Style and Technique
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
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.
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...
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