The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The imagery of “The Masque of the Red Death”—which was initially published as “The Mask of the Red Death” in Graham’s Magazine, probably because the periodical’s editor thought the word “masque” was too exotic—has been echoed many times since, in all manner of literary and cinematic works. It is perhaps most familiar to twenty-first century readers from film adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (serial 1909-1910, book 1910; The Phantom of the Opera, 1911) and stage and film versions of the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber also based on that novel. Contemporary audiences may also know Roger Corman’s relatively lavish film version—which also takes in the Edgar Allan Poe story “Hop-Frog: Or, The Eight Chained Ourangoutangs” (1849), the climax of which is similarly set at a decadent masquerade.

Within the story itself, the costumes adopted in the masked ball are likened to those featured in Victor Hugo’s verse drama Hernani (pr., pb. 1830; English translation, 1830), whose sensational premiere at the Comédie-Française in February, 1830, was elevated to legendary status by Théophile Gautier’s Histoire du romantisme (1872; history of Romanticism). Gautier lavishly described and celebrated a pitched battle allegedly fought at the premiere between the playwright’s supporters and outraged defenders of Classicist tradition. The imagery of this description was, however, effectively effaced by Poe’s own description, the gaudiness of which became an ideal of exotic decadence to which all actual masked balls aspired in vain.

The apocalyptic flamboyance of the story constitutes pure Gothic imagery: The Gothic novel, as it was called in England, had long been established as prose fiction’s principal contribution to the Romantic rebellion against Classicist ideals of artistic form and decorum. The story also marked the beginning of a new tendency in nineteenth century literature. The literary method of Victor Hugo, who was thought of as the figurehead of the French Romantic movement, had been described by the Classicist critic Desiré Nisard as “decadent,” and, although Hugo himself rejected that descriptive term vehemently, some of his more disillusioned contemporaries were only too enthusiastic to embrace it and glory in it. Principal among these self-described decadents was Poe’s French translator, Charles Baudelaire.

In Poe, Baudelaire thought he had found a twin soul, one who had given voice in prose to the dark sentiments Baudelaire routinely expressed in his poetry. “The Masque of the Red Death” was one of the works the French poet held up as a central exemplar of a decadent sensibility and a decadent style. When Joris-Karl Huysmans provided the ultimate celebration of decadent ideas and ideals in his lifestyle fantasy novel À rebours (1884; Against the Grain, 1922), its narrator argued that the prose poem was the ideal form for the exercise of decadent style, and “The Masque of the Red Death” then became one of the type specimens to which all decadent prose ought to aspire. Its ornate manner and nihilistic trajectory were widely imitated, but there remained a sense in which they remained unsurpassable, having already sounded the extremes of potential.

The style of “The Masque of the Red Death” is deliberately artificial, its narrative viewpoint is calculatedly distant, and it only contains one item of speech. In all these respects, it runs counter to the dominant trend in the development of nineteenth century prose fiction, which was to import the elements of novelistic narrative realism into the short story, converting its key exemplars into delicate “slices of life.” Perhaps, therefore, Poe’s piece should not be regarded as a “story” at all, but rather as a “tale” akin to and derived from the tradition of oral narration rather than affiliated with the evolution of written texts. Like many folkloristic tales—but not the literary adaptations of such tales for...

(The entire section is 1,241 words.)