How does the story "The Masque of the Red Death" represent death and human beings' reactions to their own mortality ?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Much like the Tenth Plague of Egypt that stealthily entered dwellings and killed the first born, the Red Death steals into a dwelling and takes its victims. In his arrogance and egotism, the wealthy, "dauntless and sagacious" Prince Prospero believes that he can seal off his "castellated abbey" to which he invites his courtiers where they need fear no contagion from the Red Death that plagues his kingdom. At this fortified castle, Prospero holds a masked ball in order to entertain his friends and dispel their fears of death. Much like the seven stages of man about which Jacques in Shakespeare's As You Like It expounds--

  1. The helpless infant
  2. The whining schoolboy
  3. The emotional lover
  4. The devoted soldier
  5. The wise judge
  6. The foolish old man
  7. The corpse

--there are seven suites in the palace, each of these is positioned so that only one room at a time may be viewed, just as one must live each stage of life at a time. Within each room Prospero has 

...much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust....a multitude of dreams.

These dreams of life's stages draw their colors from the hues of the rooms, as people's lives are affected by their environments, and the guests move feverishly around these rooms in order to defy their fears of looming death. But, in the midst of all this movement, a figure appears that incites in the guests horror and terror, a figure who has "out-Heroded Herod," the king who ordered all first born killed. Seeing that this figure's clothing is dabbled in blood, and his mask made to look like the visage of a cadaver, the guests halt their merriment in horror, for they have no defense against death. 

Enraged that this intruder has arrested the merriment of his guests, Prospero shudders himself for a moment, but then he becomes enraged. "Who dares?" he demands, "insult us with this blasphemous mockery?" Nevertheless, the intruder makes his way through the chambers until Prospero, ashamed of his momentary hesitation and cowardice, pursues the masked spectre and attempts to defy it with his dagger. Suddenly, this mysterious and sinister guest turns and confronts the man who would stop him. The guests hear "a sharp cry" and Prospero's dagger falling heavily to the floor. "And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death." Inescapable, this Red Death attacks all and all succumb to him. Just as in life, no wealth, no fortifications can prevent Death from visiting a person; nor no weapon can prevent Death from seizing that for whom he has come.

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The Masque of the Red Death

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