In "The Masque of the Red Death", what do the tripods with the flames represent? Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The masquerade, a "voluptuous scene," with ornaments and tapestries and stained glass windows in the various chambers, but there is no light of any kind within the suite of chambers.  Instead, in the corridors there are heavy tripods lighted with burning coals that project rays of light through the tinted glass and by projections of its light, the rooms are illuminated.  But, the effect of the projected light is Gothic, creating ghastly appearances, upon the faces and costumes of the guests.  Especially in the black chamber, the light produced

so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot with its precincts at all.

It is as though the chambers have a bizarre dreamlike quality.  The narrator describes

much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm....To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact a multitude of dreams.

The rays of light that stream from the tripods seem to represent the flow of life, the flow of the dreams of man, who has a multitude of dreams.  But, as the night progresses, the clock peals and a grotesque and terrifying guest appears.  When Prince Prospero attempts to be rid of this hideous interloper, he is overcome, falling "prostrate in death." With the presence of the Red Death comes the death of all the guests,

And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay.  And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

With the expiration of life, the flames that give light and warmth to the seven ages of life also expire. Truly, they are symbolic of the life-sustaining blood that courses through the chambers of the human body.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the seven rooms, there are no sources of light whatsoever.  Instead,

in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire, that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room.

The effect of this light is somewhat ghastly, playing up the fantastic and off-putting appearance of both the painted rooms as well as the masqueraders dancing through the rooms in their elaborate and grotesque costumes.  The final room, the room of black and red — both colors that signify death (black because it is the color of night, which signals the end of day and red because it is the color associated with the horrible plague of the Red Death) — even contains an ebony clock (another instance of black, and on a timepiece, yet another common symbol of our mortality).  If darkness signifies death, then we may presume light signifies life.  

In the end, the "life of the ebony clock went out" as the final reveler expires, and "the flames of the tripods" goes out too.  This seems to confirm the connection between the tripods' light and human life.  Many readers agree that the sequence of rooms, running from east to west (like the course of the sun in one day: often a symbol for a human life), with their particular colors, represent the stages of a person's life.  Perhaps, since the tripods are placed outside of the rooms, their placement signifies that our life comes from someplace outside ourselves, that it is not something that we can control, ultimately.  Likewise, Prince Prospero takes many steps to prevent his own death by disease, but, in the end, he cannot control his own mortality.

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The Masque of the Red Death

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