What effect does the fear of death have on Poe's characters in “The Premature Burial” and “The Masque of the Red Death?"

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The fear of death has a profound impact on the characters in "The Premature Burial" and "The Masque of the Red Death." In both works, death occupies central importance in the characterizations.  In "The Premature Burial," death in the form of being buried alive, occupies the basic thoughts of the narrator:  "To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fAllan to the lot of mere mortality."  Death, in the form of being buried alive, is considered to be the embodiment of human suffering.  It is this condition that haunts the narrator, eventually causing him to believe that he has been buried alive.  In "The Masque of Red Death," death influences the characters in the same way.  Death is something that must be kept outside of the walls, locked away from its reach.  In this very act of repelling, the reality is that death occupies central importance, something that Poe communicates in the text:  

But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. ...The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the 'Red Death."

Prospero's and his guest's attitudes highlight their view of death.  It is something that is to be kept "without."  It is a force that is so imposing on the individual that they seek to repress its reality in the hopes that by wishing it away, death actually dissipates.  In both works, the characters' primary motivations and reasons for being are strongly shaped by death.  

Poe displays death as an inescapable force.  It is a reality that casts a looming shadow on human beings.  While human beings have different reactions to it, fear in one setting and rejection in another, Poe displays how death is an awe- inspiring force, a condition that overcomes mortal conditions.  Wealth and preoccupation are no match for the condition of death.  In both works, death and its fear constructs how individuals live their lives and what they do with it.

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