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Edgar Allan Poe The Masque of the Red Death

Updated on July 1, 2013
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Plot / Structure

The story’s plot is built on an initial situation created by a terrible disease called the Red Death. The country stands devastated due to the spread of the disease. The disease is absolutely lethal. It kills its victims within half an hour. Half the population of Prince Prospero’s kingdom is already dead. People are clueless about the source of this affliction, which produces acute symptoms of ‘sharp pains, sudden dizziness and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution’.

What should the ruler of the country do in such a situation? Care for his subjects or run away for his life? The situation is thus ripe for creating conflict in one’s mind, but Prospero doesn't seem to bother for his poor, dying subjects. Instead, he decides to let the people take care of themselves, while he and a thousand of his favourite knights and ladies escape to the safety of a fabulous castle. Wine, women, musicians, ballet-dancers and buffoons were all there to entertain Prospero and his guests. After the last guest enters, the iron gates of Prince Prospero’s ‘castellated abbeys’ were shut closed. Even the bolts were welded. Neither any ‘ingress’ nor an ‘egress’ was available for anyone to come in or go out. Poe describes the situation very graphically when he says, ‘all these and security were within, without was the ‘Red Death’.

About five or six months in the abbey, Prospero decides to have a spectacular masquerade ball. Guests wear masks and costumes to take part in the dance. The setup is weird and wild. The masquerade is held in a series of seven rooms, each one dressed up in a different colour. The rooms are sequentially decked up in blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet and black colours. There were stained glass windows in the walls between each of these rooms. The corridor outside the rooms matched the colour of the room. Tapestries of black velvet were hung in the seventh room, where the glass pane in the window was scarlet and not black. The creepy black room resembles death – it's got dark black walls, blood red windows, and big black clock which chimes so eerily every hour that everybody at the party stops dancing and laughs nervously. The revellers are too scared to go into the black room. The detailed description of the place and setting is such that it introduces an element of suspense. As a reader, one starts to anticipate something horrible that’s perhaps about to happen in the story.

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As the clock strikes midnight, everyone stops dancing. There is momentary silence. Some of the dancers then notice a guest no one had seen earlier, wearing a costume that’s macabre. He is dressed as a corpse- a corpse of someone who died of Red Death. Prospero later calls the costume as ‘blasphemous’. By now, Poe has introduced a complication into the plot. As the story writer says, ‘the figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave’. The entry of this ‘masque of the Red Death’ significantly enhances the suspense in the plot.

The participants in the masquerade are frightened. The not-seen-before guest slowly starts stalking through the frightened revellers. When Prospero sees the death-like guest, he orders him to be seized and unmasked so that ‘we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!’

No one dares to execute Prospero’s orders. Even Prospero shows ‘momentary cowardice’. When this ‘guest’ passes by the Prince on his way through the rooms towards the black room at the end, the Prince runs after him in a rage, with his dagger drawn. Just as Prospero reaches the edge of the black room, the ghostly guest suddenly turns to face him. People then see Prospero falling to the ground, dead.

Death of Prince Prospero shocks the crowd into action. In despair, they throw themselves into the black room and seize the offending ‘guest’. The revellers become aghast when they find that the ‘grave cerements and corpse-like mask’ was ‘untenanted by any tangible form’. The story reaches its climax of horror. All the people die. The story ends with ‘Darkness and Decay and the Red Death’ holding ‘illimitable dominion over all’. No denouement could be as complete as in this story. It is not just resolution of the conflict and suspense, its total annihilation in the end. A total tragedy!

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Narrative Point of View

The narrator in this story does not appear to be a part of the ‘action’. He comes across as an observer or a movie camera that prefers to record as the plot develops. Sometimes literary critics raise the issue as to what extent the reader can trust the narrator, who seems to read minds of the revellers. To me, that appears to be a little inconsequential as what we are reading is a fictional story told by a real life narrator.

The narrative is mostly presented in the third person. The narrator doesn't have much to do with the characters and therefore does not occupy any particular character's point of view. His principal task comes out as one of painting the atmosphere. He presents to us a bird’s eye view of the setting and the incidents inside the abbey. No attempt is seen to speak on behalf of any of the revellers, except for a few quick peeks into Prospero's mind.

Poe begins the story in third-person. He does not assume the role of a character as he does, for example, in The Black Cat or The Tell-Tale Heart. Here he shifts his position all the time to present the reader with a 360 degree view of the set-up and the goings-on inside the securely bolted abbey. Let’s look at some of his statements. He, for instance, says, ‘But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held’. He later adds about the ghostly guest, ‘In an assembly of phantasms such as I have painted, it may well be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation. These passages mean that the narrator is one of the characters inside Prince Prospero’s abbey and that’s why he is able to act like an on-the-scene reporter. That of course is unlikely as no one survived the Red Death inside the abbey. More likely Poe is painting a picture of death and devastation in the face of plague despite all measures taken by the wealthy, represented by Prince Prospero in the story. The story could be imaginary, but the inspiration is real-world.

