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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What do the clothes symbolize in "The Masque of the Red Death"?

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In Edgar Allan's Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," Poe isolates his characters away from the larger society, in the castle of Prince Prospero. This allows Poe to focus his attentions on the inner life of the castle itself, and he gives us a window into Prospero's mind via the ways that the prince decorates his castle and the revelers within it.

Poe writes of Prospero:

[I]t was his own guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders. Be sure they were grotesque. There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm—much of what has been seen in "Hernani." There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There were 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. To and fro in the seven chambers stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams. And these the dreams—writhed in and about, taking hue from the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as the echo of their steps.

There are a number of images to focus on in order to understand the symbolism at work. Firstly, the fact that Prospero himself has designed both the rooms as well as the garb of the revelers symbolized Prospero's decadence and his thirst for excess. He isn't content to simply lock himself away with his troop of revelers. Instead, he wants every aspect of his masquerade to be to his exact specifications. Everything is in abundance, as is shown in the connection to Hugo's "Hernani." Prospero does not confine himself to social standards of acceptability, as "delirious fancies" are visible.

The various decorations and costumes are "grotesque," which suggests that they are twisted or skewed in a way that reflects the distorted mind of Prospero himself. Here is a man who believes himself above all others and gives himself fully to hedonistic excess. He plans to not only wait out the plague decimating the land but to be entertained while he does it—to engage in and subject others to his every desire. The costuming of the revelers, as well as the decorations of the various rooms, are symbolic of Prospero's own twisted, narcissistic fantasies.

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