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Prospero and one thousand of his friends attempt to escape the Red Death, a horrible pestilence, by sealing themselves in his castle while the Death spreads outside. They not only physically separate themselves from the misery outside, but engage in lavish, extravagant parties, including the masque which gives the story its title. Of course, Prospero and his guests cannot escape Death, which arrives at the party in costume and kills everyone, including the Prince himself. Despite their best efforts, they, just like everyone else, cannot escape death in the end.
Prince Prospero took the only way that was known in his time to try to avoid being infected with the plague. Poe describes it as “the Red Death,” perhaps in order to distinguish it from the so-called “Black Death” which was the worst such plague in Western history. It spread from the Middle East to Europe, killing an estimated 75- to 200-million people before it peaked about 1353. Boccaccio’s classic book The Decameron a collection of tales told by a group of privileged Italians who fled the congested city and remained isolated like the characters in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” No doubt Poe was at least partly inspired by historical accounts of the horrors of the Black Death and by Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1349-1351).
Here is how Poe describes how Prince Prospero and his friends tried to escape from the Red Death:
When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure....A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion.
The whole point of Poe's story is that death is inescapable and that life is nothing but frivolity and distraction. The grim figure described as "the intruder" and "the stranger" enters Prince Prospero's heavily fortified abbey without the slightest effort, as if he has the power to pass through walls. Once inside he claims the lives of all the hitherto merrymaking men and women, including Prince Prospero.
Prospero gathers 1,000 of his aristocratic friends, seeking out those who are healthy ("hale") and optimistic and fun loving ("light-hearted") and seals them in an abbey to escape the red death, which is ravaging his kingdom.
The abbey is secluded and surrounded by strong, high walls, and the Prince and his guests secure the structure against intruders by welding the gates shut. The welding also insures that no one can leave. Here, Prospero, ironically described as "dauntless" and "sagacious," plans to ride out the red death with his friends. Others might suffer: they believe they will not.
The red death, like the Bubonic Plague or black death, is described as a disease that kills quickly and horribly. For about five or six months, however, Prospero and his friends live safely while the pestilence rages outside their walls.
Yet the illusion of safety ends. The point of the story is that it is impossible to wall death out. The narrator suggests that some might have considered Prospero "mad," and even amid the revelry and gay pleasures of the masque the guests experience unease. This unease is not without basis, for death invades the revels in the form a mysterious stranger, who comes dressed as the red death and kills them all.
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