So few diseases can be considered as such a tragic epidemic on the scale of the Bubonic Plague. Caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the Black Plague as it became to be known is a zoonotic disease passed on from affected fleas on rats. Do to large populations and a high virulence; the disease was rampant in Europe taking out one-third of the population within the 14th century. Edgar Alan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death published in 1842 employs allegory and symbolism to chronicle and exemplify the tragedy of the deadly disease.
The Bubonic plague is marked by a sudden onset of fever and painful swelling of the lymph nodes (buboes) that eventually leads to extreme bleeding. The plague can be passed through horizontal transmission via bodily fluids. With a mortality rate of approximated 66% from 1900-1941 (the prebiotic era) and almost a 100% mortality during the height of the epidemic in the 14th century, widespread famine, war, and densely populated areas presented an almost unavoidable death for the majority or Europe.
Poe tells the tale of a naïve gaunt prince throwing a masquerade ball in order to abscond from the outside epidemic of the plague. He describes hiding behind “gates of iron” as if to remove any vulnerability. The grand affair features seven halls each allegorically representing the stages of life with the last being a black room with a stained red blood window. There is a continued symbol of time used whether it is through a seven room arrangement representing the days of the week or a large ebony clock whose chime at midnight marks the presence of death. At the stroke of midnight, a tall black masked figure appears. Immediately the noblemen are frozen with fear and the prince is left with the task to rush after the intruder. It is not until he reached the final room painted black with red blood windows that the prince falls dead with the rest of his guests to follow.
The plague was widespread with easy transmissibility and high virulence. Within a few months of reaching Italy, 60% of the population of Florence had been wiped out. Being that the disease would spread from house rat to house rat with relative easy and a dense populated area, no one was safe. Poe used symbolism to characterize the different dimensions of the plague. The black room with the red window represented death and the ebony clock that sparked fear in the guests with every chime personified the inevitable passage of time. Due to the lack of modern day medical technologies and antibiotics, the plague took out most in its path. Even with iron walls and seclusion, the plague inescapably came like a “thief in the night”.
Read Poe’s The Masque of The Red Death here