Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The theme of Poe’s allegory quite clearly focuses on the impossibility, regardless of one’s power, wealth, and influence, of escaping mortality. However, the story is somewhat more complex than this easy moral statement would suggest. First, the particular nature of the Red Death itself creates a basic irony. The metaphor of a “Red” death, because it suggests blood, is the conventional image, not of death, but rather of life itself, for the presence of blood on the face of a person suggests the life within it. In this sense, every living person wears a mask of red—the blood visible beneath the skin. However, it is precisely this sign of life that ironically suggests death. For Poe’s point is that it is the very presence of life that inevitably means death. Thus, Prospero does not simply try to escape death; rather, by enclosing himself within the castle and shutting out the outside world, he attempts to escape life into a realm hermetically closed off—in short, into a world very much like Poe’s notion of the art work itself.
In this sense, Prospero is a reflection of William Shakespeare’s character of the same name in The Tempest (1611), similarly an aesthetic magician who creates an alternate world of imaginative reality not susceptible to the contingencies of external reality. Indeed, Poe’s emphasis in “The Masque of the Red Death” is that the abbey within which Prospero retreats is his own “creation,” a result of...
(The entire section is 436 words.)
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While this story is literally about a pestilence called the Red Death, it can be read at an allegorical level as a tale about man's fear of his own mortality. In the story, Prince Prospero and his ‘‘thousand friends’’ seal themselves into an abbey of his castle in an attempt to ‘‘defy contagion’’ and escape the clutches of the Red Death. The Prince employs "all the appliances of pleasure'' in order to distract his guests both from the suffering and death outside their walls and from thoughts of their own vulnerability to the Red Death. The Prince's actions symbolize the ways in which all humans tend to focus on material pleasures in order to distract themselves from the knowledge that everyone, including themselves, eventually must die.
The fact that the Red Death slips in "like a thief in the night'' to claim the lives of everyone present symbolizes the fact that no one, not even the powerful and wealthy, can escape death, which eventually claims all mortals. Just as everyone must eventually "face'' the fact of their own mortality, the Prince dies the moment he literally "faces" his own Death, and can no longer deny its presence in his castle.
The theme of time in this story is closely linked to the theme of death. Of course, the passage of time signals the approach of death; as the saying goes, each minute that passes brings us one minute closer to our death. Poe at one...
(The entire section is 986 words.)