How does Poe create atmosphere and mood in "The Masque of the Red Death", "The Tell-tale Heart" and "The Raven"?

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litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Mood is the emotional landscape of a work.  In other words, it is how you feel when you read it.  In “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Raven,” Poe uses macabre imagery and rhyme to create a suspenseful and spooky mood.

Authors create mood by how they choose their words.  The descriptions in Poe’s works tend to be gothic, or evoking a spooky mood.  Poe was also a master of suspense, meaning his works make the reader wonder what will happen next.

Consider the words Poe chooses in “Masque of the Red Death” to establish the mood.  In the first paragraph, here are some of the words he uses:

Red, death, devastated, pestilence, fatal, hideous, redness, horror, “sharp pains,” “sudden dizziness,” “profuse bleeding,” scarlet, pest, seizure, termination, disease

Even when describing the careless and carefree prince as “happy,” the words are unsettling and do not give the reader a happy feeling.  Instead, they contribute to the suspense because we know that something bad is likely to happen to the prince.

Dauntless, sagacious, “deep seclusion,” “castellated abbeys,” extensive, magnificent, august, dauntless, lofty, girdled, iron, “massy hammers,” despair, frenzy, precaution, defiance, folly, grieve, buffoons, security

Once the story starts, we get a feeling of impending doom, or suspense.  He painstakingly describes the seven rooms and the prince’s extravagant party, and when the masked visitor arrives the revelry stops and the prince first threatens to hang him and then attacks him with a knife.  All of this is leading up to Prince Prospero realizing that the visitor is death, and the entire party dying one by one.

In “The Tell-tale Heart,” spooky words are again chosen carefully.  Words like “nervous,” “dreadfully,” “mad,” and “disease,” also create the mood right away.  Suspense is in turn created by the narrator’s insistence that he is not mad (crazy).  We know he is mad, and something bad is going to happen.  Phrases like “I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him” reinforce that.  Then, the narrator describes how he slowly peeked in the door to look at the old man’s evil eye.

It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. … I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye.  (enotes etext p. 4)

If the “vulture eye” did not give us a clue that something was up, the fact that it took him an hour to get his head in the door would!  Poe continues this suspense after the narrator kills the old man, when he is driven mad by the beating heart.  The most suspenseful moment is when he is showing the policeman around, and he can’t take it anymore and confesses.

In “The Raven,” Poe has some additional tools to create a spooky mood.  Since it is a poem, he can use rhyme and repetition to create a slow, melodic spookiness.  Consider the first line:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary (line 1)

This line uses internal rhyme with “dreary” and “weary” to immediately create the spookiness.  Words like “midnight” help too!  In addition to spooky words, Poe uses repetition to create suspense.  We want to know who is knocking on the door!

By repeating “rapping at my chamber door” and later on “nevermore” we get more and more curious and of course, spooked.

Read the study guide:
The Masque of the Red Death

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