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The Masque of the Red Death

by Edgar Allan Poe

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What is the theme of "The Masque of the Red Death"?

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A key theme of "The Masque of the Red Death" is that no one escapes death. The story utilizes irony to show that death is egalitarian and comes to everyone, regardless of income, wealth, or social status. Prince Prospero and his friends believe they can escape the Red Death in their privileged world and show no empathy for the villagers outside the palace who are suffering. Yet, they ultimately succumb to death just as the villagers do.

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One could reasonably argue that the most important theme in "The Masque of the Red Death" is the inescapability of death. All those rich, aristocratic guests who've rocked up at Prince Prospero's castellated abbey think that they're safe from the deadly plague rampaging across the land, causing misery and death in its wake.

But they couldn't be more wrong if they tried. Despite being shut up behind the large, thick walls of Prospero's fortress-like home, they cannot escape the Red Death that stalks the land.

In portraying the attempts of Prospero and his guests to avoid the ravages of the Red Death, Poe is making a general point about our relationship with death. Even though we all know we're going to die, we prefer not to think about it, as it's rather unpleasant.

But at some point, we're going to have to face up to the mortality of our condition. This means being open and honest about death, instead of trying to run away from it. Prince Prospero tried to run away from death, and look where it got them. We may not end up suffering the same fate as these people, but it's still better for us to acknowledge our mortality instead of ignoring it as so many of us do.

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The theme of "The Masque of the Red Death" is that no one, no matter how powerful or how rich, escapes death. The theme is shown through the actions of the characters and through irony, as death is extremely democratic and egalitarian. Death essentially is the great equalizer.

The story is about a wealthy prince, Prince Prospero, and his privileged friends who lock themselves away in the prince’s ornate palace to dance and make merry as they wait for the plague to pass through their village so that it will once again be safe for them to return to the outside world. Meanwhile, the people outside the castle are struggling. They live in close quarters where the plague spreads easily. They also do not have access to the wealth, food, and privileges that Prince Prospero and his friends take for granted.

Yet, the prince and his circle never for a moment consider helping the less fortunate people in the outside world in any way. They think only of themselves and their indulgences. They believe themselves to be above everyone else and, most importantly in terms of the theme of the story, above the eponymous Red Death, or the plague. Yet, they are as susceptible as the poor people who live in the village outside the palace are. They face the same death that the villagers face, despite their scornful disregard of human life and misery just a short distance away.

Thus, the underlying theme of the story that illustrates their inability to escape the democratic forces of the Red Death also shows another important theme of the story: their lack of compassion and empathy for others also ends up working against them. Although we do not know how many of the villagers survive the Red Death, not one person within the palace survives. Perhaps, had they been more willing to extend help to the less fortunate, they might also have had an opportunity to access whatever herbs or medicines that some of the villagers might have used to save themselves.

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There are several themes in "The Masque of the Red Death". The central theme is that no man escapes death. The other central theme is that time passes no matter what one might attempt to do thereby causing death to come no matter what.

The other theme is madness or insanity. It is insane to have a ball in the middle of the plague ravaged country. Prince Prospero may be the narrator of the story, and as such may also be the madman. Poe is the genius of the disturbed interior monologue. The ball may simply be a figment of the disturbed mind of a madman.

At the stroke of midnight, the partygoers are confronted with a newcomer to the party. This person is costumed in such a manner that he appears to be a victim of the "red death" a type of plague that causes bleeding from the pores of the body. One might now call it a type of Ebola virus based on the symptoms given in the story.  The partygoers have not escaped the red death, it has come to visit them.

The passage of time is also noteworthy as each of the guests pause as the clock strikes the hour proving that they have escaped death and this plague for a measurable period of time. They breathe a sigh of relief and return to their revelry. This works until midnight when a previously unnoticed guest arrives clad in the death robes and smeared with blood. This costume is so like the appearance of a victim of the red death that Prince Prospero and the guests are shocked and then angered. However, the guest is the red death.  The guests have not escaped the plague, and time stops for each one of them as they die.

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There are several possible themes for this story, depending on which aspect you choose to emphasize. The most obvious would probably be "Death is inevitable; you can't escape, no matter how wealthy or powerful you are." We see this with Prince Prospero and his partygoers, of course. His desperate attempt to cheat Death, and his willingness to revel in celebration while others are dying, ends with his own submission to the Red Death. Thus, he falls victim to the one thing he tried to escape.

Another theme (closely related) is that we are all subject to the passing of time. In the story, time is closely linked to death, as each tick of the clock forces the partygoers to consider their own mortality. Indeed, the clock stops striking after the last eprson has died. Thus time becomes a symbol for unstoppable forces, the ones no one can escape.

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What is the message of "The Masque of the Red Death"?

The message of Poe's story is that no artifice can prevent the inevitability of Fate.

While death inevitably comes to all mortals, there are many who seek to defy this fate. As one of the many who do, Prince Prospero takes measures to stop the approach of the Red Death by creating a bulwark against its advances. In order to arrest the linear movement of time, Prospero creates an intricate pattern of geometric space, a distinct departure from the traditional arrangement in palaces that is linear so that when walls are folded "the whole extent is scarcely impeded." Prospero's arrangement does not allow for any linear view; instead, the rooms are positioned irregularly so that no one can see farther than what is in that room. There is an intricate geometric pattern created by "a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn, a novel effect." Then, in the middle of each wall, there is a Gothic window that looked upon only a closed corridor. In addition, there is no light in any of the rooms; light emanates only from these corridors outside the rooms. With such an arrangement, Prospero hopes to further fortify his guests from the Red Death's ability to pass from room to room. 

Despite all these "bold and fiery" plans against the Red Death and the "multitude of dreams" created by the glare and glitter, arabesque figures, and bizarre and "delirious fancies," Time yet imposes itself as a huge ebony clock, whose pendulum swings with a monotonous and heavy sound. When it strikes the hour, its "brazen lungs" cause the musicians to arrest their performance, and all the guests grow pale, trembling in their apprehension. And, when the final hour bellows from this clock, there appears the horrific figure dressed in the "habiliments of the grave." Despite Prospero's "the immutable realm of art," nothing can prevent the advance of time and Death that makes its way "uninterruptedly" through all the rooms, killing everyone.

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What is the message of "The Masque of the Red Death"?

One of the primary themes is how death cannot be denied.  No one can escape it, even the well-to-do, like Prince Prospero.  In this story, Prince Prospero has a party and locks his guests and himself in his home in order to avoid contracting the Red Death, a plague that is marked by the loss of blood, especially on the face.  Prospero should have known that this was not an intelligent thing to do; however, because the rich and wealthy and those born into nobility quite frequently saw themselves as being better than others and more blessed, this jaded his judgment.  In the end, everyone dies at the party, including Prince Prospero, because no one can escape death.

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What does the masquerade represent in "The Masque of the Red Death"?

In "The Masque of Red Death," the masquerade represents the guests' desire to escape the inevitability of death. Remember that these guests have come to Prince Prospero's to avoid catching the Red Death, a disease which has ravaged the country. They are protected from the outside by a "strong and lofty wall" which, they believe, will keep the disease at bay.

The masquerade takes place in an "imperial suite" consisting of seven rooms. Each room is associated with a particular color and it is significant that the guests avoid the room which is black, a color suggestive of death. This reinforces the idea that the guests do not want to confront the realities of death; instead, they spend the night dancing in a different room.

That the masquerade does not protect the guests suggests that death is indeed inevitable. There are no walls strong enough nor houses secluded enough to guard from the inevitability of one's own demise. 

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What does the masquerade represent in "The Masque of the Red Death"?

