The Masque of the Red Death: some interpretations
Brief sum & introduction
"Poe really was a haunted man, and as a writer, he had the power to haunt his readers."
Here the brief sum of the tale: it tells the story of Prince Prospero who, in the midst of the misery and in defiance of death, plans a masquerade to celebrate life and pleasure, a sure means to escape the plague and so, he summons a thousand lords and ladies to the extreme seclusion of one of his exotic abbeys. Into this assembly of the phantasmic and the bizarre, the Red Death intrudes disguised with a corpse-like mask, his costume dabbled in blood. As in the world of fairy-tale, at the stroke of midnight, the figure wearing the dreadful costume manifests himself: the Plague personified has entered their palace. The Prince is the first to fall dead, and, after him, one by one the revellers expire until all lie dead.
It seems a simple horror tale, but Poe is a master of writing: only a great author could create such a visionary and vivid dream of terror and beauty, with such an intricate pattern of symbology and ideas; here, some of the things that particularly struck me in reading this story.
Setting, dreams and masquerades
Poe's setting for his tale recalls that of Boccaccio's Decameron, where the narrators are members of a group of people who retire to a remote castle to avoid the plague. Poe had another Italian source: in "Graham's Magazine" for september 1841, he had reviewed T. Campbell's "Life of Petrarch", and saw there a grim story of a nobleman named Barnabo, who during a plague, shut himself up in his castle and set a sentinel to ring a bell if anyone approached. Yet a party entered unannounced, and Barnabo, finding the sentry dead, fled to the forest where, it was reported, he too died. In his review, Poe cites Campbell's sentence: "This was a dance of the king of terrors over the earth and a very rapid one."
Poe's Prospero believes the metaphor, he does not dream: he becomes a dream. At least the narrator says so: "To and fro...there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams. And these -these dreams- writhed in and about...the dreams are stiff- frozen as they stand...And now again the music swells, and the dreams live, and writhe to and fro..." For Prospero this is no mere fancy but a desperate strategy: dreams cannot be afflicted by any disease.
The aristocrat Prospero is also in a sense to be admired, for he shows all the signs of one of Poe's creators of elaborate beauty: "some...would have thought him mad"; he loves the bizarre and the beautiful, it is he who directs the arrangements of the seven chambers of the masque himself: the only remedy to death, in his view, is beauty, the art crystallized in an eternal feast of masks and lights, the eternal joy of a mysterious feast is the only refuge against death. The motive for revelry during the epidemic is "the general persuasion that sadness accelerated the infection of the malady, and that pleasant amusements were the surest defense against it." Prince Prospero and his thousand guests lock themselves to keep safe from the contagion outside the walls; they are isolated in a kind of stationary world, trying to enjoy a hedonistic forgetfulness of death, a carpe diem philosophy.
"The Masque of the Red Death": a masque is a brief but elaborate play originally intended for performance at a royal court (especially popular in Great Britain from late sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries). Masques incorporated music, dance, poetic drama and ornate costumes, and often had origins in myth or allegory. Poe's tale includes all of these elements: double- masqueing is used for the overall tale and for the stylized action of Prospero and the masquer in the conclusion. The masquerades always mix the sense of revel with the horror, even in the history itself: there is a legend of a ghostly skeleton dancing at the wedding feast of Alexander III of Scotland in 1285; or King Gustav III of Sweden who was killed at a masqued ball in 1792 (the basis of Verdi's opera "Un ballo in Maschera"). Poe juxtaposed humor and horror both in the tale and in his responses to real epidemics in his time and in things he read. Poe's colleague N. Willis published an account of a very large masked ball given in Paris in 1832 during a terrible cholera epideic. "One man" Willis wrote, "immensely tall, dressed as a personofication of the Cholera itself, with skeleton armor, bloodshot eyes and other horrible appurtenances of a walking pestilence." Black humor indeed: humor in the face of horror is an ancient reaction...
Symbolism of the seven chambers
Poe had a strong attitude to use allegory in his tales; in his own comments, Poe states the great importance of the use of allegory in poetry and prose, and he precisely says: "it is available where the suggested meaning runs through the obvious one in a very profound undercurrent so as never to show itself unless called to the surface."
