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The Masque of the Red Death

by Edgar Allan Poe
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What is the central conflict in "The Masque of the Red Death"?

The central conflict in "The Masque of the Red Death" is man vs. nature. Prince Prospero believes that he and his friends can escape the natural process of dying, but they face the Red Death directly when death shows up at their masquerade ball.

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The central conflict in "Masque of the Red Death" is man vs. nature. Prince Prospero, who is "happy and dauntless and sagacious," tries to escape the natural process of death by sequestering a thousand friends to his castle and hiding from the contagion which sweeps through the kingdom. This death is a particularly gruesome one, causing sharp pains and a profuse bleeding from the pores of the body and ending the life of its victim within a half hour. Prince Prospero seems to believe that he can spare himself from this Red Death (capitalized in the story to personify its ability to seek out its victims) because he and his friends are rich and beautiful. This pride is a character flaw.

After five or six months of hiding from the Red Death, Prince Prospero decides to throw a masquerade for his thousand friends. The party is arranged through a series of rooms, each featuring a lively décor—except the final room. In this last room, the windows are blood red, and black velvet tapestries hang on the walls. These are the colors of death and are particularly reminiscent of the Red Death which the Prince and his friends are trying to escape. During the party, Prince Prospero encounters a guest who has dared to portray the visual image of the Red Death through his costume, and this enrages the Prince. He demands that the guest be unmasked so that they will know whom they need to hang from the battlements at sunrise.

The party goers are led into the black and bloodred room by this figure, and they are shocked when they unmask him and find that the costume is "untenanted by any tangible form." The conflict ends as Prince Prospero and his friends drop dead, victims of the Red Death which they believed they could escape. In the end, money and beauty could not save them, and "the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."

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On a literal level, the central conflict of Poe's classic short story "The Masque of the Red Death" is considered a man versus nature conflict, where Prince Prospero and his nobles attempt to survive the deadly contagion that is rapidly spreading throughout the countryside. The "Red Death" is an extremely deadly pestilence that has devastated Prince Prospero's nation and left thousands dead in its wake. In order to avoid the plague, Prince Prospero secludes himself inside his magnificent abbey with a thousand knights and dames from his kingdom. The aristocrats remain safe from the deadly pestilence for several months until the literal personification of the Red Death enters the abbey and ends up killing everyone inside, including Prince Prospero. Another central conflict in the short story is man versus self. Prince Prospero struggles to accept his own mortality and fears death. He attempts to create and live in his own artistic, self-contained world in order escape the reality of death. However, the prince discovers that no one can escape death at the end of the story when he meets his fate.

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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.

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