Interpreting Symbols in Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death": Symbolism and Themes
The Seventh Chamber: Death and the Fantastic in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”
In The Masque of the Red Death, Poe uses elements of the fantastic such as the story’s ambiguous setting and narrator, the bizarre seven rooms where the masque is held, and the appearance of the spectral figure of the “Red Death” to communicate the horror and inevitability of death. Through his imagery, Poe impresses on the reader a very simple fact: none of us can escape death. The fantastic elements of the story to lend mystery and strangeness to the story that make its realistic message all the more potent.
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By giving his story an ambiguous setting, Poe emphasizes the universality and strength of his message as well as eeriness of his tale. No country or region is given as the place where the tale begins. While Medieval or Renaissance Italy is a likely candidate (judging from the fact that Prospero is an Italian name and “prince” was a common royal title in Medieval and Renaissance Italy which was really a loose union of sovereign states), Poe chooses not to specify the setting but we can easily guess at it from clues in the text. Nevertheless, Poe gives an important dimension to this tale by his use of an ambiguous setting. The failure to specify exact time and location is a common trope of fairy tales, fables, and legends (“long ago, in a faraway land”). Here Poe is writing a kind of fable about the inevitability of death so the use of this trope prepares readers for a metaphorical or moral tale, making them more prepared for Poe’s message. The lack of a specific setting also makes the story more applicable to a general readership. The more general the story, the more likely people are to apply it to their own lives (another common element in fables).
The identity of the narrator is more problematic than that of the setting and serves to underpin the tale’s overall concern with the nature of art and death. David Dudley points out that the “problem is that while [the narrator] has witnessed the fatal events inside Prince Prospero’s sealed abbey and survives to tell the tale, we learn at the end that everyone within the abbey dies” (169). Poe truly constructed a conundrum: narrator who cannot be dead (since he is telling the story) yet cannot be truly alive (since all witnesses to the story died). This paradox is further complicated by explicit knowledge that the narrator displays of events that would appear to have come after the death of Prospero and his revelers. One such example is a comparison between Prospero’s décor and Victor Hugo’s play Hernani. Dudley states that “Hernani was first performed in 1830, and Poe wrote “Red Death” in 1842. By contrast, the setting of “Red Death” seems older by at least a century or two, giving the narrator an odd, duplicitous, then-and-now quality” (Dudley 170). The narrator also states that after the death of the last of the revelers, “the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay… the flames of the tripods expired… And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all” (Poe 266). If the narrator were one of the dead, this statement would be illogical and the narrator gives no indication that he identifies with the revelers other than the knowledge he possesses of them. This seems to place the narrator outside the realm of life and death, frustrating any attempt to understand the true nature of life and death in the tale.
The ambiguity of the narrator produces an effect similar to that of the setting. With a narrator who seems to exist in the present (especially for Poe’s contemporaries), the story takes on a much more meaningful place in the mind. Poe also uses the narrator to help make a commentary on man’s struggle for immortality. “The fact that the narrator overlooks the necessity of his own death mirrors and mocks the cherished illusions of immortality that art gives to both artist and audience” (Dudley 172). By telling his story, the narrator asserts he is still “alive”; however, by the very nature of his story, he must be “dead.” This same paradox exists for authors who “tell” their story even if they have been long dead.
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The bizarre masque Prospero gives is both a symbol of man’s fleeting existence and man’s attempt to transcend his own mortality. Of the masque, Poe says that “[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” (Poe 263-64). These conflicting elements combine much in the way that the elements of the tale do, creating a morbidly fascinating mixture.
The colored light which illuminates the rooms is a popular topic for critics to analyze. “G. R. Thompson reminds us that ‘one of the favorite pastimes of critics is trying to identify the symbolic meaning of the colors of the seven rooms’ of Prince Prospero’s imperial suite, but they have had difficulty agreeing on the significance of the colors or if they have any significance at all.” (Zimmerman 60). The colored rooms are certainly a conundrum Poe never makes clear. One possible interpretation Brett Zimmerman advances of these colored chambers, which certainly fits the tale’s overall theme, is that each room symbolizes a stage of life. Zimmerman asserts that blue represents the beginning of life and the spirituality associated with it; purple, the royalty of Prospero (which he acquired at birth); green, youth and vitality (although it also traditionally represented insanity); orange, a transition to adulthood with negative connotations of lust and wantonness; white, disease and impending death; violet, mourning and death attached to royalty; black, death and mental degradation leading to insanity; and red, disease (64-70). Zimmerman goes on to add that the combination of red and black in the seventh room symbolizes the degeneracy of Prospero and his revelers or possible the damnation that awaits them (Zimmerman 69-70). Prospero does indeed pass through each of these rooms on his way to his own death when he pursues the mysterious apparition that comes to the party.
