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Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" is only intelligible if the reader understands that it is intended as an allegory. The real subject is the universal fear of death, the horror of death, the mystery of death, and the inability to escape it. Sir Francis Bacon begins his essay "Of Death" with the following words:
Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark.
Poe himself was dreadfully afraid of dying, as many of his stories show. What bothered him most, apparently, was that he was one of the moderns who had lost the comfort of religious faith which had sustained the people of the Western world for many centuries. In Poe's famous poem "The Raven," the black bird keeps croaking the word "Nevermore," implying that there is no hope for an afterlife. For example:
"Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Leonore--
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quote the Raven, "Nevermore."
The aristocrats in "The Masque of the Red Death" who attempt to seal themselves inside a castle in order to seal Death out are only putting off the inevitable. Their banquets and revelry are all an attempt to escape from thinking about what is happening outside and what may happen to them. Poe has chosen to dramatize the experiences and distractions of the rich and powerful in order to demonstrate that Death comes for everyone regardless of wealth and status. The one thing that all of the people inside the castle want to avoid thinking about and talking about is Death. The "Red Death" is nothing but a metaphor for the reality of Death, who has everybody's name marked down for extinction on a cosmic calendar.
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall....And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
Poe wrote a poem about the inevitability of death which is titled "The Conqueror Worm." He included this poem in his chilling story "Ligeia," which is also inspired by the mystery of death.
Out — out are the lights — out all!
And over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
And the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.
“O God!” half shrieked Ligeia, leaping to her feet and extending her arms aloft with a spasmodic movement, as I made an end of these lines — “O God! O Divine Father! — shall these things be undeviatingly so? — shall this Conqueror be not once conquered? Are we not part and parcel in Thee? Who — who knoweth the mysteries of the will with its vigor? Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”
So "The Masque of the Red Death" is another of Poe's creations inspired by his hypersensitive preoccupation with the mystery of death. He seems to have been using art as a means of escape from his morbid fears and fantasies, which are expressed in "Ligeia," "The Raven," "The Masque of the Red Death," and many of his other works. His morbid preoccupation with death is what people think of when they think of Poe. But, since people in general occasionally have the same fears and fantasies, they continue to keep his name alive.
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