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The Masque of the Red Death

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Critical Discussion

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"The Masque of the Red Death" is a classic example of Poe’s melodramatic gothic style. The supernatural visitation of a disease taking on a temporarily physical appearance and walking amongst its victims is designed to invoke fear.

The tale is, however, more than a simple horror story. As in an allegory, the characters are few – only Prospero is named, given a moniker which suggests health, happiness and prosperity. His followers are nameless and faceless and the figure does not speak. The tale concludes rapidly once the figure’s identity is realized, with little analysis or detail. We are shown that death is something which cannot be escaped. Barricades and superiority cannot prevent the inevitable.

The seven rooms in which the story are set are significant, seven being a recurrent number in many schools of human thought. The seven days of the week, the seven eras of the history of the world and, most importantly, the seven stages of a man’s life. The different chambers can be seen to each represent a different life stage, with the seventh representing death. As the figure leads Prospero and his courtiers towards the final chamber he is leading them towards their deaths.

"The Masque of the Red Death" was written at a time in Poe’s life where he was keenly aware of the inevitability of death. The story was written soon after his wife Virignia was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the disease which killed many of the women Poe was close to. Whilst the fictitious Red Death is very different from tuberculosis, Poe was aware that tuberculosis was incurable and fatal, although the death would not be as swift as that of Prospero’s people.

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