The Masque of the Red Death Notes from Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

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Stories of Edgar Allan Poe The Masque of the Red Death

In an unknown country, a ruler named Prince Prospero has quarantined himself and one thousand of his closest friends within his castle to escape from the widespread Red Death which is plaguing the land. In describing the unique nature of this illness, "Blood was its Avatar and its seal -- the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution...And the whole seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour" Poe, pg. 40. Those who bear any of these symptoms are not offered any assistance, because it is so contagious and attacks the body so very quickly. As such, Prospero has been very careful about whom he has allowed to enter his castle, which he has customized himself, and this man has decided to ignore these problems outside in his kingdom, thinking that "The external world could take care of itself." The castle is surrounded by a metal fence, and all of the entrances to it are welded shut by some of his servants to prevent anyone from coming or going. Within the castle a wild party is going on all day, every day. Prospero has hired dancers, musicians, and many other such forms of entertainment to amuse his guests and keep them occupied, as they stay drunk in a wine-filled alcoholic haze. These circumstances make the people forget their worries about the Red Death, and they instead develope a deep feeling of peace and security here.

After about six months of living in such a way, Prince Prospero organizes an enormous masquerade ball which all of his one thousand friends participate in. The palace where this wild party occurs is oddly arranged, however, with a series of seven rooms that twist and wind beyond the view of the other. Each room is unlit from within, and instead has a brazier blazing forth from the hallway that runs on either side of the rooms; the fire's light shines through the colored stained glass that decorates each room in a different shade. The first room upon entering the palace is the blue room, which is filled with blue light, and is inhabited by blue curtainsm rugs, tapestries, and so on. Next there is a purple room arranged in a similar fashion, followed by a third green room, an orange room, the fifth white room, and the sixth violet room. Finally, the seventh room is different than the rest because it has black velvet curtains, but the windows are of a blood red color. In this room also stands a "tall ebony clock" that chimes loudly every hour, its deep ring reverberating throughout the palace. At these moments, the partygoers all pause from their revelry to listen, their faces becoming worried and strained. As soon as the chime has ended, everything resumes as normal until the next hour strikes again, when the same worries shall flood these people's bodies, however brief.

After each chime, the people vow that they will not fear this sound again, but when the time comes "after the lapse of sixty minutes," the same thing would occur and involuntary fear would assault everyone again. Because of this odd arrangement, some people outside in the kingdom think that Prince Prospero, a duke, is a mad man, but those one thousand followers who do respect and admire him do not share this opinion. That is probably why it is these who have been chosen to escape from the pestilence that reigns outside of those iron gates. Prospero also encouraged the people to wear wild costumes, "Be sure they were grotesque...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 [sic], something of the terrible...To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams" Poe, pg. 44. Prospero is a man who is obsessed with the grotesque, as he encourages his people to dress up like monsters and inhuman creatures, things that a "madman" would envision. However, even though he may have an unusual imagination that he wishes to recreate within the walls of the palace, Prospero is considered to be quite sane by his guests, and they are no doubt grateful that he has chosen to protect them.

The people are called "dreams" as they wandered throughout the palace, "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 velvet...The dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand. But the echoes of the chime die away...And now again the music swells, and the dreams live, and writhe to and fro more merrily than ever" Poe, pg. 44. The narrator describes this odd scene, that the people, called "dreams" methodically pause every hour when the clock chimes, only to reanimate themselves with a renewed energy afterwards. However, they now no longer go into the seventh, black-curtained room "which lies most westwardly," bathed in a bloody light because they are inwardly afraid. The guests dance fervently in the other six rooms however. When the night is nearly over and the early morning hours are about to begin, the clock finally strikes midnight. As the twelfth ring sounds out, the guests do not resume their festivities this time, because they sense that there is someone new among them who does not belong there. Immediately they notice him due to the poor taste of the costume that makes it stand out.

The person is dressed like a dying victim of the Red Death that ravages the people without the castle, that they had all sought to escape, "The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments from the grave. The mask...was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse...But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood -- and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror" Poe, pg. 45. The partygoers are awestruck at this costume, too stunned even to move, or to continue on with the revelry. