What is the Red Death in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

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Edgar Allan Poe was a 19th century American author and poet known primarily for his Gothic horror stories and poems as well as for his "invention" of the modern detective story (The Murders in the Rue Morgue). Among his numerous works of literature as the 1842 short story The Masque of the Red Death, the tale of a Middle Ages morally-corrupt royal, Prince Prospero, who hopes to isolate himself and his friends from the plague ravaging the countryside. Poe's "Red Death" is modeled after the real-life plague that swept across much of Europe in the 14th century killing tens of millions of people. The opening passage of Poe's story is clearly influenced by that bleak period in European history:

"THE 'Red Death' had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men."

Poe's fictitious malady the "Red Death" is the author's version of the "Black Death" that did, in fact, spread across Europe leaving millions to suffer horrible deaths.

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Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Masque of the Red Death, published in 1845, is about a morally corrupt and highly extravagent European Prince Prospero, whose response to the spread of a deadly plague is to wall himself and his many friends and cohorts inside his castle in the misbegotten belief that they can cheat death.  The "red death," then, refers to that plague.  As millions succumb to the fatal disease that has spread across Europe, Prince Prospero ignores their pleas and entertains his many guests with a costume ball:

"The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. . . there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine.  All these and security were within.  Without was the 'Red Death'."

As described by Poe in the following passage, Prospero and his guests engage in all manner of debauchery while right outside the gates commoners die ghastly deaths:

"It was toward the end of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero  entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence."

The Masque of the Red Death takes place during Medieval times, when the real-life spread across Europe of bubonic plague during the 14th Century killed millions of people.  Referred to as the "Black Death," that pandemic clearly inspired Poe's story of the "Red Death."  As the story progresses, a mysterious masked stranger appears within Prospero's castle.  This stranger is revealed towards the end as "Death," come to impose its will on the prince and his guests.

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The medical disease smallpox was being called the Red Death as early as the turn of the 16th century (c. 1490). Smallpox is said to be "virulently infectious," with the virus causing the disease lingering on clothing, bedding, and breath throughout the course of disease. Corpses during past epidemics were dangerous to dispose of because the virus continued to thrive even after the host's death and could thus be transferred to new victims. Smallpox are red thus smallpox was dubbed Red Death.

Mentioned in Chinese and Indian writings as early as the 1100s BC, smallpox was recorded in China in 370 AD when an epidemic destroyed one-third of China's population over the course of three long diseased decades. There are earlier recorded instances of smallpox in the warm Mediterranean regions as early as 108 AD. It is now believed to have begun in 10,000 BC and to have spread out from Northeast Africa with traveling merchants. Being more virile in warmer climates (the opposite of the Black Death which worsened in winter), it was recorded in southern Europe circa 400-600 AD. It was reported throughout Europe by the 1200s--a slow spread of epidemic disfiguring disease over centuries.

Smallpox is a disease of cities and crowded living situations, like armies and ships. Edward Jenner discovered vaccinizing to stop the acquisition of smallpox from his observation of dairymaids with cowpox, first testing it in 1796. By the end of the 1800s, all America, Europe and England were under compulsory vaccination orders; no one was exempt except the few "conscientious objectors." The Red Death was smallpox.

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The Red Death is a plague, sweeping the Italian country side with horrible effects.  In the introduction of Poe's short story, he describes the red death as having terrible symptoms including "sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution" (Poe).  The Red Death is a fictional representation of the Black Death plague that swept through the Middle Ages. 

As seen in "The Masque of the Red Death," many people in the middle ages attempted to escape the Black Death by outrunning it or secluding themselves away from it.  Even the pope was said to have sat for weeks between two burning fires to protect himself!  Prince Prospero locks himself and one thousand of his favorite subjects into an abbey.   

True to real life and much like the Black Death, the Red Death cannot be shut out.  When Prospero decides to liven things up by hosting a fancy costume ball, an unlooked for guest attends, one whose costume is "dabbled in blood -- and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror" (Poe).  

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