What is the central conflict in "The Masque of the Red Death"?
The central conflict in "The Masque of the Red Death" is between the nobles of the country, especially Prince Prospero, and the "red death," a disease very much like the "black death" or plague that actually devastated late medieval Europe.
Prince Prospero is wealthy and powerful and tries to escape the plague by quarantining himself and his nobles in a vast abbey. This was something some of the nobles did during the black death, but it is not the act of a just or benevolent ruler; as a ruler, one should not abandon one's subjects to death while ensuring one's own personal safety.
Despite the precautions to quarantine himself and his nobles so that they cannot be affected by the plague, Prospero is followed into the abbey by the plague. Poe states:
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers . . .
This conflict and its phrasing is based on a biblical passage:
The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, ... But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. (1 Thessalonians 5:2)
This parallel suggests that death will always win the conflict, and that no matter how safe we are externally, we are by nature mortal. However, Christians believe that death for the saved is the beginning of eternal life, and thus within a medieval Christian context (the setting of the story), by his own selfishness in trying to avoid physical death, Prospero not only failed to avoid the plague but also sacrificed his chance at Heaven.
The central conflict of "The Masque of the Red Death" is Prince Prospero’s attempt to evade and defeat death. Prospero is the protagonist; Death or Fate is the antagonist. The climax of the story occurs in paragraph 13, when Prospero falls "prostrate in death." The crisis begins in paragraph 8, on the first appearance of the masked figure. The conflict is resolved with the revelation of the spectral nature of the figure and the instantaneous death of the guests. It is a tragic telling of what happens to someone when they try to "out-run death."