How is death portrayed in the story "The Masque of Red Death" by Edgar Allan Poe?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe immerses the reader into an atmosphere of a wild, fantastic masquerade party given by Prince Prospero.  The story is an allegory  in which the characters and events symbolize a deeper meaning. Death can be found all over the story from the initial description of the “Red Death” plague to the ending of the party by Death.

The Prince knows how to give a party! Bizarre costumes and masks deter anyone from  knowing "who is who."  The huge black clock counts the minutes until  Midnight . The setting of  the seven elaborately colored rooms in which the ball is held, to the whirling, writhing, costumed masqueraders delivers a grotesque and dreamy quality.

The last room becomes the climatic setting of the masquerade.  When the characters stand in the room, they appear to be covered by blood just as the victims of the plague from which Prospero hides.  Everyone avoids the room.

At the stroke of midnight,  the character of death frequents the party . Representing both the death by the plague and death in general, the Red Death points up the theme which Poe employs in the story: Death is inevitable and cannot be avoided.  Prospero tries to hide and ignore death from the plague. 

On this day after several months in hiding, the Prince believes he has avoided the Red Death,  so he will celebrate with his friends.  He wants to focus on the masque and fun and frivolity. All the party goers seem to be having a fabulous time until the stroke of midnight when the uninvited guest arrives to gather his fold unto him.

'Who dares?' he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near him -- 'who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him -- that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!'

That would be death!

The writer embodies death in an unusual way: a party goer with a costume stalking the other people.  Death scares others by his costume with staring dead faces all covered in blood. He does not need to do anything to scare people. The masked figure turns out to be Red Death “who slips in like a thief in the night.” He claims the lives of everyone present, again symbolizing that no escapes death. 

The Prince tries to avoid facing his mortality by masking his face.  Death knows his victims and finally Prospero knows that death is at the party. The others avoid him until the death of the Prince.  Then, he is unmasked with the discovery that nothing is under the costume—just Death.  The final stoke, and everyone dies. He claims the lives of everyone present, again symbolizing that no escapes death.




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The Masque of the Red Death

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