What is the theme of "The Masque of the Red Death"?

A key theme of "The Masque of the Red Death" is that no one escapes death. The story utilizes irony to show that death is egalitarian and comes to everyone, regardless of income, wealth, or social status. Prince Prospero and his friends believe they can escape the Red Death in their privileged world and show no empathy for the villagers outside the palace who are suffering. Yet, they ultimately succumb to death just as the villagers do.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One could reasonably argue that the most important theme in "The Masque of the Red Death" is the inescapability of death. All those rich, aristocratic guests who've rocked up at Prince Prospero's castellated abbey think that they're safe from the deadly plague rampaging across the land, causing misery and death in its wake.

But they couldn't be more wrong if they tried. Despite being shut up behind the large, thick walls of Prospero's fortress-like home, they cannot escape the Red Death that stalks the land.

In portraying the attempts of Prospero and his guests to avoid the ravages of the Red Death, Poe is making a general point about our relationship with death. Even though we all know we're going to die, we prefer not to think about it, as it's rather unpleasant.

But at some point, we're going to have to face up to the mortality of our condition. This means being open and honest about death, instead of trying to run away from it. Prince Prospero tried to run away from death, and look where it got them. We may not end up suffering the same fate as these people, but it's still better for us to acknowledge our mortality instead of ignoring it as so many of us do.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The theme of "The Masque of the Red Death" is that no one, no matter how powerful or how rich, escapes death. The theme is shown through the actions of the characters and through irony, as death is extremely democratic and egalitarian. Death essentially is the great equalizer.

The story is about a wealthy prince, Prince Prospero, and his privileged friends who lock themselves away in the prince’s ornate palace to dance and make merry as they wait for the plague to pass through their village so that it will once again be safe for them to return to the outside world. Meanwhile, the people outside the castle are struggling. They live in close quarters where the plague spreads easily. They also do not have access to the wealth, food, and privileges that Prince Prospero and his friends take for granted.

Yet, the prince and his circle never for a moment consider helping the less fortunate people in the outside world in any way. They think only of themselves and their indulgences. They believe themselves to be above everyone else and, most importantly in terms of the theme of the story, above the eponymous Red Death, or the plague. Yet, they are as susceptible as the poor people who live in the village outside the palace are. They face the same death that the villagers face, despite their scornful disregard of human life and misery just a short distance away.

Thus, the underlying theme of the story that illustrates their inability to escape the democratic forces of the Red Death also shows another important theme of the story: their lack of compassion and empathy for others also ends up working against them. Although we do not know how many of the villagers survive the Red Death, not one person within the palace survives. Perhaps, had they been more willing to extend help to the less fortunate, they might also have had an opportunity to access whatever herbs or medicines that some of the villagers might have used to save themselves.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are several themes in "The Masque of the Red Death". The central theme is that no man escapes death. The other central theme is that time passes no matter what one might attempt to do thereby causing death to come no matter what.

The other theme is madness or insanity. It is insane to have a ball in the middle of the plague ravaged country. Prince Prospero may be the narrator of the story, and as such may also be the madman. Poe is the genius of the disturbed interior monologue. The ball may simply be a figment of the disturbed mind of a madman.

At the stroke of midnight, the partygoers are confronted with a newcomer to the party. This person is costumed in such a manner that he appears to be a victim of the "red death" a type of plague that causes bleeding from the pores of the body. One might now call it a type of Ebola virus based on the symptoms given in the story.  The partygoers have not escaped the red death, it has come to visit them.

The passage of time is also noteworthy as each of the guests pause as the clock strikes the hour proving that they have escaped death and this plague for a measurable period of time. They breathe a sigh of relief and return to their revelry. This works until midnight when a previously unnoticed guest arrives clad in the death robes and smeared with blood. This costume is so like the appearance of a victim of the red death that Prince Prospero and the guests are shocked and then angered. However, the guest is the red death.  The guests have not escaped the plague, and time stops for each one of them as they die.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are several possible themes for this story, depending on which aspect you choose to emphasize. The most obvious would probably be "Death is inevitable; you can't escape, no matter how wealthy or powerful you are." We see this with Prince Prospero and his partygoers, of course. His desperate attempt to cheat Death, and his willingness to revel in celebration while others are dying, ends with his own submission to the Red Death. Thus, he falls victim to the one thing he tried to escape.

Another theme (closely related) is that we are all subject to the passing of time. In the story, time is closely linked to death, as each tick of the clock forces the partygoers to consider their own mortality. Indeed, the clock stops striking after the last eprson has died. Thus time becomes a symbol for unstoppable forces, the ones no one can escape.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial