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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How does "The Masque of the Red Death" exemplify romanticism?

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This story is Romantic in that it focuses, to a great degree, on human imagination and emotion.  The descriptions of the masquerade's location, the seven rooms running from east to west, each decorated in a particular color scheme, are highly imaginative.  Prince Prospero is, clearly, creative and artistic if not...

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courageous or wise.  Moreover, the masquers themselves are inventive to the point of being grotesque: they no longer seem human.  "There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm [...].  there were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments.  There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions."  The revelers are dressed in odd, frightful, bizarre, and even terrifying ways as if to please the prince and match the imagination he has displayed in decorating the rooms.  The narrator even describes them as "dreams" more than once.

Further, the story likewise emphasizes the terrible emotions felt by the revelers when they hear the ebony clock in the last room, the room of black and red, strike.  This room is "ghastly in the extreme," and the masquers avoid it almost completely.  When the clock chimes, the prince's guests experience "disconcert and tremulousness" and seem to meditate on something that makes them "[grow] pale."  All the gaiety ceases most especially when the clock strikes midnight (symbolic of death).  Given that the fatal disease called the Red Death is raging outside, and the clock is black (symbolic of death) and sits in a black and red room (symbolic of death and blood), the chimes likely remind them of their own eventual and unavoidable deaths.  They try to avoid death, just as they avoid the room where the clock sits, but it is impossible to escape death forever.  

All of this focus on both human imagination and emotion is quite Romantic.

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How is "The Masque of the Red Death" a reflection of the Romantic period in terms of its style and content?

American Romanticism has been considered a journey away from the corruption of civilization and the limits of rational thought and toward the integrity of nature and freedom of the imagination. The characteristic journey is to the pristine countryside, a countryside associated with moral clarity, independence, and healthy living.  However, in Dark Romanticism, of which Edgar Allan Poe is a part, the journey is one of the imagination, but often it travels to the mind's dark regions. This dark journey often leads to the exploration of the past and of the exotic and supernatural realms. Poetry, which is perceived as the highest form of this expression of the imagination, often ventures into these realms. Poe once wrote, 

They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.

Poe's use of symbolism connects strongly to Dark Romanticism's employment of the realm of imagination. In addition, Poe has acknowledged the existence of sin, pain, and evil in human life. His story "The Masque of the Red Death" blends all of these themes.

In the narrative of Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," the existence of sin and pain is certainly a motif. Material pleasures are used by Prince Prospero as distractions from the reality of the Red Death. However, death is inescapable as its figure "shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave" appears in the seventh room, the black and red room in which the clock tolls the final hour. The symbolism of this room and the other colored rooms is apparent: they represent the seven stages of human life. Poe's story is one that deals with the supernatural and the realm of the imagination.

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How is "The Masque of the Red Death" a reflection of the Romantic period in terms of its style and content?

The period of American Romanticism in literature focuses on the individual or outcast, features fantasy, with introspective characters, and exotic settings. Poe's writings are emotional, mysterious, and dark, focusing on the complex individual, emotionally seeking an elusive goal or ideal.  In "The Masque of the Red Death," when Prince Prospero seeks to protect his courtiers from an unforgiving, grisly plague, he attempts to thwart death itself. 

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" opens with a vengeance, describing the fearsome plague with "the redness and the horror of blood."  The story has a dark, gothic setting, located in one of Prince Prospero's:

"castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron."

Poe's dark sweeping style as he describes the abbey and the masquerade is emblematic of the American Romantic Period because of the way "Masque" embodies all of the major characteristics.  He seamlessly incorporates the exotic with fantasy and the elusive goal, evading the Red Death.

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