Symbolism and Poe
Those who are not able to express themselves any other way have used symbolism in literature throughout time as a way of voicing hidden meanings and undeveloped feelings. It is used to compel a reader to think beyond the boundaries of normal thought and explore other avenues of ideas and beliefs. It can allow the reader to make a connection with the feelings of the author. Many great literary works are nothing more than an author's need to be heard.
Edgar Allan Poe, for example, used symbolism in most of his poetry and short stories in order to force the reader to see his views on life, religion, love, and death. He showed a great deal of himself in his work. His opinions are mirrored through that of his characters and his use of symbolism allows for a broader spectrum of interpretation. One of Poe's most famous symbolic short stories is "The Masque of The Red Death," a tale about a prince and his followers trying to escape the plague. In this, there are many instances where symbolism takes the leading role in the plot and is very important in establishing the true meaning behind the story.
There are four main elements in this story that can be construed as symbolism. By focusing on these, the reader is able to form a more enlightened view of the piece as a whole. Each one leads to the next, following a solid path that, in the end, leads to the point Poe is trying to make. Although the final interpretation depends completely upon the reader, these four things point them in the right direction.
The first symbol is the use of the name Prince Prospero. It automatically indicates a person of great wealth and high prestige. By using this name, Poe gives us valuable information about the prince's lifestyle, personality, and history without having to waste precious time with details. The name shows us that this prince is popular with his people, possesses excellent judgment, and seems to have a large amount of luck on his side. The symbolism in this single name is small but important. Prospero represents a good life, untouched by troubles or pain.
The second symbol is the masquerade. A masquerade is generally held and participated in by those who wish to hide their true identities. Yet, in this instance, they are not hiding from each other. They are hiding from death. Poe is trying to portray an image of a group of people who are carefree and jubilant on the outside, but fearful and wary on the inside. He does this successfully. However, there seems to be a greater meaning behind this revelry. Poe is establishing the main theme of the story here. One cannot escape death, no matter what they try to do. The masquerade symbolizes a fear of dying. Hiding behind masks, the revelers feel they can cheat death.
In correlation with the masquerade, there is the number of rooms in which it is held, the direction in which they lead, and the colors used to decorate them. Depending upon the reader, interpretations can vary. There are seven rooms and seven different colors. Some suspect that Poe was trying to symbolize the stages of life. All manner of people inhabit each room except the last, signifying that each person is in a different stage. For example, the color of the first room is blue. Blue can symbolize a dawn or a new start. Purple can be seen as a time when the human life is corrupted by reality. Green, the third room, can been seen as a time of growth and learning from one's mistakes. White, the fifth room, might mean the time of peace in a life after it has reached the plateau of adulthood and old age. Finally, the last room is decorated in the color black, which may be interpreted as death. Since no one has entered this stage, no one enters this room.
However, others see the rooms and colors as a representation of the seven deadly sins. Green may stand for envy and purple for hatred. Black can be recognized as murder or evil doings. This is an interesting way of looking at it, but it is hard to uncover sins for the remaining five colors.
The direction in which the rooms lead is intriguing. From east to west, they follow a timeless path. The rising and setting of the sun, the rotation of the earth, and the movement of culture and civilization to new lands all correspond with this direction. This particular symbolism may represent the idea that life starts in one place, but must take a certain path and will one day reach the end of its journey.
Next, there is the meaning of the ebony clock. At each hour, it makes its presence known, causing the people to grow quiet and still. After it has finished its marking of the hour, the revelers continue to celebrate. It can symbolize several things. One may be that the presence of death is always near, never straying too far. It could also be seen as a jerk back into reality, forcing the group to remember that they are not in a dream, but in nothing more than a self created illusion.
Finally, there is the arrival of the grave shrouded mummer. Arriving at the stroke of midnight, he paces through the crowd causing a hush throughout the seven rooms. He has the mask of a corpse and the blood sprinkled countenance of the Red Death. Here is where all the symbols join together to create the finale. Death has invaded the sanctuary of the healthy and all are afraid. The entrance of the mysterious figure signals the end of the festivities as well as the end of life. When Prospero enters the last room, the black room, he tries to defeat death and looses. Soon all the others follow Prospero to the ground in an agonizing and painful death. The event symbolizes that no matter what one does to avoid death, he will come for you and cannot be stopped.
The importance of these symbols is what creates the story. They are what create the aura of mystery and hidden innuendoes. They cause the reader to pause and reexamine certain aspects of believe. In this tale, they cause the reader to realize the fact that humans are not immortal and will not live forever. Poe pushes his thoughts upon his readers with such force that they can do nothing but think over his words. His use of symbolism not only made his writings truly grand, but also gives his readers a glimpse of who he really was and why.
Without symbols, this story would have been nothing more that a tale to scare little children. No intellectual stimulation would have evolved from the reading. No self-answered questions would have been asked. Would the reader of this story ever have had a cause to question his life had the prince been a pauper who died from old age while holding a party in a one-room shack? A story such as that would inspire pity more that thoughtfulness. This alone can prove that symbolism is a valuable tool in the writing of literature. Moreover, it proves that had Poe not used such an intense degree of symbolism in "The Masque of The Red Death," it would not have had the same forceful significance upon his readers as was truly intended.
Lane, Justin Kasey. "In response to: Does anyone know what the story symbolizes?"
Online Posting. 28, Nov. 2000. Lusenet. 18, Oct. 2002
Gale, Robert L. Barron's Simplified Approach To Edgar Allan Poe. Woodbury:
Barron's Ed Inc, 1969.
Howarth, William. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe's Tales: A collection of
Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Carlson, Eric W. Critical Essays on Edgar Allen Poe: Compiled By Eric W. Carlson.
Boston: G.K. Hall, 1987.
Frank, Fredrick S. and Anthony Magistrale. The Poe Encyclopedia. Westport:
Greenwood P, 1997.
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