The masked ball is the ultimate representation of what the guests were hiding from during their entire stay with Prince Prospero. The purpose of their time at the castle was to escape from the Red Death. Thus, a dance where everyone hides their true identity is a perfect climax for the story. The dance represents life. It is significant that each hour, the dance stops for the chiming of the ebony clock, which represents the time until death. The ball takes place in seven rooms, which each symbolize a stage of life. However, as the ball continues, few guests will venture near the final room, which is a symbol for death. This shows their fear of death and the fact that they have all hidden their faces shows how they are trying to hide their true identities and fear of death from each other. Once midnight sounds, the party-goers stop, as life must stop, at the presence of death. In this case, death comes in the form of a plague or Red Death, but it inevitably comes to anyone participating in the dance of life. Once the presence of the Red Death is acknowledged, all the masked figures die, despite their efforts to disguise themselves. Death, it seems, will seek you out and find you no matter where you are or who you try to be.

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What message is Edgar Allan Poe sending in his story "The Masque of the Red Death"?

This is an interesting way of phrasing the question. Normally, the unspoken meaning is that we are meant to read and analyze the story and come to a conclusion about what the message of the story is, and assume that this is what Poe intended. However this is actually somewhat presumptuous; for example, it presumes both that the author's message is evident in the text, and that it is the same as the one we interpret, among other things. Basically, this type of question seems to invite us to investigate the author's intentions, but in practice it usually ignores this and focuses instead upon our own interpretation of the available material, and thus it has no real basis in what Poe's message actually is.

What would really help to understand Poe's intention is reading about how he wrote Masque, and not necessarily the story itself. At least part of the inspiration for the story almost certainly comes from the context in which it was written; Poe's wife was unpredictably ill at the time, which may have caused Poe to become unusually pessimistic, as well as to drink excessively.

Masque is often cited as one of Poe's strongly moralistic and thematic works because of its conclusion; " - the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all". In context, this seems to suggest that Prospero and his nobles represented human ego, and the conceit that money or vanity could isolate one from death. This is closely related to similar gothic themes in Frankenstein, where ego plays a role in seducing characters into a false sense of superiority over nature. However, if there is an actual moral to the story, it is not stated; in fact this may simply be an exercise in gothic themes, amounting to little more than a successful pulp story.

An elegant way of summarizing this story's (apparent) message is in an Italian proverb related to chess: "When the chess game is over, the pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, kings, and queens all go back into the same box." Humans, regardless of their station in life, have no power over death.

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What is a main theme of "The Masque of the Red Death"?

One major theme of the text is that no one can escape death. Prince Prospero believes that he, with all of his wealth and resources, can elude death and live happily while his kingdom is decimated by disease. He calls a "thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retires to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys." Surrounded by its "strong and lofty wall" and its "gates of iron," this abbey sounds like a veritable fortress, indeed. All of the gates are welded shut so that nothing, the courtiers and the prince believe, can get in or out.

Their pride is tremendous: they believe that their distance from the city, their fortress, their furnaces and hammers, and their youth and health will actually succeed in keeping death at bay. "With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. 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." Caring only for themselves and nothing for the rest of the world, which is full of people who cannot simply escape to some far-away fortress, the courtiers proceed to party. Of course, despite their belief that "security [was] within" the abbey's walls, they cannot escape death, which shows that we cannot elude death regardless of our circumstances.

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What is a main theme of "The Masque of the Red Death"?

The main theme of this amazing short story by Poe is Death.  He comes in quietly, like a thief, disguised appropriately for this masquerade ball.  One by one, the guests drop dead and the rest retreat to other rooms.  The purpose of the party was to keep all the wealthy friends far away from the plague that is sweeping through the city outside.  Prospero, like his wealthy friends, thinks that because he is wealthy and "above" the poor who are dying ouside his walls, that he is above dying.  The truth is, no one can escape Death, no matter how rich, how beautiful, how entitled one is. 

Another theme is time.  Throughout the story, the clock keeps ticking loudly, and Prospero and other guests keep noticing the time.  It is almost as though they expect an expiration date on the contagion.  There is, however, an expiration date on the living. Everyone dies eventually.  It is interesting to note, that the different rooms in Prospero's house correspond with the different stages in one's life.  Take a look at the colors of each room...all the way to the last one, which is black, signifying Death itself.

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What is the message of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

In the epigraph to his short story "Ligeia," Poe quotes the philosopher and clergyman Joseph Glanvill (1836-1880) as follows:

And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield himself to the angels, not unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.

