Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The style of “The Masque of the Red Death” focuses primarily on the pictorial rather than on narrative. Poe attempts to create the sense that the story exists as a painting does, within space and outside time. The story has been called Poe’s most pictorial composition, an arabesque that attempts to create an intricate geometric spatial pattern. Thus it is quite static, lacking in narrative plot and emphasizing instead the spatial arrangements of painting. However, the irony is that because “The Masque of the Red Death” is a story and therefore exists in time, time triumphs. Thus the conclusion of the story emphasizes that the artistic effort to transform temporality into spatiality is doomed to failure. Even the seven rooms, which suggest a geometric pattern of static positioning, become transformed into an image of the time span of life when Prospero follows the Red Death through a temporal progression from birth to youth to maturity to old age and finally to death. It is when Prospero must confront the reality of the temporality of life that he inevitably must confront the death that life always insists on.
Thus, although the story is ostensibly about the moral lesson of the human inability to escape death, it is actually an aesthetic allegory or fable, in which Prospero represents Poe’s image of the artist who insists on creating an ideal artwork, but who is always trapped by the time-bound nature of life. “The Masque of the Red Death”...
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The Masque of the Red Death (Magill Book Reviews)
Prospero takes extraordinary precautions against the plague’s appearance. He fortifies his abbey with a lofty wall and iron gates. He also provides elaborate comforts for his favored subjects within. These include entertainments such as a masquerade ball.
The ball suite contains seven rooms, each a different color ranging from blue to ebony. Their number can represent the threescore and ten years of life, their colors life’s stages. The black room has scarlet windows and a gigantic ebony clock against its west wall. It combines the color of death and mourning with that of blood and also time imagery with the location of the classical underworld. Only the boldest guests dare enter this last room, and its clock’s chime silences the musicians and makes the ball guests grow pale.
Though he directs every detail of life within the walls, Prospero cannot control the Red Death’s appearance as “guest” at the masquerade. The plague claims Prospero within the black western chamber, then one by one destroys the revelers.
Death’s inevitable triumph fascinated Poe and recurs often in his work. That death appears in the splendor and comfort of Prospero’s abbey makes its victory more ironic, and Prospero’s name adds to the irony. Nevertheless, Poe’s symbols are suggestive rather than rigid.
Poe’s comparison of Prospero’s ball to that in HERNANI, an 1830 play by Victor Hugo, is a clue to Death’s arrival....
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Three of the most important women in Poe's life died of tuberculosis. Although the "pestilence'' in the story ‘‘Masque of the Red Death’’ is not defined, it seems reasonable to assume that it is inspired in some ways by Poe's experience with tuberculosis. The distinguishing mark of the "Red Death'' is profuse bleeding, just as the distinguishing sign of tuberculosis is the coughing up of blood. According to Britannica Online, tuberculosis, often referred to in literature as "consumption," is ‘‘one of the great scourges of mankind.’’ The disease ‘‘reached near-epic proportions’’ in industrializing urban areas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this time, it was ‘‘the leading cause of death for all age groups in the Western world.''
Much of Poe's writing can be referred to as "impressionist," depicting the subtle details of a sensitive mind from a highly subjective perspective. Britannica Online describes an impressionist story as ''a tale shaped and given meaning by the consciousness and psychological attitudes of the narrator.’’ Impressionism—a school of thought in the world of painting—emerged primarily in France in the mid-1860s. The most notable impressionist painters were Claude Monet and Pierre August Renoir. Impressionist painters rebelled against the dominant values of painting at the time, which emphasized...
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Allegory and Parable
"The Masque of the Red Death'' is considered an allegorical tale; this means that the literal elements of the story are meant to be understood as symbolic of some greater meaning. Britannica Online explains that an allegory ‘‘uses symbolic fictional figures and actions to convey truths or generalizations about human conduct or experience.’’ More specifically, this story may be read as a parable, a sub-category of allegory in which, according to Britannica Online, ‘‘moral or spiritual relations are set forth.’’
As a parable, ‘‘Masque of the Red Death’’ is symbolic of how humans respond to the knowledge of their own mortality. The reaction of Prince Prospero and his ‘‘thousand friends’’ to the presence of the Red Death is an attempt to use their material privileges in order to escape the inevitability of their own deaths. But the fact that the "masked figure’’ slips into their midst ‘‘like a thief in the night’’ is symbolic of the fact that no amount or wealth or privilege can exempt a person from death, no amount of entertainment or distraction can completely eliminate the fear of death, and no amount of security can keep death from arriving at one's doorstep. "The Masque of the Red Death'' affirms the futility of man in his elaborate attempts to deny and defy his own mortality.
