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Themes in The Masque of the Red Death

Death as Natural and Inevitable: Though the Red Death is cast as a villain and its symptoms are used as a source of horror, it is also situated as a natural part of life. Blood connects the Red Death to life, since blood is both the “Avatar” of the disease and a vital component in bodies. Life cannot exists without blood, and neither can the Red Death. The arrival of the Red Death at midnight further emphasizes the connection between life and death, since midnight is both the end of the day and the start of a new one. Not only is death inevitable, as indicated by the “illimitable dominion” it holds, but also natural.

The Red Death as a Moral Decay: Prince Prospero and his friends represent a privileged class of people who attempt to use money to escape the plague. However, the true nature of the disease is debatable. Blood is the “Avatar and seal” of the Red Death, occupying a dual meaning where blood can be read either literally or as a reference to the concept of bloodlines. Their apparent abandonment of the common people and hedonistic lifestyle position the nobility as immoral. The ending of the story can be interpreted as a divine judgement of sorts, where the arrogance and immorality of Prospero and his friends it to blame for their gruesome demise.

Safety as an Illusion: The castle that Prospero and his friends live in is secluded and devoid of reminders of the Red Death. They surround themselves with distractions like wine and parties in order to forget about the plague. The imprecise description of the time jump emphasizes that Prospero and his friends believe they have escaped death, allowing them to be less attentive to the passage of time. However, the fragility of the illusion is demonstrated by the black room and the ebony clock, both of which intrude on the fantasy world that Prospero and his friends have created. The clock serves as a reminder that time is pushing them towards death, and the black room serves as a symbol of death itself. Their aggressive reaction to the masked figure showcases how far they will go to preserve the illusion.

Themes Examples in The Masque of the Red Death:

The Masque of the Red Death

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"And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

In Christian trinitarian doctrine, the spirit of God is split into three distinct but interconnected vessels: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is the creator of the universe, the Son is embodied by Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit dwells in the faithful. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” the clock, the masked figure, and blood serve as an unholy trinity, representative of death rather than salvation. The clock is time, the indomitable presence that establishes the confines of reality and the inevitability of death. The masked figure is the dark judge who brings death to Prospero and his friends. Blood, established as an enemy from the start, is the source of the pestilence that led to Prospero’s arrogance and eventual downfall. Once the last of the masqueraders has died, the trinity dissolves, with the masked figure's proving intangible, the clock's ceasing to tick, and the blood's splattering the walls.

"And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The final line of the story highlights the foolishness of Prospero and his friends in attempting to escape the Red Death. To hold “illimitable dominion” means to have unlimited or absolute control over something. Prospero and his friends had no chance of escaping death, no matter how hard they tried to fool themselves. The final line also completes the unity of impression that Poe strove for in all of his stories, ending on the same idea that it opened with when describing the swift and gruesome end met by those who contracted the disease.

"And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The biblical book of 1 Thessalonians 5:2 reads: “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.” 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 focus on the preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the prophesized apocalypse where all souls will be judged for their sins. By using the phrase “thief in the night,” the narrator casts the coming of the Red Death as both biblical and apocalyptic. Biblical theology states that the Second Coming will be preceded by the arrival of the antichrist and humanity's descent into sin. This allusion offers an interpretation of the story as an apocalyptic event in which Prospero has led his people to sin and folly and the Red Death has arrived to deliver its gruesome judgement.

"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.

"the wild courage of despair,..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

After watching Prospero drop dead, his friends are seized by the “wild courage of despair.” Rather than fleeing or attempting to ignore the masked figure, they rush the black room, trying futilely to avenge Prospero’s death and remove the intrusive presence. This course of action highlights Prospero’s role as the architect of the daydream. Now that he is dead, his friends cannot maintain the illusion and instead give into the “wild impulses of despair” that Prospero’s leadership staved off.

"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.

"“Who dares?” he demanded hoarsely of the courtiers who stood near him—“who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him—that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!”..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The adjective “blasphemous” refers to something that is profane and violates religious doctrine, specifically Christian. For Prospero to call the costume a “blasphemous mockery” is hypocritical, considering the biblical verse in Hebrews 9:27: “and as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” In Christian theology, all mortal things must die in order to obtain salvation in the afterlife. By defying death, Prospero proves himself the true blasphemer. Notice the additional hypocrisy in that the punishment for dressing up as the Red Death is a death sentence. Prospero is willing to condemn someone else to the fate he seeks to defy for daring to confront him with the reality of the Red Death.

