In Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," from what perspective is the story told? What effect does the point-of-view have on the reader's sympathies?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" (1842) is recounted through a modified limited omniscient narrator, which describes a narrator who can see everything that is going on throughout the story and can even see into the minds and souls of one or more characters.  With the narrator of this story, however, although the reader gets one or two glimpses into the mind of a character, most of the narration is objective--that is, we the action and hear the dialogue without knowing what the characters are thinking and feeling.  For example, when Prince Prospero has finally decided to act against the intruder who has ruined his celebration, we are told that

. . .  the Prince Prospero, maddening with rage and the shame of his own momentary cowardice, rushed hurriedly through the six chambers, while none followed him on account of a deadly terror that had seized upon all.

This is one of only two or three instances in which the narrator is able to tell the reader what a character is feeling--in this case, the Prince is "maddening with rage and shame,"  something only an omniscient narrator can allow us to see.  Only an omniscient narrator can look inside a character and detect that character's feelings and motivations.  At the same time, however, when the Prince actually attacks the mysterious figure, we are told that "the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero."  As with most of the narrative, we have no knowledge of what the Prince is thinking or feeling as he dies.  The narrator leaves us to guess at what the Prince might have experienced as he died, and our natural inclination to be sympathetic is dulled by our inability to understand what the Prince felt when he died in such a horrible manner.

In "Masque," the limited omniscient objective narrator reduces our view of the action to the view of those who might be watching the narrative unfold on a video camera--we can interpret only what we see (with the exceptions I noted above), and our understanding is dependent only upon our eyes, ears and other senses.  More important, perhaps, because we do not see into the mind and soul of a character so as to develop sympathy for that character,  Poe has created a story in which the reader's natural sympathy for, or identification with, a character is non-existent.  Our senses become overloaded with sounds, color, and light, but they are not focused on a character whose fate we are concerned with, so the story, which is a cautionary tale of the futility of challenging nature (death), is yet another Poe story in which human sympathy is not the point.

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