Poe was obsessed by death, especially by the fear of death, as can be seen in so many of his poems and stories. In "The Masque of the Red Death" he seems to be symbolzing the universal human fear of death and the many ways by which people try to avoid--not dying--but facing the fact of dying. With Poe this fear seems to have been heightened by his loss of faith in traditional religious beliefs, a phenomena which was becoming widespread in the Western world with the incursions of science.

"The Masque of the Red Death" seems to be intended to depict allegorically people's attempts to avoid facing the terrible fact that death will claim all of them and take away everything they own and everything they love. The refugees seal themselves up in a fortress and indulge in pleasure-seeking, with all sorts of sounds and spectacles intended primarily to distract them from thinking about the fact that everyone is dying all around them. But it is futile. Death is inescapable. He appears among them without having been impeded in the slightest by the walls and gates and claims all of them. Their luxury and revelry was all pointless and meaningless. There is no escape. The story is popular because readers easily understand the meaning behind the metaphors.

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What is the message of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death"?

The central message of "The Masque of the Red Death" is perhaps best understood as the inevitability of death. Prospero walls himself and his courtiers inside his palace to attempt to avoid the Red Death, a horrible plague that ravages the countryside. In sharp contrast to the suffering outside, they hold a lavish costume ball. But among the costumed guests is Death himself, who has slipped in "like a thief in the night," and he strikes down first Prospero and then all of the other guests. Their wealth, power, and privilege could not save them from the inevitable, and their attempt at escaping the plague comes across as decadent and arrogant even as it is fearful. The final line of the play is chilling, and sums up the play's message succinctly: "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.’’

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What is the central theme or message of "The Masque of the Red Death" by Edgar Allan Poe?

The Red Death is very similar to the Black Death that wiped out a good portion of the European population in the 1300s. In this story, the theme or message is that there is no hiding from the Red Death—or any death. Death comes for us all and is the great leveler.

The privileged guests, lords and ladies, within the castle wall believe they can keep death out by shutting the doors against it. The castle that Prospero designs is meant to exclude the Red Death:

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.

The guests also try to blot out the thought of death by being amply provisioned with food and drink and by partying, dancing, and entertainment:

There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the "Red Death."

Only the ebony clock that tolls the hour loudly, putting a temporary stop to the music and festivities, reminds the guests of their mortality.

Yet, as we might expect, there is no locking out or blotting out death. By the end of the story it has invaded the castle despite the best efforts to keep it out:

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And 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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What is the central theme or message of "The Masque of the Red Death" by Edgar Allan Poe?

The central theme in "The Masque of the Red Death" is the inevitable, or perhaps more accurately, the inescapable nature, of death. Prospero and his companions attempt to shut themselves off from the rest of the world  in an attempt to avoid the horrible plague (the "red death") that is ravaging the countryside. He is able to do this, of course, because he is wealthy and powerful. But even his money and influence cannot save him from Death, who shows up in human form, ostensibly costumed as a corpse, at the masque he stages inside the castle. In the end, the Prince and his followers tried to avoid Death, who destroys all of them:

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. ... like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls ... and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out .... And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

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What's the broad statement about topic of "The Masque of the Red Death"?

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" is only intelligible if the reader understands that it is intended as an allegory. The real subject is the universal fear of death, the horror of death, the mystery of death, and the inability to escape it. Sir Francis Bacon begins his essay "Of Death" with the following words:

Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark.

Poe himself was dreadfully afraid of dying, as many of his stories show. What bothered him most, apparently, was that he was one of the moderns who had lost the comfort of religious faith which had sustained the people of the Western world for many centuries. In Poe's famous poem "The Raven," the black bird keeps croaking the  word "Nevermore," implying that there is no hope for an afterlife. For example:

"Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Leonore--
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quote the Raven, "Nevermore."