"reddened with rage...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Up to this point, the color red has been associated with death and disease. If readers maintain this association, Prospero’s face “redden[ing] with rage” can be interpreted in multiple ways. Recall that one of the symptoms of the red death is “profuse bleeding at the pores.” Though possible that Prospero’s anger has caused his face to flush, there is still an echo of the description of facial bleeding from the introduction of the disease. By another reading, Prospero’s own murderous thoughts have led his face to take on the color of death. He calls for the hanging of the figure and later rushes him with a dagger, indicating Prospero’s own deadly nature.

"The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The noun “habiliment” means clothing, specifically clothes worn as part of a uniform or for a specific occasion. The “habiliments of the grave” refer to the clothes or the shroud that a corpse was buried in. To be “gaunt” is to be lean and grim in appearance, often in reference to someone who is ill. This description of the masked figure evokes a visual image of the Grim Reaper, often depicted as a skeleton or corpse shrouded in the “habiliments of the grave.” The “terror, horror, and disgust” that the figure has inspired in the masqueraders stems from the fact that it is a physical embodiment, an avatar, of what they sought to avoid: the Red Death.

"There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Prospero’s sense of style verges on the macabre and his friends are “grotesque” phantasms, distracting themselves from their own mortality by treating everything as a joke. However, even amongst the hedonistic revelers, the masked figure has gone too far. The figure has tread on territory that even the most callous of people could not remain indifferent to. In doing so, the otherwise carefree revelers have been forced to situate themselves within a moral framework that they have otherwise neglected by abandoning the common people.

"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.

"beat feverishly the heart of life...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The adverb “feverishly” refers to something done in a wildly energetic manner. For a heart to beat feverishly implies that the heart rate is accelerated. An accelerated heart rate is often associated with fear or exertion, and the exertion of maintaining the illusion of gaiety provides a potential cause. If one views life and death as continuities of one another, then “the heart of life” has been fighting against itself by refusing death. Rather than beating strongly and healthily, it is overworked and “feverish,” indicating that denial and fear have taken a toll on Prospero and his friends.

"there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

In act IV, scene I of The Tempest, Prospero stages a play using spirits conjured with magic. As the play ends and the reality of Caliban’s plot to murder him resurfaces in his mind, Prospero says, “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits, and / Are melted into air, into thin air.” In “The Masque of the Red Death,” the illusion of safety steadily unravels. The “dreams” stalking around the masquerade are the “hale and lighthearted friends” that Prospero conscripted to join his fantasy. Much like the actors in The Tempest were dispelled when reality set in, so too do these “dreams” dissipate when Prospero’s illusion breaks.

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

The noun “phantasm” refers to an apparition, ghost, illusion, or sensory deception. In this case, these meanings enhance the dream-like quality of the masquerade. Reading phantasm as ghost implies that the masqueraders are not grounded in reality but are instead caught in limbo between the reality of death and their desire to escape it. By reading phantasm as illusion, the entire masquerade becomes a farce. The illusion is twofold: the revelers are projecting the illusion of gaiety despite their fear, and the masquerade itself is an illusion conjured by Prospero to combat the reality of death.

"(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.

"But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly;..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

After the clock chimes each hour, Prospero and his friends attempt to laugh off their unease, promising not to react the same way the next time. However, rather than living up to their oaths, they continue to be disconcerted by time's intrusion into their revels. The party has come under the control of the clock, starting and stopping each hour as the passage of time asserts its presence, shattering the illusion each time. The “light laughter” is a futile attempt to retain the sense of timelessness and immortality that Prospero and his companions seek.

"a gigantic clock of ebony...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

In Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence, Sonnet 12 conflates Time with the grim reaper: “and nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence…” That the clock is located in the black room establishes a relationship between death and the passage of time, increasing the unease of Prospero and his friends. Every tick of the clock is a reminder that they are one step closer to death. As a result, the masquerade transforms into a tense and nervous scene as the looming presence of death intrudes on Prospero’s fabricated reality.

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

The presence of the black room suggests the inevitability of death, but the inclusion of the “blood red” window panels serves as a reminder that death is not divorced from life, but rather a natural part of it. Blood, which is the “Avatar and seal” of the Red Death, is a vital component of life. No amount of walls or iron gates can protect people from their own bodies. Though “The Masque of the Red Death” casts death as gruesome and villainous, it also highlights the foolishness of those who try to escape it.