Some commentators have spoken of the shifting usage of tense in this story. In between the story, the narrator switches from past to present tense. Let’s look at the passage below:

‘There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust. To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams. And these the dreams writhed in and about, taking hue from the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as the echo of their steps. And, anon, there strikes the ebony clock which stands in the hall of the velvet. And then, for a moment, all is still, and all is silent save the voice of the clock.’

It appears the narrator has consciously opted for this shift in tense. It heightens the sense of drama. The shift from the past to the present reveals the deep chasm between the ‘revelry’ of the past and the total death and destruction of the present. The clock keeps ticking away as time is eternal.

Setting

The story is set in the age of castles and knights. The setting is ideal for a horror story. It starts inside Prince Prospero's luxurious ‘castellated abbey’. It is fortified and hidden somewhere in a ‘deeply secluded’ place in his kingdom. Prospero and his chosen subjects have also welded the doors shut. No one can get in or out. Inside it is party time, while everyone outside is dying at the hands of Red Death.

The story's unfolds in an elaborate suite of seven coloured rooms within the abbey, where Prospero holds the masquerade ball. The suite comprises seven rooms that roughly run in an irregular alignment from east to west. The arrangement for lighting is interesting too. All rooms, which have windows on either side, are lit by candles placed outside the windows in the hallways. The light shines into the rooms through the windows and creates quite an effect.

The colour scheme of each of the seven rooms is described in detail. The wall hangings, the decorations, and even the windows of each room are aligned in one colour theme. The first room – the farthest room to the east – is blue, the second is purple, the third is green, the fourth is orange, the fifth is white, and the sixth is violet. The epicentre of horror is the seventh room – the room farthest to the west. It has black tapestries, with windows in deep blood red. There's also a huge, threatening ebony clock in it, which eerily chimes every hour.

The story contains a lot of detail on the setting as that appears to be the lifeline of this horror story, which hinges more on the setting for creating the horror effect than on the plot and the characters. The ghoulish room in black where Prospero dies at the hands of Red Death is painted in real horrific detail. It practically screams death.

Style

Poe’s style of writing in this story resembles the brush strokes of a painter. The painting is composed or ‘put together’ with the help of some neat and elegant prose. The story neatly divides at both the paragraph and the sentence level. Paragraphs are either very short or very long and each of the long ones describes a single theme or thing. The very first paragraph describes the Red Death, with the second detailing Prospero's ‘castellated abbey’. An entire long paragraph is devoted to paint the picture of the seven-room suite. The ebony clock takes up another long paragraph. Many of the paragraphs contain fairly short sentences that kind of create the effect of fleeting times, something that cannot last. Let’s look at the description below:

“There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm --much of what has been since seen in "Hernani." There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust. (7)

Poe infuses life into the clear structure by filling in the colour by choosing his words carefully. The vividness and dramatic quality of his words such as ‘arabesque figures’, and ‘delirious fancies’ as also the use of alliteration in ‘glare and glitter’ create the right effect. As always, his choice of words is spot-on.

Overall, the elegant prose with its sophisticated, carefully selected vocabulary creates the effect Poe wants to achieve. A classic example could be the following description, rather painting of the sound from the clock and its impact on the people:

“Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.” (5)

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Characterisation

Prince Prospero is apparently a callous ruler, who leaves his subjects to die of ‘Red Death’ while he locks himself up, along with his chosen courtiers and friends, safely in a ‘castellated abbey’ to avoid death. Not just that. He opts to indulge in masquerades and music inside his secure castle while Red Death is wreaking havoc on the hapless left outside. His basic approach to the situation is summed-up in the following extract from the story:

“The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The Prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine.” (2)

Prospero does not want to face death. Perhaps he knows he can’t escape death. He also knows he could not do anything to control the Red Death spreading through his kingdom. Half his people are dead. At that point, perhaps it’s a desperate attempt to escape the disease. He bolts himself and his followers in. On the outside, it appears his idea is to engage in revelries while his subjects are dying outside. More probable is the fact that he did all that to avoid the adverse psychological effects of being cloistered inside a secluded abbey for months. In some ways, he represents the human desire to overcome death at all costs. It may be foolish, but no one wants to accept this truth. One might think that there's something heroic about Prospero's foolishness. His refusal to let anything depress him may even seem like a sign of his inner strength. Poe says that ‘But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious’ (2). It's not easy to be happy and "dauntless" (not scared) in the face of a lethal plague. He knows it’s impossible to run away from death, but attempts it anyway. He can fight enemies in physical form, but cannot defeat death that enters without any tangible form. Can we say Prospero symbolises the mankind in its quest for life? Probably yes.

Red Death

Red Death comes across as the biggest spoilsport in Prospero’s kingdom. He is an embedment of Death. He is untenanted to any ‘tangible form’. Obviously he can’t be touched or captured as Prospero and his people realise at the end. He brings darkness and decay, wherever he goes. He drops by uninvited despite the bolted doors and welded irons. He does not speak a word, but leaves behind total destruction.

Theme

The theme is loud and clear. It’s about invincibility of death. Death practically oozes out of the story. Prospero and his people try to ignore and avoid death, but men are mortal. Death comes to their doorstep.

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