illustration of a clockface wearing a mask and ticking closer to midnight

The Masque of the Red Death

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Style and Technique

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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.

The Masque of the Red Death

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Prospero takes extraordinary precautions against the plague’s appearance. He fortifies his abbey with a lofty wall and iron gates. He also provides elaborate comforts for his favored subjects within. These include entertainments such as a masquerade ball.

The ball suite contains seven rooms, each a different color ranging from blue to ebony. Their number can represent the threescore and ten years of life, their colors life’s stages. The black room has scarlet windows and a gigantic ebony clock against its west wall. It combines the color of death and mourning with that of blood and also time imagery with the location of the classical underworld. Only the boldest guests dare enter this last room, and its clock’s chime silences the musicians and makes the ball guests grow pale.

Though he directs every detail of life within the walls, Prospero cannot control the Red Death’s appearance as “guest” at the masquerade. The plague claims Prospero within the black western chamber, then one by one destroys the revelers.

Death’s inevitable triumph fascinated Poe and recurs often in his work. That death appears in the splendor and comfort of Prospero’s abbey makes its victory more ironic, and Prospero’s name adds to the irony. Nevertheless, Poe’s symbols are suggestive rather than rigid.

Poe’s comparison of Prospero’s ball to that in HERNANI, an 1830 play by Victor Hugo, is a clue to Death’s arrival. Hugo’s protagonist kills himself upon the arrival of a black-robed figure. The ball guests of Poe’s play in like manner fear the sinister stranger.

Historical Context

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Tuberculosis
Three of the most important women in Poe's life died of tuberculosis. Although the "pestilence'' in the story ‘‘Masque of the Red Death’’ is not defined, it seems reasonable to assume that it is inspired in some ways by Poe's experience with tuberculosis. The distinguishing mark of the "Red Death'' is profuse bleeding, just as the distinguishing sign of tuberculosis is the coughing up of blood. According to Britannica Online, tuberculosis, often referred to in literature as "consumption," is ‘‘one of the great scourges of mankind.’’ The disease ‘‘reached near-epic proportions’’ in industrializing urban areas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During this time, it was ‘‘the leading cause of death for all age groups in the Western world.''

Impressionism
Much of Poe's writing can be referred to as "impressionist," depicting the subtle details of a sensitive mind from a highly subjective perspective. Britannica Online describes an impressionist story as ''a tale shaped and given meaning by the consciousness and psychological attitudes of the narrator.’’ Impressionism—a school of thought in the world of painting—emerged primarily in France in the mid-1860s. The most notable impressionist painters were Claude Monet and Pierre August Renoir. Impressionist painters rebelled against the dominant values of painting at the time, which emphasized subjects taken from mythology. Instead, impressionism was, according to Britannica Online, ‘‘an attempt to accurately and objectively record visual reality in terms of transient effects of light and colour.’’

Gothic Fiction in England
Poe is considered one of the early masters of Gothic fiction. The term gothic was originally borrowed from architecture, but refers to a style of literature that developed in the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century, particularly in England. Gothic fiction is characterized by a dark, macabre atmosphere, focusing on themes of death, horror, madness and the supernatural. Landmark works of Gothic fiction in England include Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1895).

The Short Story in Russia and France
It wasn't until the nineteenth century that the short story was developed into an art form and a respectable genre of literature. Poe was an early master of the short story, and a considerable influence in formulating a set of aesthetics for its unique form. The form of the short story was also developed around the same time in Germany, Russia and France. Great French short story writers included Alphonse Daudet and Guy du Masupassant, while many other writers, primarily known for their novels, also experimented with the form. In Russia, Nikolay Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, and Anton Chekov distinguished themselves as masters of the short story. Gogol, in particular, wrote impressionist stories on a par with Poe's. His 1842 story "Overcoat" was one of the most influential Russian short stories of the period.

The Grand Guignol
Poe's stories of Gothic horror contain the roots of modern horror fiction and the modern horror film. However, before the invention of cinema (about 1895), Gothic horror was enacted on the theater stage in a style referred to as Grand Guignol. Originally staged in England, but primarily successful in France, Grand Guignol performances depicted scenes of graphic horror, such as reenactments of true-crime murders, with an emphasis on the special effects of blood, dismemberment and gore.