Imagery and Symbolism
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Compare and Contrast
Nineteenth Century: In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tuberculosis (also commonly referred to as ‘‘consumption’’) reached epidemic proportions, particularly in developing urban and industrial areas. During this time, it was the leading cause of death in the West.
Twentieth Century: Thanks to developments in sanitation and hygiene, the spread of tuberculosis was significantly curbed for most of the twentieth century. In the 1980s, however, the disease began to make a comeback in the West, and is still a threat in developing nations.
Nineteenth Century: Gothic fiction, or Gothic horror, was developed as a literary genre in the nineteenth century. In England, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) was one of the first Gothic novels of note, followed by others, such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1895). In America Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne were notable authors of Gothic fiction.
Twentieth Century: Gothic fiction in the late twentieth century has developed into two distinct genres. On one hand, the modern horror story flourishes, in both the...
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Topics for Further Study
Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American writer and a contemporary of Edgar Allan Poe. Hawthorne' s short story collection Twice-Told Tales is considered to share similar elements of Gothic horror with the short stories of Poe. Read at least one of Hawthorne's stories from this collection for comparison with '"The Masque of the Red Death.'' Discuss the similarities and differences.
Discuss Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death'' in terms of how it portrays a societal or group response to illness and plague. What is the attitude of the privileged guests of Prospero's castle toward those outside the castle who are more vulnerable to and afflicted by the Red Death? In what ways can this story function as a parable, or story with a moral, for understanding contemporary societal responses to the disease of AIDS and those infected with HIV?
Poe's ‘‘The Masque of the Red Death’’ is, in some ways, a story about human and societal responses to the inevitability of death. In what ways do Prospero and his guests attempt to deal with, or not deal with, their own impending deaths? Research the psychology of death to learn more about how people in contemporary times attempt to deal with the deaths of others, and with their own mortality.
During Poe's lifetime, tuberculosis was a very common disease, characterized most notably by the symptom of the coughing up of blood. As three of the most important women in Poe's life died of...
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Poe's short stories ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Terrifying Tales’’ were recorded on audiocassette by August House in 1995. The stories are read by Syd Liberman.
"Poe Masterpieces’’ is a collection of Poe's short stories recorded on audiocassette by the Listening Library in 1987.
Poe's detective stories are recorded on an audiocassette entitled "The Murders in the Rue Morgue’’ by Books on Tape in 1992.
"The Best of Edgar Allan Poe'' is a selection of Poe's short stories recorded on audiocassette by the Listening Library in 1987.
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What Do I Read Next?
"The Raven,'' one of Poe's most famous works, is written from the perspective of a man remembering his love who has died.
Twice-Told Tales, by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a collection of short stories by a contemporary of Poe. These stories have elements of Gothic fiction, and are often compared to Poe's Gothic style.
"The Fall of the House of Usher'' is another of Poe's famous short stories, and is written in the Gothic style.
Edgar Allan Poe: Chelsea House Library of Biography (1992), by Suzanne Levert, presents a standard biography of Poe.
Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe's Tales: A Collection of Critical Essays (1971), by William L. Howarth, presents several diverse critical interpretations of Poe's work.
An Edgar Allan Poe Companion: A Guide to the Short Stories, Romances and Essays (1981), by J. R. Hammond, offers an introduction to Poe's fiction and essays.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bell, H. H., Jr. '‘‘The Masque of the Red Death'—An Interpretation,’’ in South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. 38, No. 4, 1973, pp. 101, 104.
Britannica Online [database online], Chicago, Ill.: Encyclopaedia Britiannica, Inc., 1999- [cited August 1999], available from Encyclopaedia Britiannica, Inc., Chicago, Ill., s.v. "Allegory," "Impressionism," "Infection," "Parable," ‘‘Short Story,’’ and "Tuberculosis."
Cassuto, Leonard. ‘‘The Coy Reaper: Un-masque-ing the Red Death," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 3, 1988, pp. 317-20.
Cheney, Patrick. "Poe's Use of The Tempest and the Bible in 'The Masque of the Red Death,'’’ in English Language Notes, Vol. 20, No. 3-4, March-June, 1983, p. 34.
Roppolo, Joseph Patrick. ‘‘Meaning and 'The Masque of the Red Death,'’’ in TSE: Tulane Studies in English, Vol. 13, 1963, pp. 59-69.
Thompson, G. R., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 3: Antebellum Writers in New York and the South, edited by Joel Myerson, Gale Research, 1979, pp. 249-97.
De Shell, Jeffrey. The Peculiarity of Literature: An Allegorical Approach to Poe's Fiction, Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickenson Presses, 1997.
Discusses both Poe's detective stories and his horror stories in terms of their allegorical...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Burluck, Michael L. Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytical Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Kennedy, J. Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe, A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 2001.
Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University...
(The entire section is 158 words.)