The Masque of the Red Death Essays and Criticism
by Edgar Allan Poe

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Narrative Voice in "The Masque of the Red Death"

(Short Stories for Students)

Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Masque of the Red Death’’ may be interpreted variously as a parable for man's fear of death, a moral tale with biblical implications, or the delusional vision of a madman waging an internal battle for his own sanity. Depending on each of these interpretations, the narrator may be identified as a personification of Death, a divine being or an insane individual.

Death and Time
"The Masque of the Red Death'' can be interpreted as an allegorical tale about the folly of human beings in the face of their own inevitable deaths. If the Red Death symbolizes death in general, then the Prince's attempt to escape the pestilence, in ‘‘defiance of contagion,'' is symbolic of the human desire to defy death. Prince Prospero attempts to create a fortress that will be impervious to the Red Death, providing his guests ''all the appliances of pleasure" as a means of distracting them from the contemplation of death. The entire masquerade ball can be read as an allegory for the ways in which humans attempt to distract themselves from thoughts of their own mortality by indulging in earthly pleasures. Yet, the "masked figure'' who appears at the masquerade ball is the Red Death itself, which, despite all precautions, slips in "like a thief in the night'' to claim the lives of everyone within, just as death eventually claims all mortals. As Joseph Patrick Roppolo has pointed out in his article ''Meaning and 'The Masque of the Red Death,'’’ the Red Death symbolizes ‘‘life itself. The one 'affliction' shared by all mankind. Furthermore, because all of the people are dead by the end, and Death is the only one who survives to tell the tale, Leonard Cassuto, in his article ''The Coy Reaper: Unmasking the Red Death," has argued that the narrator of the story must be Death itself.

Thus, the masquerade ball may be interpreted as symbolic of human life, the hours during which the ball takes place as symbolic of the limited time each person must live, and the seven rooms of the abbey in which the ball is held as symbolic of the stages in a man's life, from birth to death. In his pursuit of the masked figure through the seven rooms of the abbey, Prospero metaphorically passes through all the stages of life. H. H. Bell, Jr. has pointed out in his article "'The Masque of the Red Death'—An Interpretation’’ that Poe seems to represent these rooms as "an allegorical representation of Prince Prospero's life span.’’ This is partly indicated by the fact that the first room is located in the Eastern end of the abbey and the last room in the Western end. Because the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, this arrangement is suggestive of the dawn and dusk of life. Bell explains that ''these directions are time-honored terms which have been used to refer to the beginning and end of things— even of life itself." Furthermore, the seventh room is decorated in black, which is associated with night and death, and red, which the story strongly associates with the bloodiness caused by the pestilence of the Red Death. Out of fear, the guests avoid the seventh room, just as the living tend to avoid reminders of death. In the other six rooms, meanwhile, "beat feverishly the heart of life."

The placement of the great ebony clock in the seventh room connects the passage of time with the progression of the rooms from birth to death. The clock signifies the story's pre-occupation with Time as an instrument of death. That Poe chose to capitalize the word Time, personifying it by giving it a proper name, further suggests that he is referring to "time'' not in a literal sense, but as in an allegorical sense. Extending the metaphor of a single day for a life span, as implied by the location of the seven rooms from East to West, the clock marks out the time remaining in the lives of the guests, ending at midnight.

While Prospero's guests dance and the orchestra plays, the striking of the clock each hour is a foreboding reminder that the...

(The entire section is 14,085 words.)