What kind of atmosphere did Poe create in "The Masque of the Red Death"?

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The atmosphere inside the castle seems to be one of frantic, enforced gaiety. It is a bit reminiscent of the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Versailles just before the outbreak of the French Revolution--and perhaps there is a hidden political message in Poe's story. The people inside...

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The atmosphere inside the castle seems to be one of frantic, enforced gaiety. It is a bit reminiscent of the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at Versailles just before the outbreak of the French Revolution--and perhaps there is a hidden political message in Poe's story. The people inside the castellated abbey do not feel completely safe. They seem to be aware of the devastation being caused by the Red Death outside the castle walls, but to be trying their best to keep from thinking about it by diverting themselves with every possible kind of worldly pleasure.

This story is evidently intended to be read like an extended metaphor representing reality and the human condition. We are all aware that our deaths are inevitable, and yet we try to ignore the fact and to divert ourselves with all kinds of serious and frivolous activities. It would be maddening to have to be confined in such a setting for a long period of time, and the various forms of entertainment would begin to seem like lunacy. The interior of the castle is supposed to be beautiful, but it actually seems rather hideous because of its wild colors and extravagant decorations. The people pretend that they are having a good time, but most of their pleasures seem empty. They have locked the world out, but they have locked themselves in. They are prisoners. Good quotations which would serve as a moral for Poe's story are to be found throughout Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. For example:

I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity.

I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?

Poe seems to be drawing an analogy between Prince Prospero and his guests, on the one hand, with many of us who are alive today, on the other. We know we are going to have to die someday, but we don't want to think about it. We try to think about anything else. 

In one of Ingmar Bergman's marvelous "existential" films,Through a Glass Darkly (1961), David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), the father of Karin, the lovely girl who has recently been released from a mental hospital and is desperately searching for God, tells his daughter:

We draw a magic circle around ourself and shut out everything that doesn’t agree with our secret games.

Poe seems to be suggesting a similar contrast between "the supreme madness of the carnival" in which Fortunato is taking part in "The Cask of Amontillado" and the catacombs full of dead men's bones just below their feet. Poe was obsessed with death, as is obvious in many of his stories, notably in "Ligeia," which contains his morbid poem "The Conqueror Worm." Here is one stanza: 

But see, amid the mimic rout,
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out 
The scenic solitude!
It writhes! --it writhes! --with mortal pangs 
The mimes become its food,
And the seraphs sob at vermin fangs 
In human gore imbued. 

 

"The Masque of the Red Death" is more like a parable than a modern short story. It is very heavy on "atmosphere" but very light on plot. None of the characters is well drawn, including Prince Prospero (who has a name similar to Fortunato's in Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"). 

 

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