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.

The Masque of the Red Death

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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

(Short Stories for Students)

Three of the most important women in Poe's life died of tuberculosis. Although the "pestilence'' in the...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Allegory and Parable
"The Masque of the Red Death'' is considered an allegorical tale; this means that the...

(The entire section is 884 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

Nineteenth Century: In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tuberculosis (also commonly referred to as...

(The entire section is 382 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Nathaniel Hawthorne was an American writer and a contemporary of Edgar Allan Poe. Hawthorne' s short story collection Twice-Told...

(The entire section is 372 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

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

(The entire section is 83 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

"The Raven,'' one of Poe's most famous works, is written from the perspective of a man remembering his love who has died.


(The entire section is 141 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Bell, H. H., Jr. '‘‘The Masque of the Red Death'—An Interpretation,’’ in South Atlantic...

(The entire section is 259 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.