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The Masque of the Red Death

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Discussion Topic

The symbolism and description of the abbey in "The Masque of the Red Death."

Summary:

In "The Masque of the Red Death," the abbey symbolizes isolation and false security. Its elaborate and fortified design, intended to keep the plague out, represents the futile attempts of the wealthy to escape death. The abbey's opulent yet eerie rooms reflect the stages of life, culminating in the ominous black room symbolizing death.

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How does the abbey's description in "The Masque of the Red Death" contribute to the text's meaning?

In the second paragraph of the story, Poe gives us a vivid description of the castellated abbey in which Prince Prospero and the other nobles hide from the devastating plague that stalks the land.

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 is a pretty solid structure designed to keep out the raging pestilence. But it is also constructed to make absolutely certain that no one can escape. Right from the outset, Poe sets the tone of what is to follow. The abbey is not really a place of safety; it is a dark prison in which Prince Prospero and his guests are to be trapped.

The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure.

The contemptuous attitude of the nobility towards the people is laid bare. To hell with the outside world, we're perfectly safe inside here. Forget about the appalling death and suffering outside; let's just entertain and enjoy ourselves.

But as the abbey has been described, it's far from being a pleasure palace. Not only is it a prison, it's also a tomb. Prince Prospero and his effete aristocrat friends can try to put off death for only so long. And when the end finally comes they are in the right place for it.

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What does the abbey symbolize in Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

When the abbey is first introduced in the text, the narrator comments that it represents the Prince's wild and "eccentric" design tastes. (This is further confirmed later in the text when its unusual layout and color schemes are described.)

During the opening of the story, the abbey also represents the Prince's desire to protect his friends from this deadly pestilence. That the abbey is "secluded" reinforces this idea: by placing his friends in a hidden and cut-off place, the Prince intends on keeping them healthy and separated from this horrible disease.

That the Red Death is able to penetrate the formidable walls of this abbey is significant. It is symbolic of Poe's view that humans are ultimately defenseless in the face of the terrible diseases inflicted by nature. It does not matter how thick the walls are or how well "provisioned" the abbey is; humans cannot escape such diseases and, as such, the abbey comes to symbolize Poe's sense of hopelessness.

For more ideas, please see the reference link provided. 

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What does the abbey symbolize in Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

The abbey is described as being "castellated", which suggests that it might represent both government and religion that people often turn to for safety. As both a castle and an abbey, it is supposed to be a place where "the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion." The doors are even welded shut from the inside so no one can escape. However, it also is bizarre in its layout, especially the rooms in which the ball is held. Unlike most castles or abbeys, one cannot see what lies ahead because "There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards. . ." and each room in this part of the castle has a different color. Most critics suggest that the rooms each represent a different stage of life. With that in mind, the entire castle probably represents the life that many people think is safe and secure. Unfortunately, the courtiers learn that even when they feel the most safe, death is very close. No matter how satisfied they were that they could not be touched by catastrophe, death itself sought them out and killed them.

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What does the abbey symbolize in Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

The abbey to which Prince Prospero invites his guests for a secluded and highly decadent retreat while the common people die horrific deaths outside his castle walls is described aptly by Poe early in his story:

"This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste."

Poe is suggesting that the abbey represents Prince Prospero's own personality -- a personality lacking in restraint and greatly out of touch with the world outside his castle gates.  Once again, as Poe describes the prince's plans for the use of the abbey as a refuge from the plague spreading across the land:

"The abbey was amply provisioned.  With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion.  The external world could take care of itself...All these and security were within.  Without was the 'Red Death'."

The abbey also represents, if the repeated use of the colors red and black are an indication, death itself.  The seven rooms within the abbey are described as being black and red, two colors that often represent death in literature.  Black is commonly associated with death, and red references the "Red Plague" decimating the countryside.

Given the short length of Poe's story, that so much time is spent describing the abbey surely indicates its symbolic importance in the extent to which it is intended to reflect "the duke's love of the bizarre" and the pale of death hanging over the proceedings.  

Another feature of the abbey as described by the author was the presence of a grandfather clock, with its swinging pendulum -- a central motif of another of Poe's macabre stories, "The Pit and the Pendulum."  The use of time as indicated by this clock builds tension, as it's chimes are loud enough to bring all the merriment to a momentary standstill, and its black color once again suggestive of death.

Of particular note is the following description of the bridal chamber within the abbey:

"The room lay in a high turret of the castellated abbey, was pentagonal in shape, and of capacious size.  Occupying the whole southern face of the pentagon was the sole window..."

Given Poe's intense interest in the occult, the pentagonal shape of the bridal chamber cannot be a matter of chance.  Followers of the occult recognize the pentagon as the center of pentagram, and associate it with Satan.  It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the abbey represents first and foremost evil.

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What does the abbey symbolize in The Masque of the Red Death?

In this story, the prince's isolated abbey seems to represent the desire to delay or avoid death.  The terribly fatal pestilence, called the Red Death, had swept through his kingdom, killing half of its citizens swiftly and grotesquely.  In his arrogant attempt to evade the disease, Prince Prospero invites one thousand of his healthiest and most fun friends to run away with him.  He stocks the abbey with everything they'd need, and his courtiers weld the iron gates shut so that no one can get in to or out of the fortress.  He seems to feel that "With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion.  The external world could take care of itself."  The prince and his friends feel that they had thought of everything, that they would be totally isolated from the rest of humanity and thus there would be no way in which the terrible disease could possible reach them.  However, despite the prince's wealth and isolated abbey, and his and the courtiers' planning and youth and health, there is simply no way to avoid death. 

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What does the abbey symbolize?

According to critic H.H. Bell, Jr., the abbey symbolizes a man's life, with the seven chambers within each symbolizing a decade in that life.  The first chamber is on the east side of the abbey, signifying birth and the rising of the sun.  The last chamber is on the west side, signifying death and the sun's setting.

There is more interesting information on the symbolism of the abbey and its chambers at the link below.

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What does the abbey represent?

The abbey is the place where they all went to find refuge and protection. Its description says that it is "castlellated." This means that it was built up quite fancy and big enough to serve, as the word says, a castle. In those days, castles were the homes of the high end clergy and the aristocracy. In their castles, entire towns could be protected from attacks and other forms of danger. This abbey, however, was peculiar. There were turns and curves that made people look as if they disappeared. There is also a color represented in each room. It is said that these are colors of different stages of life, from birth (white) to death (black)

With this information, you can infer that the abbey in the story represents the false idea of omnipotence. The fake sense of protection, and isolation from danger that is caused by feelings of grandiosity and ignorance.

The abbey is a also a symbol of the inevitability of fate over life. The doors of the abbey would be shut to avoid entrance and exit. The place was supplied for, and prepared to hold balls and parties in the fantasy that they were safe there. In the end, the Red Death still penetrated the room with all its protection and pomp. Fate was to call the end of the story.

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