Poe’s Short Stories
“The Masque of the Red Death” (1845)
A disease known as the Red Death plagues the fictional country where this tale is set, and it causes its victims to die quickly and gruesomely. Even though this disease is spreading rampantly, the prince, Prospero, feels happy and hopeful. He decides to lock the gates of his palace in order to fend off the plague, ignoring the illness ravaging the land. After several months, he throws a fancy masquerade ball. For this celebration, he decorates the rooms of his house in single colors. The easternmost room is decorated in blue, with blue stained-glass windows. The next room is purple with the same stained-glass window pattern. The rooms continue westward, according to this design, in the following color arrangement: green, orange, white, and violet. The seventh room is black, with red windows. Also in this room stands an ebony clock. When the clock rings each hour, its sound is so loud and distracting that everyone stops talking and the orchestra stops playing. When the clock is not sounding, though, the rooms are so beautiful and strange that they seem to be filled with dreams, swirling among the revelers. Most guests, however, avoid the final, black-and-red room because it contains both the clock and an ominous ambience.
At midnight, a new guest appears, dressed more ghoulishly than his counterparts. His mask looks like the face of a corpse, his garments resemble a funeral shroud, and his face reveals spots of blood suggesting that he is a victim of the Red Death. Prospero becomes angry that someone with so little humor and levity would join his party. The other guests, however, are so afraid of this masked man that they fail to prevent him from walking through each room. Prospero finally catches up to the new guest in the black-and-red room. As soon as he confronts the figure, Prospero dies. When other party-goers enter the room to attack the cloaked man, they find that there is nobody beneath the costume. Everyone then dies, for the Red Death has infiltrated the castle. “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death” have at last triumphed.
“The Masque of the Red Death” is an allegory. It features a set of recognizable symbols whose meanings combine to convey a message. An allegory always operates on two levels of meaning: the literal elements of the plot (the colors of the rooms, for example) and their symbolic counterparts, which often involve large philosophical concepts (such as life and death). We can read this story as an allegory about life and death and the powerlessness of humans to evade the grip of death. The Red Death thus represents, both literally and allegorically, death. No matter how beautiful the castle, how luxuriant the clothing, or how rich the food, no mortal, not even a prince, can escape death. In another sense, though, the story also means to punish Prospero’s arrogant belief that he can use his wealth to fend off the natural, tragic progress of life. Prospero’s arrogance combines with a grievous insensitivity to the plight of his less fortunate countrymen. Although he possesses the wealth to assist those in need, he turns his wealth into a mode of self-defense and decadent self-indulgence. His decadence in throwing the masquerade ball, however, unwittingly positions him as a caged animal, with no possible escape.
The rooms of the palace, lined up in a series, allegorically represent the stages of life. Poe makes it a point to arrange the rooms running from east to west. This progression is symbolically significant because it represents the life cycle of a day: the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, with night symbolizing death. What transforms this set of symbols into an allegory, however, is the further symbolic treatment of the twenty-four hour life cycle: it translates to the realm of human beings. This progression from east to west, performed by both Prospero and the mysterious guest, symbolizes the human journey from birth to death. Poe crafts the last, black room as the ominous endpoint, the room the guests fear just as they fear death. The clock that presides over that room also reminds the guests of death’s final judgment. The hourly ringing of the bells is a reminder of the passing of time, inexorable and ultimately personal.
As in many Poe stories, the use of names contributes to the symbolic economic context of the story and suggests another set of allegorical interpretations. For example, Prospero, whose name suggests financial prosperity, exploits his own wealth to stave off the infiltration of the Red Death. His retreat to the protection of an aristocratic palace may also allegorize a type of economic system that Poe suggests is doomed to failure. In the hierarchical relationship between Prospero and the peasantry, Poe portrays the unfairness of a feudal system, where wealth lies in the hands of the aristocracy while the peasantry suffers. This use of feudal imagery is historically accurate, in that feudalism was prevalent when the actual Bubonic Plague devastated Europe in the fourteenth century. The Red Death, then, embodies a type of radical egalitarianism, or monetary equality, because it attacks the rich and poor alike.
The portrayal of the masquerade ball foreshadows the similar setting of the carnival in “The Cask of Amontillado,” which appeared less than a year after “The Masque of the Red Death.” Whereas the carnival in “The Cask of Amontillado” associates drunken revelry with an open-air Italian celebration, the masquerade functions in this story as a celebratory retreat from the air itself, which has become infected by the plague. The masquerade, however, dispels the sense of claustrophobia within the palace by liberating the inner demons of the guests. These demons are then embodied by the grotesque costumes. Like the carnival, the masquerade urges the abandonment of social conventions and rigid senses of personal identity. However, the mysterious guest illuminates the extent to which Prospero and his guests police the limits of social convention. When the mysterious guest uses his costume to portray the fears that the masquerade is designed to counteract, Prospero responds antagonistically. As he knows, the prosperity of the party relies upon the psychological transformation of fear about the Red Death into revelry. When the mysterious guest dramatizes his own version of revelry as the fear that cannot be spoken, he violates an implicit social rule of the masquerade. The fall of Prospero and the subsequent deaths of his guests follow from this logic of the masquerade: when revelry is unmasked as a defense mechanism against fear, then the raw exposure of what lies beneath is enough to kill.
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