illustration of a clockface wearing a mask and ticking closer to midnight

The Masque of the Red Death

by Edgar Allan Poe

Start Free Trial

What is the foreshadowing in "The Masque of the Red Death"?

Quick answer:

The foreshadowing in "The Masque of the Red Death" is evident in various elements, such as the prince's callousness towards his subjects, the imagery of the seventh room with its blood-tinted panes, and the ominous chiming of the ebony clock, which induces fear among the guests. Additionally, the presence of a mysterious stranger dressed as the Red Death at the ball foreshadows the inevitable doom. Edgar Allan Poe also draws a parallel with the Spanish court in Victor Hugo’s "Hernani," hinting that Prospero, like the protagonist of "Hernani," is doomed to die, underscoring the theme that death is inescapable, no matter the precautions taken.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The narrator foreshadows from the start that this fortress of pleasure will be invaded by the horror of the Red Death.

First, the indifference and callousness of the prince towards the sufferings of his subjects cries out for poetic justice. We learn at the start that the prince thinks:

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. ... there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the "Red Death"

From the beginning, we are uneasily aware that it is impossible to shut out trouble for too long. The prince is trying too hard.

Poe also uses imagery to foreshadow that death is coming. In the final room, the seventh room, which is hung with black, the image of the "blood-tinted" panes and the use of the word "ghastly" foreshadow the grim ending:

the effect of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme

The fear induced by the loud and eery chiming of the ebony clock every hour reveals that the guests are well aware of how precariously they live. They are frightened despite all the precautions the prince has taken to secure the castle. They seem to know this isn't going to end well:

while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation.

At midnight, when the party ends, words like "uneasy" and the image of the heart of life beating "feverishly," as if ill, foreshadow the ending:

an uneasy cessation of all things as before. ...

beat feverishly the heart of life.

Further, when we learn of the arrival of the stranger, the extreme fear that this creates among the party guests foreshadows the coming doom:

And the rumour of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise—then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.

Finally, it seems apparent that death is soon to erupt when we learn that the stranger comes in the costume of the Red Death:

had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood—and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are several examples of foreshadowing in Edgar Allen Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death." In addition to the chiming of the ebony clock that silences the band and the crowd at Prospero’s ball, there are other ominous signs that death will come to all of the guests. For example, Poe compares Prospero’s masquerade ball to the excessive extravagance of the Spanish court from Victor Hugo’s 1830 French drama, “Hernani.” At the end of “Hernani”, the protagonist is told he must die upon the sound of a hunting horn, suggesting to the reader that Prospero will perhaps suffer a similar fate. Prospero also seems aware of his impending doom when he first spots the mysterious masked man on the dance floor. While normally cool, clever, and under control, he cannot mask his anxiety and embarrassment when he sees the uninvited guest, whose presence proves his failure to seal off and protect his guests from any outside threats (such as the Red Death). When the crowd is too stunned to seize the masked man, whose bloody costume is uncannily realistic, he angrily pursues him through his chambers toward the black and crimson room where no one goes, as if to predict his inevitable charge toward death.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The long list of precautions taken by the prince and his thousand healthy and carefree friends, immediately following the description of how deadly and awful the Red Death is, seems to foreshadow the uselessness of such precautions.  The abbey to which they retire is geographically isolated, far away from where the disease rages; it is surrounded by a strong and tall wall; it has gates made of iron; Prince Prospero's guests plan to weld the bolts shut so that the gates cannot even be opened; the abbey has been stocked with anything and everything they could possibly want while there; and, most damning of all is their resolution "to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within."  They have determined to leave no way in and no way out of the castle.  On the one hand, this might seem positive since no one with the disease could push their way in; on the other hand, however, no one will be able to escape the castle should danger arise.

Furthermore, the dread that the courtiers seem to feel every time the ebony clock strikes, but especially when it chimes for midnight, foreshadows their ultimate demise.  When they hear those chimes, "for a moment, all is still, and all is silent save the voice of the clock.  The [masqueraders] are stiff-frozen as they stand.  But the echoes of the chime die away -- they have endured but an instant -- and a light, half-subdued laughter floats after them as they depart."  Clocks are often associated with mortality (as it keeps track of time), as is midnight (since it is the death of day) and the color black (often symbolic of mystery and/or death.  When this terrible black clock announces the death of day, it seems as though the courtiers cannot help but be reminded of their own mortality, foreshadowing their coming end.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial