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The Masque of the Red Death

by Edgar Allan Poe
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How is "The Masque of the Red Death" a reflection of the Romantic period in terms of its style and content?

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American Romanticism has been considered a journey away from the corruption of civilization and the limits of rational thought and toward the integrity of nature and freedom of the imagination. The characteristic journey is to the pristine countryside, a countryside associated with moral clarity, independence, and healthy living.  However, in Dark Romanticism, of which Edgar Allan Poe is a part, the journey is one of the imagination, but often it travels to the mind's dark regions. This dark journey often leads to the exploration of the past and of the exotic and supernatural realms. Poetry, which is perceived as the highest form of this expression of the imagination, often ventures into these realms. Poe once wrote, 

They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.

Poe's use of symbolism connects strongly to Dark Romanticism's employment of the realm of imagination. In addition, Poe has acknowledged the existence of sin, pain, and evil in human life. His story "The Masque of the Red Death" blends all of these themes.

In the narrative of Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," the existence of sin and pain is certainly a motif. Material pleasures are used by Prince Prospero as distractions from the reality of the Red Death. However, death is inescapable as its figure "shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave" appears in the seventh room, the black and red room in which the clock tolls the final hour. The symbolism of this room and the other colored rooms is apparent: they represent the seven stages of human life. Poe's story is one that deals with the supernatural and the realm of the imagination.

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The period of American Romanticism in literature focuses on the individual or outcast, features fantasy, with introspective characters, and exotic settings. Poe's writings are emotional, mysterious, and dark, focusing on the complex individual, emotionally seeking an elusive goal or ideal.  In "The Masque of the Red Death," when Prince Prospero seeks to protect his courtiers from an unforgiving, grisly plague, he attempts to thwart death itself. 

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" opens with a vengeance, describing the fearsome plague with "the redness and the horror of blood."  The story has a dark, gothic setting, located in one of Prince Prospero's:

"castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron."

Poe's dark sweeping style as he describes the abbey and the masquerade is emblematic of the American Romantic Period because of the way "Masque" embodies all of the major characteristics.  He seamlessly incorporates the exotic with fantasy and the elusive goal, evading the Red Death.


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