What is Poe saying about life or death?

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dstuva's profile pic

Doug Stuva | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" simply reveals that no one can escape death. 

The host takes every precaution and seals out the world, but to no avail.  Death gets in anyway. 

The "figure in question," as it is referred to, had "...out-Heroded Herod," and was "...shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments [cloths fit for a corpse] of the grave."  The mask that covers its face "...was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat [detecting how it was made or in what way it is fake]." 

Soon, Prospero, the host, is dead, and so is everyone else.

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epollock | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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The central conflict of "The Masque of the Red Death" is Prince Prospero’s attempt to evade and defeat death. Prospero is the protagonist; Death or Fate is the antagonist. The climax of the story occurs in paragraph 13, when Prospero falls "prostrate in death." (The crisis begins in paragraph 8, on the first appearance of the masked figure.) The conflict is resolved with the revelation of the spectral nature of the figure and the instantaneous death of the guests.

During the time of the story, a plague is devastating the countryside near Prospero’s estates. The obvious historical parallel is the bubonic plague, the "Black Death," which ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages and again in the late seventeenth century. (The plague was called "black" because victims turned cyanotic from lack of oxygen as they died.) When Poe’s story first appeared, the bacteriological causes of contagious disease were not yet understood. Louis Pasteur (1822–1895), who eventually made this discovery, was then only twenty years old. Disease was thus unexplained and unexplainable. (One may cite similar mysterious outbreaks, such as Legionnaire’s Disease and aids, even during our own medically enlightened times.) During epidemics of plague, the common defense had been simply to flee from places where it was breaking out.

One may maintain a strong or even valiant struggle against death, but in the end, we all fail.