The Masque of the Red Death Summary

"The Masque of the Red Death" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe in which a plague known as the Red Death spreads through 14th Century Europe. Prince Prospero invites one thousand nobles to hide away from the disease.

  • Prince Prospero invites one thousand nobles to isolate themselves from a plague called the Red Death in a luxurious abbey.
  • The courtiers attend a masked ball.
  • One of the attendees wears a costume that simulates the effects of the Red Death.
  • Prospero is angered by the mysterious guest’s disguise.
  • Prospero pursues the individual and discovers that he is a literal personification of the Red Death.

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1340

"The Masque of the Red Death" (1842) is a tale of plague, of terror and of death, written in Poe’s gothic style.

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In an unspecified year an unnamed land is besieged by the Red Death, a plague which spreads and kills rapidly. Victims are swiftly affected by sharp pains and dizziness, followed by bleeding form the pores. The disease is named for the blood stains on the body and, especially, the face. Victims die within half an hour of the first symptoms.

The land is shrouded in terror, but Prince Prospero is determined not to be a victim. He gathers a thousand of his happy and loyal followers and together they cloister themselves in one of his abbeys. The castle is fortified so that none may enter or leave. Protected from exposure to disease, they remain there for several months.

Eventually Prince Prospero holds a magnificent masquerade ball for his courtiers. The dance is held in an elaborately decorated suite of seven rooms which flow into each other in a maze-like sequence. Each room is a different color, draped in velvet and other ornate furnishings, lit by braziers burning in a corridor beyond and shining through stained glass windows the same color as the furnishings. Only the last room differs. This seventh room is shrouded in black tapestries and carpet, but the windows of this room are blood red, so that the light coming through the windows casts a ghastly hue on the faces of anyone who enters. This room is mostly avoided by the revelers.

The final chamber provides another chilling aspect. It houses a huge ebony clock which ticks loudly and chimes horribly. When it sounds each hour the sound is so disconcerting that the musicians stop playing and the party halts momentarily. This pause is soon over and forgotten until the next hour.

In spite of the room and its clock, the party proceeds gaily. The party goers, safe in their extended seclusion from the outside world, enjoy the festivities. Dressed in masks and costumes ranging from the fanciful to the grotesque, they move from chamber to chamber, each one presenting a different fantasy, avoiding only the final chamber and stopping only when the hourly chimes intrude.

It is only when the clock strikes midnight and the revelries are stopped for the twelve strokes, that the party goers become aware of a figure amongst them not previously noticed. The unrecognizable one is dressed in such a way as to excite terror in the other partygoers. Whilst many among them wear hideous and even frightening costumes, only this figure excites true terror. He is shrouded in burial robes with a death mask covering his face, As a final grotesque touch his face and body are spread with blood.

This joke is too much for even the bravest of the partygoers. When Prospero himself lays eyes on the newcomer he, too, is initially scared, before becoming overcome with rage. His voice rings out through the chambers, ordering the partygoers to seize and unmask the stranger. He is to be punished most severely for daring to blaspheme in such a way.

Despite the Prince’s order, the partygoers are slow to respond. The sight of the figure paralyzes them with fear so that he is able to travel through the chambers unimpeded by the figures he moves amongst. Belatedly, the Prince gives chase, drawing a dagger against the intruder. He catches up with him as he enters the final eerie chamber. As the figure turns, however, the Prince gasps, drops the dagger and collapses, dead.

In despair at seeing their patron struck down, the courtiers throw themselves at the unmoving figure, gasping in horror as they find the death robes and mask empty of any visible form. They have been visited by the Red Death. One by one the partygoers fall down dead. The clock ceases to tick and the flames go out, leaving the castle in darkness, vanquished by the Red Death.

Alternate Summary

Poe's story "The Masque of the Red Death'' begins with a description of a plague, the "Red Death." It is the most deadly plague ever, as ‘‘no pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous.’’ The symptoms of the plague include ‘‘sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores.’’ The ‘‘scarlet stains’’ on the body, and especially the face, of its victims are the "pest ban'' or first visible signs of the disease. Once the stains appear, the victim has only thirty minutes before death.

In order to escape the spread of the plague, Prince Prospero invites ‘‘a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court’’ to seal themselves "in deep seclusion" in an abbey of his castle, allowing no one to enter or leave. With adequate provisions, Prospero and his privileged guests attempt to "bid defiance to contagion,’’ by sealing themselves off from the suffering and disease spreading throughout the rest of their country. The Prince provides for his guests "all the appliances of pleasure'' to help them not to "grieve'' or to "think'' about the Red Death raging outside the walls of the abbey.

Toward the end of the fifth or sixth month, the Prince holds a masquerade ball for his guests, ‘‘while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad.’’ The Prince takes elaborate measures in his decorations for the ball, which is to take place in ‘‘an imperial suite'' of seven rooms, each decorated in its own color scheme. The only lighting in each room comes from a brazier of fire, mounted on a tripod, which is set outside the stained glass windows of each room, causing the color of the glass to infuse the entire room. The progression of rooms is from blue to purple to green to orange to white to violet to black. The seventh room, decorated in black velvet, is lit by the fire burning behind a red-stained glass window. But the effect of the red light is "ghastly in the extreme,’’ and the seventh room is avoided by most of the guests.

In the seventh room is a ‘‘gigantic clock of ebony'' which strikes at each hour. The sound of the clock striking is "of so peculiar a note and emphasis" that all of the guests, as well as the orchestra and the dancers, pause at each hour to listen, and there is "a brief disconcert in the whole company.'' But the revelers remain ‘‘stiff frozen’’ only for a moment before returning to their music and dancing.

At the stroke of midnight the guests, pausing at the sound of the clock, notice a mysterious ‘‘masked figure’’ in their midst. The figure wears ‘‘the habiliments of the grave'' and the mask on its face resembles "the countenance of a stiffened corpse.'' The costume of the mysterious figure has even taken on ‘‘the type of the Red Death.’’ Its clothing is ‘‘dabbled in blood’’ and its face is ‘‘besprinkled with the scarlet horror.’’

When Prince Prospero sees this mysterious figure, he orders his guests to seize and unmask it, so that he may hang the intruder at dawn. But the guests, cowering in fear, shrink from the figure. In a rage, Prospero, bearing a dagger, pursues the masked figure through each of the rooms—from blue to purple to green to orange to white to violet. The figure enters the seventh room, decorated in a ghastly black and red, and turns to face Prospero. The Prince falls dead to the floor. But when the guests seize the figure, they find that, underneath its shroud and mask there is ''no tangible form.’’

The guests realize that the Red Death has slipped into their abbey "like a thief in the night'' to claim their lives, ‘‘and one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel.'' The last line of the story describes the complete victory of the Red Death over life: "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.’’

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