Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe tale yields connections to current campus life

Students in Assistant Professor of English Erin Pearson's ENG 223: American Literature Before 1865 course examined and re-wrote "The Masque of the Red Death" in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent reading of a classic Edgar Allan Poe tale about human folly during a plague revealed unexpected connections to life at Elon in Fall 2020.

Edgar Allan Poe Statue CU, Boston; photo by Tim Grafft, MFO by Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Assistant Professor of English Erin Pearson expected undergraduates to connect the themes in “The Masque of the Red Death” to current events and college life. Published in 1842, the story follows a group of wealthy and powerful people who shelter from a plague inside a prince’s fortress. At a lavish costume ball thrown out of boredom, a mysterious figure dressed as the Red Death appears. Soon, the prince and his followers die from the disease.

In an exercise requiring students to rewrite their own versions of Poe’s story, many set it on college campuses. The costume party became a college party, and in some versions the consequence of irresponsible social gatherings resulted not in death, but in the campus closing.

“They gave vivid voice to the stakes of this semester for our students,” Pearson said. “While we are frequently reminded that most college age students are at lower risk for serious health consequences from COVID, these students remind us that losing their ability to be on campus still represents a very serious consequence.”

Brett Newcomb ’23, a cinema and television arts major, reflected that undergraduates losing time together on campus would be “something they can never get back.”

Students wrote with empathy about the far-reaching effects on the wider community, those who were responsible in their conduct but whose safety and lives were harmed by those who weren’t. Pearson noted that the broader public is barely mentioned in Poe’s tale.

“I think that literature like ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ helps to reinforce this idea of community responsibility, where you can look out for yourself, and care only about yourself, but you’re putting everybody at risk by doing so,” said Olivia Bennett ’22, an English major. “I really thought that was the take home from ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, and I thought that applied to COVID, but also, especially, to Elon and the greater Alamance County community.”

Hannah Knapic ’22, majoring in public health studies, is conducting her Honors Thesis around how narratives affect perceptions of the coronavirus in the U.S.

“It’s just undeniable to see the ties between what’s going on now and what’s going on in the story,” Knapic said. “It’s almost a wake-up call to what the consequences can be if we aren’t serious about keeping our distance and following guidelines that are put in place to protect us. And if we go out of what we’re supposed to be doing too early — like how Prince Prospero did, with throwing a party only six months into isolation — just the drastic negative effects that that’s going to have on our population.”

The assignment was part of ENG 223: American Literature Before 1865. Pearson revised the syllabus this semester to respond to the pandemic and attention around ongoing racial injustice.

“One of my major goals in teaching this literature survey this way is to help students recognize what early American literature has to tell us about the present moment in American life, and the class discussions around “The Masque of the Red Death” revealed the extent to which students have been able to make meaningful connections between very old texts and current events,” Pearson said.

Students are finding that literature helpful in understanding human behavior and contextualizing modern life.

“I just think it’s interesting how human behavior has changed or hasn’t changed over the past 150 years,” Bennett said. “On one hand it’s not learning from history, and on the other hand it’s almost this refusal to learn from history.”