Themes and Meanings
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.