"a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Notice that the description of the windows has them facing inside the castle, not outside. Poe’s Prospero does not have magic like Shakespeare’s Prospero, so he cannot alter reality in a literal sense. In order to maintain the illusion of separation, Prospero has crafted his castle so that the world outside cannot intrude on the world inside. The windows are also made of stained glass, and the light allowed through the windows takes on the color of the glass, while obscuring what is on the other side. The lack of visibility prevents the companions from looking too closely at their situation, instead losing themselves in the “voluptuous scene” crafted by Prospero.

"the fifth or sixth month..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The time jump, which moves the story ahead by “five or six month[s],” approaches the matter of how much time has passed with a degree of imprecision not seen elsewhere. Time governs the progression of the disease and the patterns of the “masked ball,” so the inexact nature of a description like “the fifth or six month” stands out. Prior to entering to castle, mortality and the marking off of each half hour were at the forefront of the public consciousness. However, now that Prospero and his friends have sealed themselves away, the illusion of immunity from the plague has taken hold and they are no longer as diligent about tracking time.

"within. Without..."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

The contrast between “within” and “without” in these two sentences emphasizes the disparity between the disease-ravaged world and Prospero's insulated retreat. The “within” and the “without” represent two different realities, one of nature’s making and the other of Prospero’s making. In a sense, Prospero and his friends have created an entirely different reality within the castle, one that seeks to reject death and suffering in favor of a facade of safety.

"There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

“Improvisatori” were improvisational poets popular in 14th-century Italy, providing a possible setting for the story. The buffoons, dancers, musicians, and improvisatori represent the luxury that Prospero and his friends enjoy as well as their need to be distracted from mortality with earthly pleasures. Wine and other forms of alcohol are frequently depicted as instruments of distraction in literature, capable of silencing lingering worries or fears. The decadence of Prospero’s castle is made possible by wealth and privilege, but the need for such extravagance appears to be born from fear and the need to forget, even if only momentarily, that the Red Death rages on outside.

"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.

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

The adjective “castellated” refers to a structure with battlements, or slots that arrows can be shot through. A “castellated abbey” conjures images of a fortress, an idea reinforced by the inclusion of the guard walls and gates. Superficially, the fortress is designed to keep the plague out. However, no amount of arrows can defend against a disease, indicating that perhaps the fortress also acts as a barrier between the wealthy courtiers and the less privileged masses seeking refuge. This emphasis on class division highlights the arrogance of Prospero and his friends, who believe that they can use wealth to protect themselves from the Red Death.

" half an hour...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

Time, specifically the passing of it, plays a significant role in building the tension in “The Masque of the Red Death.” In emphasizing that it only takes “half an hour” for the disease to run its course, the hopelessness of combatting it becomes clear: there is no time for doctors or religious rites, just pain before death. The rapid rate at which the disease claims its victims serves to reinforce the inevitability of death and the shortness of life, since everyone in Poe's story knows that their life could be over within a mere half an hour.

"There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution...."   (The Masque of the Red Death)

In describing the symptoms of the Red Death, the narrator blends kinesthetic and visual imagery to emphasize the disease's gruesome nature. The “sharp pains” and “dizziness” appeal to readers’ awareness of their own bodies, and the “profuse bleeding at the pores” and the “dissolution,” or decomposition, of the skin paints a stark visual image. Combined with the emphasis on the horrific “redness” of the blood, the body is further estranged as a source of pain, dying and rotting even as those with the disease are still, briefly, alive.

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

In addition to its more literal definition, “blood” can refer to the idea of family bloodlines. The idea of a “pestilence” transmitted through bloodlines becomes a potential criticism of the moral failings of the nobility, who tend to emphasize the importance of family lines and perpetuate classism.

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

On top of building the visual landscape of the “The Masque of the Red Death,” Poe includes color for symbolic purposes. The title and introduction directly associate “redness” with death and disease. Historically speaking, red is either the color of power and vitality or the color of fear and danger. Its associations with blood are likely what leads to this conflict, since blood is associated with both life and death. Though the narrator primarily uses red to represent death, its associations with blood and vitality serve to remind readers that life and death are irrevocably connected.

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

The noun “pestilence” typically refers to a fatal epidemic or plague, but it can also refer to corruption and moral decay. By the former definition, the Red Death is presented as a gruesome and deadly disease, eclipsing the worst plagues in history with its destructive power. However, the latter definition provides a different potential reading of the story: the “pestilence” is not only the disease but also the moral climate of the unspecified country.

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