Analysis Pages

Historical Context in The Masque of the Red Death

Masquerade Culture: Masquerade balls originated in Europe during the 14th century, and the practice was quickly adopted by members of the nobility. The elaborate costumes created an environment where the lines between class, gender, and sexuality were more easily blurred. This made masquerades a freeing experience for those who were normally accountable to rigid social rules. They were highly privileged spaces where people could conduct affairs or discuss controversial political and philosophical ideas without fear of repercussions. Over time, masquerades became associated with debauchery and excess, leading to significant pushback, especially from religious groups, when they crossed into colonial America.

Historical Context Examples in The Masque of the Red Death:

The Masque of the Red Death

🔒 11

"mummer..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The noun “mummer” refers to an actor, typically amateur, who performed in masked plays or pantomimes. Mummers often performed for the poor in exchange for food or drink, especially around the holidays. Though masquerades were more for the nobility and mummers plays were more for the common people, the concepts stem from the shared desire to escape social conventions by acting out a different persona. The masked figure is likely referred to as a “mummer” because it is silent and because it appears to be acting out its costume. It may also be a way of degrading the figure for its poor taste.

"then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Horror writer Stephen King, who cites Poe as a major influence, describes the three levels of horror storytelling as disgust, horror, and terror. Disgust is the reaction to something shocking or gory, such as a blood splattered corpse. Horror is the reaction to something perceived as unnatural, like a reanimated corpse. Terror is the highest level of fear. Terror is the result of the imagination being put in conflict with reality, where people must decide whether to trust their own senses or not. The masked figure represents all of these levels for Prospero and his friends, instilling in them the sense of terror that Poe hoped to instill in his readers by playing on their fear and denial of the Red Death.

"Stephen King: Master of Horror" NBC News, New York, NY: NBC Universal, November 27, 1981.

"“Hernani.”..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

“Hernani” is an 1830 drama by Victor Hugo, a contemporary of Poe. It is known for its elaborate stage productions, which polarized critics with regards to whether it was excessive or spectacular. Poe appreciated the play and uses this allusion to refer to the magnitude and extravagance of Prospero’s masked ball. The final scenes of Hernani and “The Masque of the Red Death” are similar in that they both take place at an extravagant ball and are concerned with the intrusion of a masked stranger.

"Be sure they were grotesque...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The adjective “grotesque” typically refers to something that is repulsive or ugly. It can also refer to something that is shockingly excessive or inappropriate, such as a grotesque display of wealth. Building off of the “barbaric lustre” of Prospero’s artistic vision, the costumes and masks worn by his friends are similarly grotesque. Traditional 19th-century masquerades were events of excess, full of drinking, gambling, and sex. Creativity and wit were highly encouraged when it came to designing the opulent costumes. Both of the meanings of grotesque likely come into play when describing this scene; the costumes were both lavish and designed to evoke controversial reactions.

"voluptuous scene..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The adjective “voluptuous” means that something is characterized by luxury and decadence. Masquerades in 17th-century Europe were characterized by escapism; the costumes were a way of altering one’s reality. Things like gender, sexuality, and class were blurred by luxury and anonymity. For Prospero and his friends, the masquerade is yet another way to stave off the reality of death. Rather than dwell on mortality, they can indulge in opulent festivities and shirk off their humanity by putting on masks.

"masked ball..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

A masked ball, or masquerade, is a party where guests wear costumes and masks as a part of the festivities. Masks have a variety of connotations with deceit and concealment since they cover the face, preventing others from discerning one’s identity or emotions. Attendees of masquerades often used the anonymity provided by their masks to express risky political opinions or behave inappropriately. This abandonment of identity and license to act without consequence was used as a form of escapism by the upper classes. Masks were also famously worn by 17th-century French and Italian plague doctors, who stuffed the beak-like protrusions of their uniform masks with herbs and medicines in the hopes of staving off the diseases they were treating.

"leave means neither of ingress or egress..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

To “leave means neither of ingress or egress” means to leave no way to enter or exit. During historical plagues, the practice of separating the sick or potentially contaminated from the healthy became a common precaution. This practice, called "quarantining," is meant to reduce the spread of disease. Note that rather than quarantining those already suffering from the Red Death, Prospero and his friends lock themselves away. In attempting to avoid becoming sick, Prospero and his friends treat themselves just like historical plague victims. This also furthers the metaphor around the moral “pestilence” of privilege, which needs to be quarantined away from the rest of society.

"gates of iron...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The most common element on Earth, iron is a frequent symbol of vitality and protection in folklore. When humans discovered that iron could be extracted from veins in the ground, it became a symbol for the lifeforce of the earth. It is considered the most human metal and is thought to be able to repel ghosts and other supernatural entities. Most graveyards are built with iron gates in order to prevent the spirits of the dead from getting out, providing a sense of separation between the living and the dead. Prospero and his friends built the gate to keep death out, but now they are the ones who are fenced in.

"deep seclusion..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Poe is considered one of the defining influences on Gothic literature, and “The Masque of the Red Death” blends traditional tropes and Poe’s own style to establish an unmistakably Gothic setting. Of particular note is the secluded nature of the abbey and the decision to lock the castle from the inside. The idea of being trapped or surrounded creates a sense of isolation and claustrophobia, a concept also explored in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado”. Though they locked themselves away to avoid the plague, Prospero and his friends have also trapped themselves with no way to escape should anything go wrong.

"horror..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Outside of his career as a poet and short story writer, Edgar Allan Poe was also a literary critic. In 1846, he wrote an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition” in which he details his writing process. According to Poe, in order to create a good story, an author should strive for a “unity of impression” where the diction, imagery, and themes of a story all work towards a central purpose. In the case of “The Masque of the Red Death,” that purpose is evoking horror.

"THE “RED DEATH”..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Poe’s gruesome “Red Death” could be based on tuberculosis, commonly called "consumption" in the 19th century. Tuberculosis typically affects the lungs, leading sufferers to cough up blood. Poe’s wife, Virginia, contracted tuberculosis in January, 1842, the same year that “The Masque of the Red Death” was published. Poe also lost several other family members to tuberculosis. The “Red Death” also may be meant to recall the 1347 outbreak of the bubonic plague across Europe and Asia, commonly referred to as the “Black Death.” The devastation wrought by the bubonic plague and the resulting existential anxiety it inspired brought mortality to the forefront of medieval literary thought.

Analysis Pages