Literary Style

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Allegory and Parable
"The Masque of the Red Death'' is considered an allegorical tale; this means that the literal elements of the story are meant to be understood as symbolic of some greater meaning. Britannica Online explains that an allegory ‘‘uses symbolic fictional figures and actions to convey truths or generalizations about human conduct or experience.’’ More specifically, this story may be read as a parable, a sub-category of allegory in which, according to Britannica Online, ‘‘moral or spiritual relations are set forth.’’

As a parable, ‘‘Masque of the Red Death’’ is symbolic of how humans respond to the knowledge of their own mortality. The reaction of Prince Prospero and his ‘‘thousand friends’’ to the presence of the Red Death is an attempt to use their material privileges in order to escape the inevitability of their own deaths. But the fact that the "masked figure’’ slips into their midst ‘‘like a thief in the night’’ is symbolic of the fact that no amount or wealth or privilege can exempt a person from death, no amount of entertainment or distraction can completely eliminate the fear of death, and no amount of security can keep death from arriving at one's doorstep. "The Masque of the Red Death'' affirms the futility of man in his elaborate attempts to deny and defy his own mortality.

Imagery and Symbolism
The seven chambers of the abbey, according to critic H. H. Bell, Jr., in his article '‘‘The Masque of the Red Death': An Interpretation,’’ represent the seven decades of a man's life, so that the final chamber, decorated in red and black, represents death. Bell interprets the seven chambers as ‘‘an allegorical representation of Prince Prospero's life span.’’ This view is supported by the fact that the first room is located in the East, which symbolizes birth, because it is the direction from which the sun rises, and that the last chamber is located in the West, which symbolizes death, as the sun sets in the West. Bell interprets each of the colors of the seven rooms—blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet— as symbolic of ‘‘Prospero's physical and mental condition in that decade of his life.’’ The seventh room is the location of death, as it is eerily decorated in black and red—black being a color associated with death and night, and red being a color strongly associated with blood, and, in this story, the Red Death. Meanwhile, in the first six rooms ‘‘beat feverishly the heart of life.''

Located in the seventh room, the clock can be read as a symbol of the limited time each person has to live. Thus, the stroking of the clock each hour is a reminder to the guests of the limited time left in their own lives. Midnight represents the hour of death, because it is at midnight that the "masked figure'' is noticed by the guests. These allegorical details culminate in the death of the Prince, in the seventh room, shortly after the stroke of midnight, at the precise moment when he literally "faces" his own death. The clock as a symbolic representation of human life is also indicated in the closing lines, as "the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay.’’

Narration
At the most literal level, this story is told in the ‘‘third person,’’ meaning that the narrator is not a character in the story. However, as critic Leonard Cassuto has speculated, the narrator of the story may be the Red Death itself, since all of the people in the story are dead by the end, and the Red Death is the only one left to tell the tale. On the other hand, if the entire story is interpreted as the dream of a madman (the Prince Prospero), all its characters figments of his imagination (‘‘dreams’’), and his death not literal but psychological, then the narrator could be the Prince himself. Finally, because the story is told in the manner of a biblical morality tale, in which God punishes the evil by sending down a "pestilence" upon the land, it could be argued that the narrator is in fact a divine being.

Setting
The story takes place in an unnamed ‘‘country,’’ in no specific time period or geographical location, which has been ravaged by a deadly "pestilence.’’ The ambiguity of the exact setting lends the story a "once upon a time'' element, and places it in the realm of a parable or fable.

Personification
Personification is the use of metaphorical language that assigns a non- human object or animal human traits. Poe indicates the personification of certain concepts by capitalizing them, as one would a proper name. He thus personifies The Red Death, Time, Beauty, Darkness, and Decay. This lends the story an element of myth or fairy tale, as each term seems to be symbolic of broader concepts that refer to the human condition in general.

Gothic horror
Poe is considered one of the early masters of Gothic horror fiction. The genre was developed in the nineteenth century, originally in the literature of Great Britain, and is characterized by elements of the supernatural, gruesome scenes of horror, dark settings, and a preoccupation with death and madness. "The Masque of the Red Death'' contains all of these elements.

