“The Masque of the Red Death” is rightfully considered to be one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most colorful stories. The tale is set in a castle belonging to Prince Prospero, a wealthy, powerful, and selfish monarch. Outside the walls of his castle, the plague, which the author names Red Death, devastates Prospero’s kingdom to the point where “his dominions were half depopulated” (Poe In Quinn 485). To avoid getting sick, Prospero secures himself and a “thousand hale and light-hearted friends” (485) behind an enormous wall protected with gates of iron. Locked safely inside, the Prince and his fellows establish an exclusive and enclosed world of pleasure: “There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there was Beauty, there was wine” (485).
During the five or six months of such life, Prospero continues to party within the castle, which has seven decorated chambers “so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time” (486). The seven rooms correspond to Shakespeare’s seven ages of man and to the seven stages of deadly sin culminating in the worst of sins, pride (Carlson 34). The separate chambers, each completely decorated in a different color scheme, move from east (sunrise) to west (sunset), connected by a serpentine corridor. The most western of these rooms, however, is “shrouded in black velvet tapestries…but in this chamber only, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet—a deep blood color” (486). This room also contains a giant clock at whose chiming of the hour “it was observed that the giddiest grew pale” (487).
One evening Prospero hosts a “masked ball of the most unusual magnificence” (485). At the height of the party, an uninvited guest appears wearing a mask and costume meant to suggest the physical symptoms of contamination by the Red Death (Carlson 36). Prospero demands that all guests reveal their identities at midnight. After the unknown guest refuses, prince chases him through all the chambers of the castle, finally getting him in the black chamber. There, “within the shadow of the ebony clock,” the figure turns to face Prospero and reveals himself to be a ghost, “the grave-cerements and corpse-like mask…untenanted by any tangible form” (490). As the clock finishes sounding the midnight, each of the party guests, the prince included, falls to the ground “in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall” (490). The Red Death “had come like a thief in the night” (490). The final paragraph of the story, resembling the seven rooms in Prospero’s castle, contains seven clauses, each beginning with an “And,” providing the rhythm of a clocklike measurement of doom (Roppolo 66-67).
Prince Prospero is named after Shakespeare’s godlike creator of his own private world in the play, The Tempest (Vanderbilt 381). Shakespeare’s play centers upon a powerful man, Prospero, who transforms a primitive island into a paradise. Like Poe’s Prospero, Shakespeare’s character creates an environment that corresponds to his vision of how the world should look. But Prospero’s island is an unstable place; the beast-man Caliban represents the destructive energies of nature that continually threaten the kingdom of Prospero (Vanderbilt 383).
Joseph Roppolo suggests that not only does Poe take his character’s name from Shakespeare, but also the title for the story itself (60). In the first act of The Tempest, Caliban curses Prospero: “the red plague rid you” (Zapf 214). Similarly, Poe’s main character learns that human efforts to avoid the hostile forces of nature are doomed to failure. As Shakespeare’s Prospero admits his inability either to conquer or promote the wild Caliban, Poe’s Prospero understands that he can not win in the battle with the Red Death (Zapf 216).
Prospero is a man who has no sympathy or compassion to his people. While his kingdom is devastated by the plague, Prospero locks himself and his closest friends inside a fortress where they will stay secluded until the plague goes away. In addition to being protected from contamination, they feel free to indulge in all sorts of immoral behavior: “Security was within…. The external world could take care of itself” (485). The natural question that arises from these facts is why does Prospero behave in such a manner? Aside from obviously being a man who does not care about sufferings of others, the prince also appears to be a person who enjoys his pleasures not taking others’ feelings and lives into consideration. Hubert Zapf says that Prospero is the type of man who would gain great satisfaction—because it is a sign of his ultimate power—describing in detail the dinner he just had to a homeless person who has not eaten in weeks (212).
Poe reminds us that the devastating effects of the Red Death, with its horrible “bleeding at the pores,” isolates the victim “from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men” (485). In the end, it is Prospero himself who is “shut out from the aid and sympathy” not only in his selfish indulgence, but in the manner in which he dies: alone in the black room, face-to-face with death (Zapf 216). He failed to save himself from death. The story shows that death is a universal matter that makes all people equal and there no escape from departing this world.
Joseph Ropollo points out that the beginning of the story is truly Gothic: “Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in all ages. Why then give a date to the story I have to tell? I will not. Besides I have other reasons for concealment” (Qtd in Dayan 45). Gothic fiction frequently tries to take the reader into strange, remote regions to emphasize the unreal horrors experienced by sensitive heroes and heroines; the reader is immediately put into doubt and uneasiness in this beginning (Ropollo 64).
The lords and ladies who surround Prospero represent the vanity of this world. They move through the apartments in the castle searching for more alcohol or other stimulants, like spoiled, empty-headed creatures at a party someone else is paying for (Dayan 67). If these party people are representation of the haughtiness and arrogance, the figure of the Red Death, in contrast, is a highly individualized creation that certainly grabs the attention of reader. It stands out immediately from the other party people, especially since its purpose is to tease Prospero in dressing in a costume identical to symptoms associated with the Red Death, and then to disobey his orders when it is time to unmask. Hubert Zapf notes that in medieval art, it was customary for the ghost of death to wear a costume of his prey, and to tease with exaggeration the victim’s behavior and/or daily activity (214-215). For the medieval artist, death is a double; Prince Prospero meets his own death in a kind of terrifying mirror, clothed in a costume that resembles that part of himself he has tried so hard to deny.
The figure of the Red Death is linked to the theme of devastating time often illustrated in many of Poe’s tales of horror. Only the regular sounds of the ebony clock disrupts the surrealistic place constructed in the castle. The reality signaling the passage of time each hour signals the arrival of the Red Death, the ultimate destroyer of fantasy and symbol of reality. Like time itself, the Red Death possesses a kind of invisibility. Human beings remain unable to grasp it fully, but all are affected by its passage (Dayan 74). Its presence changes the atmosphere of partying and self-indulgence that Prospero has tried so hard to establish; his guests are silenced by the time itself: “The dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand…the echoes of the chime die away” (488). In this tale, time joins with the Red Death’s “dominion over all,” laughing at Prospero’s efforts to escape from death.
To continue, “The Masque of the Red Death” is an excellent illustration of Poe’s ability to create fantastic worlds of the imagination. Everything about this tale suggests a purely imaginative world beyond reality, and to some extent, the very act of this creation is a central theme of the narrative (Vanderbilt 385). Filled with images of rich costumes, masks of beautiful and privileged people, and an environment of rich colors and sounds, the reader feels like he is present in Prince Prospero’s palace of pleasure and happiness. It is a world that resembles a dream-fantasy, music video, or exotic night club more than a realist representation of everyday life (Carlson 90).
Yet, in the middle of creating this exciting fantastical world, Poe’s third-person narrative voice hesitates to inform the reader that even though “there was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, and something of the terrible” surrounding the construction of this artificial world, there was also “not a little of that which might have excited disgust” (487–88). The last part of this commentary is also an emphasis on haughtiness of individuals who have lost sight of reality in alcohol and surrealistic pleasures.
Poe illustrated the attractions of such an environment. He demonstrated that such self-indulgences came at a heavy price, that what often appears to be real—whether it be the security of Prospero’s castle, or the changed world created by over consumption of alcohol—is in reality a dangerous illusion that often results in death. Thus, “The Masque of the Red Death” has two moral lessons: that the sin leads to death, especially when that sin takes its shape in arrogance; and that self-indulgence is associated with lost reality and, eventually, means death.