The tale shows us Prince Prospero's castle, whither he flees to escape the plague. The "castellated abbey" is entirely surrounded by a high wall in which are iron gates; it comprises altogether seven truly imperial rooms, which can be combined by opening the great intervening doors, placed so that only two rooms at a time are visible to any guest. Of these rooms, one was wholly blue, even to its windows, the second was purple, the third green, the fourth orange, the fifth white, the sixth violet, the seventh black. In each room the windows were of the same colour as the rest of the room, except in the black room, which had blood-red windows. The illumination was spectrally flickering and uncertain, to add to the mystery of the rooms themselves. The theatrical effects of the corridor are based on contemporary stagecraft: the corridor serves no function except to provide a source of artificial light which can shine through the colored windows.
"But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held...bold enough to set foot within its precints at all": varied interpretations of the "meaning" of the seven chambers are possible, the most likely being that they represent the seven stages of human life from birth to death, the "seven ages of man" in the interpretation of W. Blair. The primary blackness in the seventh chamber most probably symbolizes death, the accompanying red illumination, with its obvious tie to blood, may likewise represent sexuality as the originator of life but also, in colloquial parlance, hint of "dying" or sexual climax. "Red": this often repeated adjective may indicate that the term has special significance for Prospero and his followers. They alone give a negative name to what may be one of life's most firm realities- that is, blood. Blood's association with life and death, and those in turn with change and time, is what the group wish to evade. However the "Red Death" is imaginary; its name parallels the medieval Black death of 1348-1349 and the "Blue Plague" of Shelley's "Revolt of Islam".
"It was in the blue room where stood the prince, with a group of pale courtiers by his side": significantly, Prospero is in the blue room (suggesting that his notion is naïve youth's feeling of invincibility) when he initiates the action that will bring about the climax of the tale. Blue here suggests a plesant dawn- in this context, of life; many says that as black stands for Death in the last chamber, here blue stands for birth in the first chamber; so, 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. Other readers have suggested "the seven days of the week, the seven deadly sins and even the seven parts of a day".
There is another symbolic reading of the seven rooms, the symbolism of numbers runs throughout the whole tale: seven are the rooms; the waltz played during the feast is in three-quarters time (again seven); the waltz ceases and the rooms become one at the hour of twelve (or three time four). Ten is the Pythagorean perfect number: three times three plus one, three units ruled over by the One-Ten. Prospero had presumed to raise this number to the third power by inviting a thousand companions, reserving the position of divine totality (ten times ten times ten plus one) for himself. The Red Death enters, spoiling the symmetry, to remind them that there is yet one greater who embraces all of them including Prospero; and his mark is Death, which embraces them as securely as sixty minutes "embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies."
Another very interesting reading of the symbolism of the seven rooms is based on the architecture of the palace of the prince, again the symbolism of numbers: the seven rooms taken together form a half circle, one half of a clock's face, with each room representing one of the seven hours between 6 p.m. and twelve inclusive. As for the dimensions, the turn "at every twenty or thirty yards" can be taken to mean that the walls of each room- certainly the middle five- are thirty yards in length while the walls of the two endmost rooms are twenty. Poe was an amateur mathematician so it is doubtful that he chose the figures of the rooms randomly. It is to be noted also that the suite is said to "wind". Furthering the allegorical importance of the abbey's shape are Prospero himself and the phantom of the Red Death, the two central figures that move on the face of the abbey-clock. So, Weber had suggested that they represent two hands of that clock: the phantom, with his slow and solemn movement, who "makes his way uninterruptedly" as if impelled by some kind of inner necessity, stands for the hour hand; on the contrary, Prospero represente the minute hand, he who moves successively through the same chambers which the Masque had traversed, but he moves precipitously forward. He and the phantom begin to take on their respective hour and minute hand significations just as the prince begins his pursuit from the blue room. The arrangement of the chambers reinforces the awful reality of time as it leads inexorably to disease, death, darkness and dissolution.