Further evidence that the chambers signify life stages can be found in the importance of the number seven in Western culture and its frequent association with the passage of time. For example, Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It that man’s life was an “act” divided into “seven ages” (II. 7. 1041). In the book of Genesis, God created the world in seven days and divided up the week accordingly (Genesis 1). In the book of Revelation, the opening of the Seventh Seal on a heavenly scroll creates “silence in heaven and earth” (not unlike the silence of Poe’s revelers when they hear the chiming of the ebony clock) followed by “plagues” of blood, fire, and supernatural soldiers who purge the earth of a third of its population (Revelation 8-9). In each of these cases the number seven is used to circumscribe man’s existence (or the end of it) in a predictable and inevitable pattern ending in death. As a 19th century American educated at least partly in England, Poe would undoubtedly have been familiar with all these uses of the number seven. The use of just seven chambers helps to lend a “trapped” feeling to the reader, as though he and the characters are caught in a situation they cannot escape, just as all people are “trapped” in life which will always end in death.
Perhaps the most blatant metaphor for death which Poe uses in the tale is the seventh chamber which he describes as “shrouded in black velvet tapestries” and “ghastly in the extreme,” such that it deters most revelers from even entering the room (Poe 262). This chamber, in particular the ebony clock that stands by its western wall, serves as a constant reminder to the revelers that their days are indeed numbered. “Time, as the ominous clock in Prospero’s seventh chamber reminds us, is the bringer of death…” (Dudley 170). In spite of the chilling effect the clock and the seventh chamber have upon the guests (who freeze in terror every hour on the hour) Prospero has purposely included it in the décor. Partly, to be sure, this is Poe’s not-so-subtle way of driving home his point, that we are all mortal. Certainly Poe’s fantastic description of the seventh chamber and its clock makes the tale and its message memorable. “Frozen at the strokes of the ebony clock, the costumed figures make a visually impressive tableau that remains in the mind's eye long after the reading of the tale is done” (Osipova 29). This visual image is a powerful reminder of Poe’s main theme. However, the seventh chamber is also indicative of Prospero’s attitude towards death. Dudley suggests that while“[for] most of the revelers, art is a sort of whistling in the dark… there is also the suggestion that the rare, sensitive soul may appreciate Prospero’s memento mori… [By which] Poe thus invites the reader to join... in their aesthetic contemplation of mortality” (172). This contemplation of death, however, does not represent an acceptance or even an understanding of death. Rather, Dudley argues, it is an attempt to circumscribe death by making it into an art object; much like Poe is doing in the story (Dudley 172). “By representing death, art creates the comforting illusion that death is just one of art’s illusions” (Dudley 172). Poe shatters the illusion by the appearance of the “Red Death.” The illusion is real.
The climax of the tale comes with the arrival of “a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before” (Poe 264). This figure, a physical manifestation of the “Red Death”, enters Prospero’s sealed abbey and kills first Prospero then the revelers. Death has transcended the physical barricades that Prospero and his court erect to keep it out, it strikes although the revelers and the Prince are aristocrats, and it strikes at a party. The ability of death to strike whenever and wherever it pleases is effectively illustrated. “Always in Poe there is a frustration of the effort to comprehend death …” (Dudley 170-71). Here, the “frustration” comes when the revelers try to tear the apparition apart with their bare hands, only to find “the grave-cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form” (Poe 266). Finally, when it seems that death has become a reality that can be touched, it is revealed to be an illusion. It makes no sense, nor should it. This grand paradox is the true horror of tale. “Mortality is terrifying for Poe because death resists all cognition and ends all communication” (Dudley 171). Poe has made it terrifying for us as well by presenting death in a way that itself, defies all understanding. The “Red Death” defies the revelers by escaping their circumscription, overcoming their defenses, and confounding their efforts to understand it.
To say that “‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is… about the failure of art to stave off death”, is not far off the mark (Dudley 172). While art is a factor, ultimately death overcomes all physical, social, and psychological barriers that are put in its way. The result is a total breakdown of everything Prospero and his court have done. ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is “about” the failure of everything to stave off death. The ambiguous setting, the elusive narrator, the strange masque, and the appearance of the “Red Death” help to highlight this point. Zachary Bennett writes: “Poe is the literary Houdini; he shows off his skills best in a confined space” (Bennett 43). In this tightly constructed tale of the horror of death, the “Master of the Macabre” more than earned that praise. Within seven rooms, he creates the expanse of man’s life, ending in the horror of an inescapable death. Only two characters are named, only one of them speaks, but the message the tale conveys is as chilling and grave as the chiming of the ebony clock.
Bennett, Zachary Z. E. "Killing The Aristocrats: The Mask, The Cask, And Poe's Ethics Of S & M." Edgar Allan Poe Review 12.1 (2011): 42-58. Print.
Dudley, David R. "Dead Or Alive: The Booby-Trapped Narrator Of Poe's 'Masque Of The Red Death'." Studies In Short Fiction 30.2 (1993): 169-173. Print.
Osipova, Elvira. "Aesthetic Effects Of 'King Pest' And 'The Masque Of The Red Death'." Edgar Allan Poe Review 8.2 (2007): 25-33. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Essential Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004. 261-66. Print.
Zimmerman, Brett. "The Puzzle Of The Color Symbolism In 'The Masque Of The Red Death': Solved At Last?" Edgar Allan Poe Review 10.3 (2009): 60-73. Print.