The appearance of the Red Death within the abbey is ironic because Prince Prospero has taken extreme measures to protect himself from the plague. He has shut himself off from the majority of his subjects and fled to “the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.” The particular abbey he fled to “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 courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts” (670–671). Prospero has locked himself in his own fortress, with heavy iron protecting him, having "resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself” (671). In his mind, he will be fine, and the plague will take its due course, after which time life will continue as it always has. Prospero believes that he and high society will emerge; to him, it can be no other way.
The subsequent days of fortification are spent merrymaking, despite the problems of the outside world. At first glance it appears that Prospero has been successful in escaping the plague. However, Prospero’s fortunes cannot save him from the fate that awaits him.
Fate comes for Prospero and the other revelers in the form of a costumed stranger, in whom, the partygoers think, “neither wit nor propriety existed” (675). This commentary is due to the garb worn by the stranger, as it reminds everyone of the horrible plague that, until now, existed only outside the walls of the abbey. Unaware of the identity of the stranger on first sight, the revelers are upset that a reminder of the problems of the outside world has been directly brought to their attention. Here, during the ball, those whose riches have purchased them a better lot in life have become offended, as they have been reminded not only that the poor and the innocent are suffering, but also that they, too, could be made to suffer if not for their separation. Prospero’s reaction is the most severe of all:
[h]e was seen to be convulsed, and in the first moment with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage.
“Who dares?” he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near him—“who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him—that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!” (675)
The reminder of the suffering of others causes Prospero to wish to obliterate the figure that stands before him. No questions beyond “who dares?” have been asked. Rather, Prospero is content with the idea of killing the garbed figure, which shows that the prince is still attempting to live by the philosophy of “out of sight, out of mind.” However, once the true identity of the stranger is revealed, it becomes clear that Prospero and the other revelers remain tied to humanity and its problems, “[a]nd Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all” (677).
There are a number of ironies at work in this tale. Prospero took every precaution to make himself immune to the plague, but he was unable to avoid the problems of humanity. He fears the Red Death for its ability to kill quickly and without mercy, yet when he believes the stranger is a reveler who is trying to mock him, he wants the stranger killed quickly and without mercy, thus displaying the same characteristics of the monstrous plague. Through this short story, Poe ironically punishes his depraved protagonist by reminding him of his own fragility.