Poe’s Short Stories – “The Masque of the Red Death” (1845)

Summary
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.
Analysis
“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.