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Literary Devices in The Masque of the Red Death

Allegory for the Inevitability of Death: “The Masque of the Red Death” describes how Prince Prospero and his friends seclude themselves in a remote castle, far away from the ravages of the plague. However, on the night of the masquerade, a masked figure dressed up as a victim of the Red Death makes his entrance, resulting in the death of the entire company. Though they surround themselves with all of the security measures that money can buy, Prospero and his friends are still forced to submit to the “illimitable dominion” of death.

Literary Devices Examples in The Masque of the Red Death:

The Masque of the Red Death

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"untenanted by any tangible form...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The description of the masked figure as “spectral” proves literal as Prospero’s friends unmask him only to find that there is no tangible form beneath the costume. This revelation can be read several ways: On a purely allegorical reading, the masked figure represents death itself. It can also be read more literally, with the disease entering by intangible means, like air or a delayed outbreak. Another interpretation is that the disease represents immorality and corruption, meaning that no external source can be blamed since the disease came from within Prospero and his friends. By this final reading, their own corruption eventually dissolves their insulated society, resulting in a violent overthrow of Prospero.

"through the blue chamber to the purple—through the purple to the green—through the green to the orange—through this again to the white—and even thence to the violet, ere a decided movement had been made to arrest him...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Notice that the masked figure moves from the blue chamber to the black chamber. If the different rooms represent the process of aging, then the masked figure moves towards death. The intentionality of the figure’s “solemn and measured step” evokes images of a procession or ceremony, specifically a funeral. Poe employs anaphora, repeating the word “through” at the beginning of each phrase as the figure walks through each room. This builds suspense and mimics the way the masqueraders watch him progress, elongating the journey as he makes his way towards the final room.

"found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Since “The Masque of the Red Death” serves as an allegory about the foolishness of trying to avoid death, the clock's striking midnight is what ultimately forces Prospero and his friends to recognize its presence. Death is no longer a vague threat from outside but has instead materialized as a guest at the party. Notice how the masked figure has not just arrived; it has simply gone unnoticed until now. The implication is that the guest—death—has been present the entire time, just unnoticed or willfully ignored. The escape that Prospero and his friends thought they achieved was an illusion.

"for the night is waning away;..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Time's prominent presence creates a sense of mystery regarding what the passage of time is building towards. This line foreshadows that revelation as it specifies that the masquerade is happening at night and that the “night is waning away,” establishing the destination as midnight, which marks the end of one day and the beginning of the next. The ticking of the clock transforms from a general reminder into a countdown.

"But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

“The Masque of the Red Death” oscillates between descriptions of unease and descriptions of revelry. The more extravagant descriptions of parties and decorations emphasize the terror and tension that underlies the festivities. Readers already know that the “gay and magnificent revel” is a facade meant to provide a distraction from the clock and the Red Death. The title of the story foreshadows that the Red Death will make its appearance at the “masque.” Narrative tension builds to the inevitable appearance of the Red Death; it is only a matter of when it will arrive.

"(which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,)..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

By dividing each hour into seconds, Poe highlights Prospero and his friends’ heightened awareness of the passage of time. There is no more of the willful ignorance that allows them to lose track of how long they’ve been in the castle. Now, every action is overseen by the clock and every second is measured by how much closer it places them to death.

"half depopulated,..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Though the narrative shifts away from its focus on the Red Death in favor of recounting Prospero’s attempts to circumvent it, symbols and reminders of death permeate the entire story. “The Masque of the Red Death” has been read as an allegory for the inescapability of death and the foolishness of trying to avoid it. This is foreshadowed in the title and the opening of the story, both of which emphasize the Red Death itself rather than Prospero. Though Prospero and his friends provide the action for the story, readers are told from the beginning that the Red Death is the true subject.

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