s pissing me off. I have cheated the horrible fate that has befallen those beneath me, and this figure arrives to ridicule my guests and me? I shout at my minions, “Who dares . . . 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!” I will not be mocked; I will attack him with a vengeance, my dagger I will plunge into his heart. He is heading into the seventh chamber, the one adorned in black, the image of blood streaming in through those specially-made window panes.
And, thus ends the prince’s narrative. As we know, having actually read Poe’s story, Prince Prospero drops dead then and there, the masked figure being revealed as the Red Death. How did the prince feel about the Red Death? He knew it for what it was, but he believed that, by walling himself off from the less-fortunate, who were dying by the million, he could survive, and survive in style. In a remarkable display of hubris, however, he convinced himself that the spread of a plague could be stopped by man-made enclosures. The problem, here, though, is that smallpox can be spread through bodily fluids, and through prolonged face-to-face contacts, and the prince and his friends were doing a whole-lot of that kind of stuff. My guess is that one or more of his guests unknowingly brought the virus into the castle and, what with all that debauchery, it spread through the morally-questionable use of those six chambers (not the black one, of course). The Masque of the Red Death is fiction, but the Red Death was not. Prince Prospero took it seriously, he merely underestimated its ability to spread within his castle walls.