The aristocrats in "The Masque of the Red Death" who attempt to seal themselves inside a castle in order to seal Death out are only putting off the inevitable. Their banquets and revelry are all an attempt to escape from thinking about what is happening outside and what may happen to them. Poe has chosen to dramatize the experiences and distractions of the rich and powerful in order to demonstrate that Death comes for everyone regardless of wealth and status. The one thing that all of the people inside the castle want to avoid thinking about and talking about is Death. The "Red Death" is nothing but a metaphor for the reality of Death, who has everybody's name marked down for extinction on a cosmic calendar.

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall....And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

Poe wrote a poem about the inevitability of death which is titled "The Conqueror Worm." He included this poem in his chilling story "Ligeia," which is also inspired by the mystery of death.

Out — out are the lights — out all!
And over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
And the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.

“O God!” half shrieked Ligeia, leaping to her feet and extending her arms aloft with a spasmodic movement, as I made an end of these lines — “O God! O Divine Father! — shall these things be undeviatingly so? — shall this Conqueror be not once conquered? Are we not part and parcel in Thee? Who — who knoweth the mysteries of the will with its vigor? Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”

So "The Masque of the Red Death" is another of Poe's creations inspired by his hypersensitive preoccupation with the mystery of death. He seems to have been using art as a means of escape from his morbid fears and fantasies, which are expressed in "Ligeia," "The Raven," "The Masque of the Red Death," and many of his other works. His morbid preoccupation with death is what people think of when they think of Poe. But, since people in general occasionally have the same fears and fantasies, they continue to keep his name alive.

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What is the theme of "The Masque of the Red Death" by Edgar Allan Poe?

This story shows that no matter how wealthy one is, no matter how much authority one has, nothing can protect a person from their own mortality; it is the one aspect of our lives -- rich or poor, high or low -- that unites us: we will all die and we cannot ultimately control when.  

Although the prince takes every precaution to avoid the Red Death, it eventually comes for him, as it does everyone else.  Further, Prospero dies in the seventh of his colored rooms, the room of black walls and floor, with blood-red windows.  The colors of the room alone connote death and mystery.  It's placement as the last of the seven rooms represents the fact that dying is the last thing any of us will ever do.  It houses a giant clock, another common symbol for mortality, as the clocks measures time, of which we each have a limited supply, and its color -- black -- again connotes death.  Prince Prospero dies in that room, and his death is followed by the deaths of his courtiers, all of whom tried to escape it with him.  Despite their money and status, their youth, their carefree natures, and all their security measures, they cannot.

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In "The Masque of the Red Death," what underlying truth or message is Poe trying to convey to the reader?

One of the main messages of this text is that nothing can render a human being immune to death; we simply cannot escape it. Prince Prospero has the financial means to simply pick up and leave the areas of his country most affected by the Red Death. He has the ability to control the people with whom he associates, only inviting the healthiest and most carefree. Further, he has built an isolated abbey, surrounded by stone walls and iron gates, and his guests have brought furnaces and hammers so that they can weld all the bolts and secure themselves that much more. There is enough food and drink, entertainment and diversion to last them a very long time. However, in the end, none of this is sufficient to protect them from death. Neither money nor exclusivity nor preparedness can prevent the inevitable end for all of us.

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What is Edgar Allan Poe trying to tell his readers about death in "The Masque of the Red Death"?

A reader can interpret the title of Edgar Allan Poe's story of a masque as a disguise--the "disguise of Red Death," the guest who enters and really is his disguise--or as the party that is called a masque, or a "masquerade of the Red Death." 

Thus, the Red Death is the secret guest who becomes his costume, while also being the one who generates the masquerade party. In either case, he it is who controls the celebration of the revelers; the Red Death is inescapable. This is Poe's message about death: Nothing can keep it away; death controls life.

Masquerades were popular in Venice during the Carnival season in the fifteen century. In the eighteenth century masquerades were held in London and involved elaborate costumes which hid the identity of the guests. These masques gained a reputation for unseemly behavior, unescorted women, and even anonymous attacks upon people, attacks that were sometimes fatal, such as assassinations of unsuspecting prominent officials.

Just as the guests of these libertine masques often felt themselves safe in their costumes and revelries only to be attacked or exploited, the guests of Prince Prospero find themselves confronted by the Red Death who has made his entry "disguised" as himself in order to control all the guests.

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