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.