The Masque of the Red Death Questions and Answers
by Edgar Allan Poe

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Is there one or more recurring motifs in the story "The Masque of the Red Death"?

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As your question implies, there are several motifs in Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death." Motifs in literature are, by their nature, recurring—actions, images, even phrases, that appear throughout the work in various contexts qualify as motifs. A sub-category of motif, called the leitmotif, is also present in the tale. For example, the rooms and their colors, which represent the Seven Ages of Man (from Shakespeare's As You Like It), function as a leitmotif, an image that represents the symbolic journey of the revelers through the various states of life.

One of the most important motifs in the story centers on Prince Prospero's and his revelers' ultimately unsuccessful attempt to avoid their fate, which is death:

When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted individuals...and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.

Poe's use of "castellated abbeys" is not simply picturesque. In the Middle Ages and later in Europe, castles were only allowed to certain royals under certain conditions because they were such strong defensive positions. A prince who wanted a castle, or a castellated stronghold had to have permission from the king, and Poe's use of "castellated" is meant to imply that Prospero's physical defense against the plague is particularly formidable, which makes the ending of the tale all that more ironic. Prospero's physical defense, the castle-abbey, plays an ironic part in the motif of death's inevitability.

Another, and perhaps more obvious, motif is the grotesque nature of Prince Prospero and his revelers. They are the embodiment of the abnormal, from their dress to their actions. First, Prince Prospero orchestrates the festivities after half his population has died, "while the pestilence waged most furiously abroad," and these festivities are the result of Prospero's "love of the bizarre"—so much so, in fact, that "some would have thought him mad." Second, the revelers themselves, chosen from the most prominent people in the kingdom, are equally grotesque:

There was 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.

Poe depicts a prince and his followers who have abandoned all normalcy in their attempt to out-dance death as they achieve a kind of invulnerability created by a combination of isolation, intoxication, and celebration. They discover, in the blood-red tinted black room, at the end, that their grotesqueries are not sufficient to avoid the same fate that has engulfed Prince Prospero's lesser subjects.

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