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The Masque of the Red Death

by Edgar Allan Poe

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How do Prince Prospero and his friends attempt to escape the red death?

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Prospero gathers 1,000 of his aristocratic friends, seeking out those who are healthy ("hale") and optimistic and fun loving ("light-hearted") and seals them in an abbey to escape the red death, which is ravaging his kingdom.

The abbey is secluded and surrounded by strong, high walls, and the Prince and his guests secure the structure against intruders by welding the gates shut. The welding also insures that no one can leave. Here, Prospero, ironically described as "dauntless" and "sagacious," plans to ride out the red death with his friends. Others might suffer: they believe they will not. 

The red death, like the Bubonic Plague or black death, is described as a disease that kills quickly and horribly. For about five or six months, however, Prospero and his friends live safely while the pestilence rages outside their walls.

Yet the illusion of safety ends. The point of the story is that it is impossible to wall death out. The narrator suggests that some might have considered Prospero "mad," and even amid the revelry and gay pleasures of the masque the guests experience unease. This unease is not without basis, for death invades the revels in the form a mysterious stranger, who comes dressed as the red death and kills them all. 

 

 

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Prince Prospero took the only way that was known in his time to try to avoid being infected with the plague. Poe describes it as “the Red Death,” perhaps in order to distinguish it from the so-called “Black Death” which was the worst such plague in Western history. It spread from the Middle East to Europe, killing an estimated 75- to 200-million people before it peaked about 1353. Boccaccio’s classic book The Decameron a collection of tales told by a group of privileged Italians who fled the congested city and remained isolated like the characters in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” No doubt Poe was at least partly inspired by historical accounts of the horrors of the Black Death and by Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1349-1351).

Here is how Poe describes how Prince Prospero and his friends tried to escape from the Red Death:

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. This was an extensive and magnificent structure....A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. 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. 

The whole point of Poe's story is that death is inescapable and that life is nothing but frivolity and distraction. The grim figure described as "the intruder" and "the stranger" enters Prince Prospero's heavily fortified abbey without the slightest effort, as if he has the power to pass through walls. Once inside he claims the lives of all the hitherto merrymaking men and women, including Prince Prospero.

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Prospero and one thousand of his friends attempt to escape the Red Death, a horrible pestilence, by sealing themselves in his castle while the Death spreads outside. They not only physically separate themselves from the misery outside, but engage in lavish, extravagant parties, including the masque which gives the story its title. Of course, Prospero and his guests cannot escape Death, which arrives at the party in costume and kills everyone, including the Prince himself. Despite their best efforts, they, just like everyone else, cannot escape death in the end. 

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How did Prince Prospero and his friends try to escape from the Red Death?

Prince Prospero seems to believe his elevated status and large fortune can provide some protection to him and his friends from the Red Death. He moves into an isolated abbey, behind a tall wall, and the courtiers he brings with him weld the iron gates shut.

They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy within. . . With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion.

In other words, they believe themselves to be safe. As if to showcase his mastery of death, Prospero has constructed a series of rooms that seems symbolic of a human life—beginning in the east and ending in the west, as the sun rises (symbolic of birth) and sets (symbolic of death)—ending in a room decorated in shades of black (often symbolic and indicative of death) and "blood red" (very much symbolic of death in this story because it is the "Avatar and. . . seal" of the disease). In this room that symbolizes death, there is an "ebony clock," a symbol of mortality, whose chimes unnerve the masqueraders each hour, as though they remain aware of death despite their attempt to escape it. Everyone avoids this room as though, by putting their mortality out of mind, they might actually fend off death. Obviously, neither their money nor their resources can shield them from death because it is the one inevitability in life.

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How did Prince Prospero and his friends try to escape from the Red Death?

Prince Prospero had the (ultimately futile) idea to hide inside a fortified abbey in an attempt to stay safe from the disease that was killing so many of his people, so he and one thousand of his friends (who were also his courtiers) went to the abbey and sealed themselves in by welding the iron gates shut. Of course, they were not alone there: they also brought entertainment, such as dancers and musicians, and presumably waitstaff such as cooks and the like to keep them from dying of starvation or thirst. They passed their days within the abbey, trying to avoid the problem of cabin fever, or being so bored that they could not take living in the abbey anymore; one way they did that was by throwing a masquerade after living there for about five or six months. I think it is safe to assume that this was not the first party the prince threw to alleviate boredom, but it was certainly the last.

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How do Prince Prospero and his friends escape from the Red Death?

Prince Prospero and his "thousand hale and light-hearted friends" do not escape from the Red Death completely. They only manage to avoid the plague for a short while by taking the most elaborate precautions to keep themselves in a sort of luxurious quarantine. They are only concerned about saving themselves and care nothing for the humble masses who are being relentlessly slaughtered by this mysterious plague. The Prince and his thousand guests pass the time by engaging in what resembles an ongoing party, such as was the general spirit at Versailles in the time of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Poe describes the precautions that Prince Prospero believed would be sufficient to protect himself and all his privileged retinue from the scourge that was gradually killing off everyone else in the kingdom. 

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....A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. 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. The external world could take care of itself. 

The whole point of Poe's parable is that death is inescapable. No matter how rich and important a man may be, death will find him out and take him away along with all the poorest and most wretched members of society. Poe personifies the Red Death as a tall, gaunt figure who appears at a masked ball dressed in a blood-spattered costume to represent the embodiment of the Red Death. How this uninvited guest managed to get inside the castle is not explained. Evidently he had the ability to walk through walls and pass through gates of iron. First the "spectral image" claims the life of Prince Prospero. Then:

...one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.

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How do Prince Prospero and his friends try to escape from the Red Death in "The Masque of the Red Death" by Edgar Allan Poe?

"The Masque of the Red Death" by Edgar Allan Poe is based loosely on accounts of the Black Death, a plague caused by yersinia pestis that may have killed as many as 100 million people in the fourteenth century. To escape the Black Death, many nobles left the cities and retreated to their country estates. One important literary work that may have influenced Poe's account is Boccaccio's The Decameron, which describes a party of ten nobles entertaining each other with tales in a secluded villa outside Florence to which they had retreated to escape the Black Death.

In Poe's story, Prospero and his guests have isolated themselves in a castle, which no one can enter and from which no one can leave. Although they think their isolation will keep them safe, the Red Death appears at a masquerade and infects everyone in the castle. Far from the walls keeping out the Red Death, they trap the guest inside with it.

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What steps do Prince Prospero's friends take to make themselves safe from the Red Death?

First, when Prince Prospero summons these healthy and carefree friends to his presence, they go with him to one of his most geographically isolated abbeys in order to escape from the disease and those victims of it.  This abbey, designed by the prince, is surrounded by strong stone walls and iron gates, and it seems to be impenetrable.  In addition, the guests bring with them hammers and furnaces so that they can weld all the bolts and further fortify the edifice.  These people are determined to make it impossible either to come or to go, and so they also stock the abbey with ample provisions -- food, drink, entertainment -- to last quite a long time.  In these ways, the narrator tells us, the "courtiers might bid defiance to contagion."  Having taken all these precautions, they feel very secure that they are, indeed, safe from the Red Death.

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