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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The Masque of the Red Death Themes

The main themes in "The Masque of the Red Death" are art, reality, and class conflict.

  • Art versus reality: Prospero’s abbey symbolizes art's ability to enable individuals to create a universe distinct from reality. However, the progression of rooms and the unmasking of the Red Death suggests that even art does not allow individuals to escape time and death.

  • Class conflict: the indifference of Prospero and his guests to the plight of the rest of the population highlights class conflict, but the arrival of the Red Death suggests that wealth cannot protect people from death.

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Themes and Meanings

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The theme of Poe’s allegory quite clearly focuses on the impossibility, regardless of one’s power, wealth, and influence, of escaping mortality. However, the story is somewhat more complex than this easy moral statement would suggest. First, the particular nature of the Red Death itself creates a basic irony. The metaphor of a “Red” death, because it suggests blood, is the conventional image, not of death, but rather of life itself, for the presence of blood on the face of a person suggests the life within it. In this sense, every living person wears a mask of red—the blood visible beneath the skin. However, it is precisely this sign of life that ironically suggests death. For Poe’s point is that it is the very presence of life that inevitably means death. Thus, Prospero does not simply try to escape death; rather, by enclosing himself within the castle and shutting out the outside world, he attempts to escape life into a realm hermetically closed off—in short, into a world very much like Poe’s notion of the art work itself.

In this sense, Prospero is a reflection of William Shakespeare’s character of the same name in The Tempest (1611), similarly an aesthetic magician who creates an alternate world of imaginative reality not susceptible to the contingencies of external reality. Indeed, Poe’s emphasis in “The Masque of the Red Death” is that the abbey within which Prospero retreats is his own “creation,” a result of his “own eccentric yet august taste”—phrases that echo Poe’s own aesthetic theory—a Platonic notion that celebrates the ideal of the artwork as a self-sustained experience of absolute and immutable beauty. In effect, Prospero creates the image of a self-contained artwork within which he tries to live. However, the seven rooms within the abbey seem to reflect the inescapable temporality of human experience.

The sequence of rooms perhaps represents the seven ages of man—from the blue, which suggests the beginning of life and light in the east, to the black, which suggests the darkness of night and death in the west. Consequently, even though Prospero attempts to create the illusion of art as eternally protected from the contingencies of life, the final realization of the reader is that, because all art works inevitably reflect life, one cannot escape, even within the artwork, the inevitable implication of process and thus mortality. The image of the clock in the final room suggests why this is so: Both life and the literary work exist within time, and it is indeed time that makes life end inevitably in death.

Themes

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Death
While this story is literally about a pestilence called the Red Death, it can be read at an allegorical level as a tale about man's fear of his own mortality. In the story, Prince Prospero and his ‘‘thousand friends’’ seal themselves into an abbey of his castle in an attempt to ‘‘defy contagion’’ and escape the clutches of the Red Death. The Prince employs "all the appliances of pleasure'' in order to distract his guests both from the suffering and death outside their walls and from thoughts of their own vulnerability to the Red Death. The Prince's actions symbolize the ways in which all humans tend to focus on material pleasures in order to distract themselves from the knowledge that everyone, including themselves, eventually must die.

The fact that the Red Death slips in "like a thief in the night'' to claim the lives of everyone present symbolizes the fact that no one, not even the powerful and wealthy, can escape death, which eventually claims all mortals. Just as everyone must eventually "face'' the fact of their own mortality, the Prince dies the moment he literally "faces" his own Death, and can no longer deny its presence in his castle.

Time
The theme of time in this story is closely linked to the theme of death. Of course, the passage of time signals the approach of death; as the saying goes, each minute that passes brings us one minute closer to our death. Poe at one point capitalizes the word Time, as if it were a proper name, thereby personifying it, which suggests that he is referring to time in a broader allegorical sense, rather than simply in a literal sense.

The connection of time with death is indicated by the placement of the "great ebony clock'' in the seventh room of the abbey, which is the room associated with images of death. The passage of time marked by the chiming of the clock each hour symbolizes the limited time each person has to live. The guests at the ball are so disturbed by the sound of the clock's chime because it is a reminder to each person of their own encroaching deaths. With the passing of each hour, the guests at the ball are forced to think about their own mortality, despite all the distractions provided by their elaborate festivities, for "more of thought crept, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful among those who reveled.’’

The hour of midnight, marking the end of the day, thus symbolizes the end of life. Indeed, the Red Death is first noticed among the guests at the ball shortly after the stroke of midnight, signaling the arrival of death for each party goer. The death of the guests and breakdown of the clock are likewise simultaneous, for "the clock went out with the last of the gay.’’

Madness
"The Masque of the Red Death'' can be interpreted as the interior monologue of a madman, and all its characters figments of his insane imagination. As G. R. Thompson maintains, Poe was "the master of the interior monologue of a profoundly disturbed mind.’’ If this story represents the ‘‘interior monologue" of a mad Prince Prospero, the narrator must be Prince Prospero himself. The narrator first mentions the possibility that the Prince may be insane by attributing it to the opinion of others, stating that ‘‘there are some who would have thought him mad.’’ But the narrator distances himself from this opinion by then stating that ‘‘his followers felt that he was not'' mad.

If the entire story represents the figment of one man's mad imagination, then the guests are not real people, but merely characters in his own internal psycho-drama. Indeed, the guests at the masquerade ball are described as "a multitude of dreams'' and even as "fantasms." In this sense the ‘‘masqueraders’’ at the ball are merely extensions of the narrator himself, just as the characters in dreams are extensions of the dreamer. It is the Prince himself who dresses his guests, for ‘‘it was his own guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders.’’ And the particular costumes are described as "delirious fancies such as a madman fashions.’’ In other words, the mad Prince designed the costumes of his guests in accordance with his own "delirious fancies,'' or delusions. If the guests of the Prince are reflections of his own mad imagination, it also makes sense that even they are eventually referred to as "mad," in the phrase ‘‘mad revelers.’’ And even the masked figure of the Red Death is described as taking on ‘‘mad assumptions.’’

Apocalypse
The use of language in ‘‘The Masque of the Red Death,'' as well as the nature of the tale, brings to mind a biblical story with apocalyptic implications. The story evokes images familiar from the Bible; the "pestilence'' that has devastated an unnamed country described in the opening paragraph recalls images of God having sent a pestilence upon the land as a form of punishment to humans for their sins. Prince Prospero and his ‘‘thousand guests’’ seem like likely candidates for divine wrath, as they exhibit no sympathy for the suffering of their fellow countrymen, instead indulging in ‘‘all the appliances of pleasure.’’

As critic Patrick Cheney has pointed out in his article ‘‘Poe's Use of The Tempest and the Bible in 'The Masque of the Red Death,'’’ the final paragraph of the story take on a biblical tone, as "the language, rhythm and allusion are unmistakably Biblical.’’ Most notably, the closing sentence evokes apocalyptic images of complete devastation: "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.’’ Cheney, however, argues that, unlike the Bible, where God always ultimately triumphs, in Poe's story it is the forces of evil, ‘‘Darkness and Decay and the Red Death,’’ which suggest an unholy trinity winning out over light and goodness and life.

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