Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The style of “The Masque of the Red Death” focuses primarily on the pictorial rather than on narrative. Poe attempts to create the sense that the story exists as a painting does, within space and outside time. The story has been called Poe’s most pictorial composition, an arabesque that attempts to create an intricate geometric spatial pattern. Thus it is quite static, lacking in narrative plot and emphasizing instead the spatial arrangements of painting. However, the irony is that because “The Masque of the Red Death” is a story and therefore exists in time, time triumphs. Thus the conclusion of the story emphasizes that the artistic effort to transform temporality into spatiality is doomed to failure. Even the seven rooms, which suggest a geometric pattern of static positioning, become transformed into an image of the time span of life when Prospero follows the Red Death through a temporal progression from birth to youth to maturity to old age and finally to death. It is when Prospero must confront the reality of the temporality of life that he inevitably must confront the death that life always insists on.

Thus, although the story is ostensibly about the moral lesson of the human inability to escape death, it is actually an aesthetic allegory or fable, in which Prospero represents Poe’s image of the artist who insists on creating an ideal artwork, but who is always trapped by the time-bound nature of life. “The Masque of the Red Death” embodies an aesthetic theme common to much of Poe’s short fiction. Such stories as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “Ligeia” also focus on man’s attempt to find refuge from death in the immutable realm of art. However, while these other stories attempt to create a world of psychologized obsession to embody this theme, “The Masque of the Red Death” is a striking example of Poe’s attempt to deal with it in the conventional genre of allegory. Like much of Poe’s fiction, “The Masque of the Red Death” should not be dismissed as a simple gothic horror story, but rather should be understood in terms of the aesthetic theory that dominated Poe’s work.