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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In Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death", what happens when the guests pause to reflect?

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In this story, Prince Prospero's country has fallen to a plague, referred to as the Red Death. It is hideously lethal, and the Prince has gathered many of his most well-to-do followers to an abbey and locked everyone inside, hoping to wait out the plague. However, this is no dismal survival story, but rather the Prince regularly basks in luxury, throwing parties and enjoying entertainment of various kinds. It is during one of his parties that the story takes place.

The revelers seem unconcerned with their unusual situation. The only thing that gives them pause is a strange clock, whose chimes seem to put everyone on edge, causing the musicians to stop playing, dancers to stop dancing, and everyone to remain silent and motionless in contemplation when it announces the hour or half-hour. During this particular party, at the stroke of midnight, while everyone is paused waiting for the clock to complete its twelve tolls, the length of the wait causes them to notice someone;

-there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before.

This masked individual is the embodiment of the Red Death, who proceeds to kill everyone.

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