Poe writes that the ebony clock, when it struck the hour, made a “melodious” chime, yet one that was “of so peculiar a note and emphasis” that even the musicians ceased playing to listen; in turn all the dancers ceased dancing, and everyone stood silent to hear this strange striking sound. At each striking of the hour all motion and gaiety stops, and “dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand.” This description is important, for the clock itself is a symbol of fear; more specifically, the fear of the red death, which no one—not even the jolliest of revelers—can shrug from his mind. And, as the clock temporarily kills the dreams of them all, it seems to be counting down until they are killed permanently.
Prince Prospero’s party comes at a time of plague for the community in the story—the red death is sweeping the land, and to protect himself and those of his dominion as yet not afflicted with the disease, the prince invites one thousand healthy friends and retreats to a garrison:
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. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within…With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion.
The dancers are well-protected, and yet the clock continues to chime, and each of them continues to stop as if frozen to hear the uncanny sound it makes on the hour. This is the fear, a product of the terrible knowledge that no one can escape the plague. It is just a matter of time before the disease breaks through the prince’s fortifications and wreaks havoc among them. The setting of the clock, as well as the disconcert of its chime, amplifies the feelings of fear and death. The party takes place in many differently-colored rooms, and the clock—made of black ebony—is in the room furthest west, draped in black velvet, cast in eerie shadows by the flickering firelight. There were few dancers in this room, for the decorations unnerved them. And yet, at the end of the story the guests have all crowded into it, for it is in this room, after having given chase to the intruder masked as one infected with the red death, the prince is struck down, and the intruder found to be incorporeal—not a mask, but indeed the red death itself. In the room, with the chiming of the clock, one of their own number—the most powerful of their own number—succumbs to the plague. The peoples’ time is up. They are no longer protected, and their ever-present fear is realized.