On another stratum of meaning and action, however, Prospero can be seen to stand for humanity in general: as the head and representative of the "thousand hale and ligh-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court" he is the Man; the variety of the mask and professions of his guests is so great that all manner of human is suggested, from the beautiful to the grotesque: the revellers thus represent a microcosm of the human race. The phantom represents, on the other hand, what its name implies- Red Death- which disease contaminates all seven rooms, from blue to black: the full abstraction- or personification- of the plague. One cannot see a disease, only its physical manifestations; that the figure of the Red death IS a mere abstraction is suggested by the emptiness, the lack of a "tangible form" that the revellers find when they rip off its corpse-like mask: it is fruitless to try to seize, unmask and hang a personification of Death. So, the masquerade, Prospero's dance of life, has become a "danse macabre", a medieval dance of death.
The clock and the apparition of Death personified
Against the western wall of the black room stood a gigantic clock of ebony, its pendulum swaying "with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang"; its brazen lungs emitted a deep, full and musical note, which was so peculiarly solemn and majestic that on hearing it the musicians were impelled by some inexplicable influence to interrupt their playing to listen; the dance too, broke off, and a mood of melancholy descended for a moment over the merry company. While its chimes were sounding, the most ligh-hearted were seen to turn pale, while the oldest and the wisest of the company passed their hands across their brows as though to banish bewildering dreams or unpleasant thoughts. Hardly however, have the chimes ceased before the company breaks again into merry laughter. This black clock within the black room serves the symbolic purpose of reminding ephemeral humanity that "tempus fugit"- "time flies"; the ebony clock keeps chiming the passing hours as the revellers move closer and closer to the moment of their own deaths. Frail humanity can never escape the inevitable ravages of time: "Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made..."
I love the way Poe creates his terror-romances, the elements he intertwines in them; in this one, as for example, is peculiar his rising to a high symbolism the theme of the supernatural visitor at a feast. In the midst of the voluptuous scene of the masquerade, the solemn chimes of midnight ring out, the music dies down and a mysterious silence ensues. Before the last stroke a weird stranger is seen, a masked figure whose apparel awakens terror, for the winding-sheet that enwraps him and the mask portraying a plague-striken corpse cannot denote other than an impersonation of the dread guest: slowly and with stately steps the mask moves amid the throng, from room to room, from the blue room to the red, from the red to the green, from the green to the orange, then to the white, the purple and, finally, to the black. There it halts before the strange timepiece, and when the dancers snatch away its mask, they see behind it- nothing. Red Death has come to Prince Prospero's court like a thief in the night to do its fell duty: "And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay... And darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all". Fittingly, the end- of the fantasy cherished by Prospero and his followers, and of all life- occurs in the black and red chamber, where the color scheme and the clock represent surely the inevitability of life's processes. In this story the traditional theme of the apparition of an unknown, dreadful stranger is used to portray the inexorability of death, with an agitating power that transforms the narrative into a gruesome vision of that stranger who, undeterred by all precautions, will surely come to snatch mankind from all joys and delightful dwellings from the midst of culture and dances to eternal, timeless darkness. Here the complete show of poetical pessimism culminating in this awe-inspiring masque which leaves nothing undestroyed, but stays in its course as the solemn and dreadful march of Time. Revels and dreams must end, and if Prospero does not end them, the Red Death, ambiguous mixture of unregenerate, murderous Nature and supernatural Time, will...
"And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all" simply realizes the plainly stated implications of the first, that "The Red Death had long devastated the country": the tale close in relentlessly from the country to the seventh chamber, from the earth to necessary conclusion.
This is supposed to be a moral parable, but the punishment which it dramatizes is for no visible crime. To feel satisfaction in the moral, we must have what is usually called a puritan sensibility- a dislike of beauty for its own sake- and that is a position against which Poe fought all his life. Cheney gave a very clear explanation of Poe's mythology, involved in this tale and in all his literary production: "The Red Death replaces Christ as the reigning Force in the universe. Hence the Red Death is said to have 'dominion over all'- a reversal of Paul's statement in Romans 6:9- again, in Poe the blood and dew of the Red Death replace the blood of Christ: in representing an image of man, helpless against the apparition of Death, Poe suggests the inefficacy of Christ's triumph over death...all in all, this tale constitute Poe's reversal of the christian drama."