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The Masque of the Red Death

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Analysis of key elements in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death."

Summary:

Key elements in "The Masque of the Red Death" include symbolism, setting, and themes. The story's setting in Prince Prospero's abbey symbolizes false security, while the colored rooms represent stages of life. The central theme is the inevitability of death, as illustrated by the Red Death's inescapable arrival, highlighting the futility of trying to avoid mortality.

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What does "Masque" mean in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

On a literal level, a mask is something that we hide behind.  It changes our features on a surface level, but does not change who we really are.

In a masquerade, people wear masques and costumes.  This is fun because you get to pretend you are someone else.  The prince and his guests are pretending, all right.  They are pretending that outside the walls the people are not dying of a terrible plague.

The masquerade is described as “voluptuous” (p. 4).  The Prince’s tastes influence the other masqueraders.

[It] was his own guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders. Be sure they were grotesque. There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm… (p. 5) 

The masqueraders’ costumes are “delirious fancies such as the madman fashions” (p. 5), and they are described as beautiful, wanton, bizarre, terrible and disgusting.  These adjectives describe the people themselves, so ironically their costumes betray their reality.  Death finds them, even with their masques. 

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What are the symbols in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

It is also believed that the seven rooms of seven colors may represent the seven deadly sins, which are: sloth (laziness), lust, gluttony (eating too much), avarice (greed), pride, anger, and covetousness (taking what does not belong to you). Since the Prince was a selfish and arrogant man, it could be said that he committed all of the above, which would certainly allow an explanation of the seven rooms representing each sin.

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What are the symbols in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

In addition to the excellent answer above, I would point out the symbolism of the name "Prospero," a take, of course, on the word "prosperous." However, (as Rene mentioned) none is immune from death, no matter how wealthy he or she may be.

Another symbol is the clock, which is so prominent in black room (the color black being a synomym for death) and probably is symbolic of the ticking away of life, from the second we are born.

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What are the symbols in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

The red death is symbolic for death (of course).  No matter how luxurious the house, how nice our clothes, no one escapes death.The rooms in the palace, lined up in a series, symbolize the stages of life. The rooms run east to west, and the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. This symbolizes sun as life, and night as death.

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What are the symbols in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

Of course, with a question like this, any consideration of the most important symbols utilised by Poe in this excellent Gothic short story is going to be up for debate, so all I can do is offer you my interpretation of the most important symbols to this work as a whole. Clearly this is a tale full of symbolism from start to finish, and to understand it we need to carefully unpack the very many different forms of symbolism that are present in the tale.

Firstly, and key to understanding the tale, the act of Prince Prospero in trying to escape the Red Death and sealing himself away from the outer world with his courtiers is richly symbolic:

But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys... They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion.

Prospero's act therefore is symbolic of an attempt to cheat death--itself symbolised in the form of the Red Death. His determination to lock himself away from the troubles of the world and make merry, living life to the full, is symbolic of a figure who refuses to accept the reality and inevitability of death.

Another important symbol is the clock that appears in the black room during the masquerade ball. Note how it is described:

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of a n hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce cease their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company...

The clock is a symbolic reminder of the passing of time and of man's mortality, which is why the dancers' faces turn "pale" as they hear the clock chime and the merriment is forced to pause momentarily, before the revellers are able to forget this reminder of death once more and carry on enjoying themselves.

Lastly, the Red Death itself is an incredibly important symbol of death. It is only the discovery that the figure dressed as the Red Death was actually nothing more than a shadow that it is recognised that the "Red Death" was present in the castle and kills each one of the revellers. Death has won out after all, in spite of Prospero's best efforts. Death cannot be cheated.

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What are the symbols in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" is a macabre story that employs symbolism in a dark and sinister manner. 

  • The seven rooms

Certainly, the seven rooms, each of a different color and style, are symbolic of the cycle of life.  It is interesting, too, that Prince Prospero follows the "intruder" through these seven rooms into the final black room, which is symbolic, of course, of death.

  • The masque

Prospero and his guests engage in a "voluptuous scene, that masquerade"; they attempt to disguise themselves from the Red Death in hopes of fooling fate.  This attempt to escape death, however, is futile as he yet intrudes into the celebration of life.

The clock

The striking of the hour by the chimes of the clock has a profound effect upon the guests of Prince Prospero:

...there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hand over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.

After the chimes desist their ringing, however, the guests, in their masquerade of delusion, resume their gaiety. 

All of these symbols further the theme of the inevitability of death that no fortress (the castle), no wealth (Prospero), no mask, no revelrie or distraction can prevent.

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What are the symbols in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

An example of a symbol is the ebony clock, which symbolizes death.

A symbol is something that stands for something other than itself.

Each of the rooms is a different color, symbolizing the seven deadly sins.  The ebony clock has a special place though.  It is ticking down the time to their doom, because Prince Prospero has locked away himself and all of his wealthy friends in order to save them from the plague. 

The “gigantic clock of ebony” stands on the western wall.  It symbolizes death, and the clock is placed on the western wall because that is where the sun sets.

Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound…

The sound is important.  It is “clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical,” but it is so strange that the orchestra stops every time the clock strikes the hour.  The clock stops time by marking time.  Even though the revelers do not know it, the clock is ticking time away to their doom.

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Who are the main characters in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

There are really only two main characters in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death. The first is Prince Prospero, the story’s protagonist, if that word can apply to a character completely lacking a moral compass. Poe’s story takes place during one of the smallpox epidemics that ravaged Europe due the Middle Ages, and the autocratic prince disappears with 1,000 of his friends and assorted sycophants into the security of his castle. As Poe’s unseen narrator observes in describing the merriment within the castle walls, its occupants oblivious to the suffering and death that is occurring outside those walls, “All of these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death’.” 

Poe’s narrator wastes no time introducing the reader to the bleak environment in which this land’s population resides, describing the “pestilence” in the bleakest of terms. The plagues that devastated Europe condemned millions to the most horrific of deaths. Within Prospero’s fortress, however, all was good. As Poe writes, “the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious.” As the prince’s partying and jocularity continues, however, a mysterious figure is observed. Prospero has created an atmosphere of unrelenting debauchery, but he has failed, the reader will discover, to prevent the penetration into his domain of the plague to which those beyond his castle walls are succumbing. As the clock strikes midnight, some of the revelers become aware of the second of Poe’s main characters: “a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before,” and who exudes a sense of threatening menace, “a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise—then, finally, of terror, of horror.”

This second main character, then, is the Red Death, the disease itself. Poe describes this figure as follows:

“The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse . . .”

The Masque of the Red Death, then, involves a fateful confrontation between the prince and the personification of a horrific death. All other characters, the revelers, the musicians, the fools, all serve a peripheral function in Poe’s story; they exist to emphasize the prince’s morally-degraded temperament. They are not, however, central to the story; only the prince and the Red Death serve that essential function.

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Who are the main characters in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

There are several main characters in Poe’s “The Masque of Red Death.”

Prince Prospero is the best realized: he’s the fullest character, presented in the most rounded detail.

The Masked Figure is less realistic, but may be more striking. He is the mysterious intruder who slips into the ball and leads Prospero on a confused and confusing chase.

The rest of the characters in the story can be treated as one collective character, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. These are the “thousand friends” that Prospero invites. Given the way they act and react, it’s not fully clear if these characters are real, or if they are aspects of Prospero: dreams, hallucinations, fears, memories, etc.

Poe’s narrative voice is so strong that you could make a case for it being a character in its own right but a non-traditional one.

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Who are the main characters in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

In The Masque of the Red Death, the main character is Prince Prospero. The prince is described as "happy and dauntless and sagacious" by Poe, but he is also at least a little naive and slightly irresponsible. While his kingdom was being terrorized by the Red Death, when half of his people had been killed by the disease, he gathered one thousand of his friends and retreated to an abbey in order to escape the plague—by doing this, he is abandoning all of the people who were still alive. Thinking that he could just ignore the disease and throw a party to forget their troubles is naive; the concept of "if I can't see you, you can't see me" is a childish one, and that seems to be exactly what Prince Prospero is trying to accomplish: if he cannot see the plague and its devastation, then it does not exist. His irresponsibility is shown in his abandonment of the people—the same people he was in charge of.

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What are the allegorical symbols in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”?

In Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," the first, most obvious symbol seems to be the clock made of ebony, which is a black wood.

Ebony is described as...

a hard, heavy, durable wood, most highly prized when black, from various tropical …of southern India and Sri Lanka

It is important to realize that while the wood may be found in other colors (e.g., deep olive), we can assume this clock is black. (Black—in many cultures—is symbolic of death and/or mourning.) As the time passed, and...

...the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical...

The sounding of the clock is so loud and so unusual, that it makes all of those shut within the house pause, as they contemplate what they hear. For some, the sound is frightening (foreshadowing).

Another symbol is that of the masquerading figure:

The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat.

The costume this person has chosen to don is inappropriate—and the guests are appalled. This person's appearance closely resembles a dead body. It would appear that this person represents death. In fact, the figure seems to personify the Red Death—the disease that is obliterating the population outside the walls of the building.

Perhaps the third symbol is that of the building, but especially the gates, described at the start of the story, to where Prince Prospero "hides" with the others. They went into...

...the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys.

It is an abbey constructed like a castle—according to the Prince's taste. Once everyone was inside:

A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers...brought...massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress...

The plan, then, is to keep everyone locked inside the walls of the abbey—but not just locked...the doors' bolts are welded shut. No one may enter or leave. It would seem that all possible measures have been taken to protect the occupants from the Red Death—and that nothing can harm the people.

However, with the appearance of the "mummer" in this particular costume, the Prince is enraged (and the others are terrified); he goes to stab the intruder...and falls to the floor dead. The guests realize there is no human being among the folds of the fallen costume—or the "mask." The guests now understand that this has been, in fact, a visit by the Red Death.

For all of Prospero's precautions, he has been unable to fend of the plague. The allegorical message seems to be that no matter how one tries, when his or her time has come, nothing can stop death. The clock has simply been counting down the time remaining for those about to die—the ticking of the minute hand has simply been measuring how little time in life remains for all those in this abbey.

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