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

The Masque of the Red Death book cover
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Think of the different rooms in "The Masque of the Red Death." What is the significance of their order? Why do the men avoid the blood-red room? What does its placement in the west signify? Answer in CEER format.

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As your first question suggests, in Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," his allegorical tale of the futility of attempting to avoid death set in a "crenellated abbey" is itself a symbol of defense against outside forces—and each of the seven colored rooms is presumed to be part of the allegory.

The source of Poe's use, if not the colors, of the seven rooms to represent the movement of the revelers no doubt is drawn from Shakespeare's As You Like It (7:2) in which Jacques tells Duke Senior that man's life is in seven stages—which he lists as infancy, childhood, adolescence, youth (that is, young adulthood), mid-life, senescence (that is, old age), and dotage (very old age, near death). With respect to Prospero's color, then, blue represents infancy, purple represents youth, green represents adolescence, orange represents young adulthood, white represents mid-life, violet represents old age, and black represents dotage and death.

Your question also asks why the revelers avoid the black-shrouded room, which is suffused with blood-red light from the braziers shining through tinted windows. We must look back to the opening of the tale and the description of the plague that has killed half of Prince Prospero's kingdom and threatens those within his presumably unassailable castle:

Blood was its Avatar [i.e., symbol]—and its seal—the redness and horror of blood....The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut them our from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure...were the incidents of half an hour.

Given the power of this plague, which is described as even more virulent than the Black Plague—ravaging Europe several times beginning in the fourteenth century, reducing the population by at least 30 percent—the revelers would have a natural horror of a black room bathed in blood-red light.

In a culture deeply familiar with allegorical constructs, the revelers could not avoid the association of the seventh room with the plague they are trying to avoid, even if some are in a mood to tempt fate. The ominous-sounding clock, whose sound inspires the revelers with "disconcert and tremulousness and meditation," provides another incentive for the revelers to remain in the first six rooms.

The placement of the Black Room in the west can be interpreted in several ways, but the most likely is that the west is associated with death—the sun rises in the east, as life begins, and sets in the west, as life ends. In fact, the idiom "to go west," in nineteenth-century America, was often used to signify dying. Poe's choice may also have had a religious connotation: in the Christian belief system, the dead are often buried with their feet oriented to the east so that their faces are also pointed east, thought to be the direction from which Christ will appear in the Second Coming as the sun rises.

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