Compare and Contrast

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Nineteenth Century: In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tuberculosis (also commonly referred to as ‘‘consumption’’) reached epidemic proportions, particularly in developing urban and industrial areas. During this time, it was the leading cause of death in the West.

Twentieth Century: Thanks to developments in sanitation and hygiene, the spread of tuberculosis was significantly curbed for most of the twentieth century. In the 1980s, however, the disease began to make a comeback in the West, and is still a threat in developing nations.

Nineteenth Century: Gothic fiction, or Gothic horror, was developed as a literary genre in the nineteenth century. In England, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) was one of the first Gothic novels of note, followed by others, such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1895). In America Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne were notable authors of Gothic fiction.

Twentieth Century: Gothic fiction in the late twentieth century has developed into two distinct genres. On one hand, the modern horror story flourishes, in both the novel form, with such prolific writers as Stephen King and in cinema, with such films as Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. On the other hand, the modern, mass-market paperback romance novel, often referred to as Gothic romance, is also descended from the Gothic novel.

Nineteenth Century: On the stage, tales of Gothic horror were depicted most notably in the style of the Grand Guignol, known for performances which emphasized graphic depictions of gory violence. Grand Guignol theater was performed primarily in France although it enjoyed a brief popularity in England.

Twentieth Century: The genre of Gothic horror has met with the greatest success in the twentieth Century in the cinema. Beginning in the 1960s, horror films showed increasingly graphic portrayals of blood, gore, and violence.

Nineteenth Century: The HIV virus did not exist.

1990s: Since the epidemic of the disease known as AIDS exploded in the early 1980s, the HIV virus that is believed to cause AIDS has spread throughout the world, reaching epidemic proportions. The spread of AIDS is thought to be the primary cause of the increased prevalence of tuberculosis in the West, as those suffering from AIDS are more vulnerable to infection with tuberculosis.

Media Adaptations

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Poe's short stories ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Terrifying Tales’’ were recorded on audiocassette by August House in 1995. The stories are read by Syd Liberman.

"Poe Masterpieces’’ is a collection of Poe's short stories recorded on audiocassette by the Listening Library in 1987.

Poe's detective stories are recorded on an audiocassette entitled "The Murders in the Rue Morgue’’ by Books on Tape in 1992.

"The Best of Edgar Allan Poe'' is a selection of Poe's short stories recorded on audiocassette by the Listening Library in 1987.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Bell, H. H., Jr. '‘‘The Masque of the Red Death'—An Interpretation,’’ in South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. 38, No. 4, 1973, pp. 101, 104.

Britannica Online [database online], Chicago, Ill.: Encyclopaedia Britiannica, Inc., 1999- [cited August 1999], available from Encyclopaedia Britiannica, Inc., Chicago, Ill., s.v. "Allegory," "Impressionism," "Infection," "Parable," ‘‘Short Story,’’ and "Tuberculosis."

Cassuto, Leonard. ‘‘The Coy Reaper: Un-masque-ing the Red Death," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 3, 1988, pp. 317-20.

Cheney, Patrick. "Poe's Use of The Tempest and the Bible in 'The Masque of the Red Death,'’’ in English Language Notes, Vol. 20, No. 3-4, March-June, 1983, p. 34.

Roppolo, Joseph Patrick. ‘‘Meaning and 'The Masque of the Red Death,'’’ in TSE: Tulane Studies in English, Vol. 13, 1963, pp. 59-69.

Thompson, G. R., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 3: Antebellum Writers in New York and the South, edited by Joel Myerson, Gale Research, 1979, pp. 249-97.

Further Reading
De Shell, Jeffrey. The Peculiarity of Literature: An Allegorical Approach to Poe's Fiction, Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickenson Presses, 1997.
Discusses both Poe's detective stories and his horror stories in terms of their allegorical meaning.

Deas, Michael. The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989.
A picture book of daguerreotype portraits taken of Poe.

Silverman, Kenneth. New Essays on Poe's Major Tales, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Diverse critical interpretations on the short fiction of Poe.

Smith, Don. The Poe Cinema: A Critical Filmography of Theatrical Releases Based on the Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 1999.
Lists film and videos based on Poe's works. Includes plot descriptions and themes, mostly in the horror genre.

Bibliography

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Burluck, Michael L. Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytical Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe, A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 2001.

Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

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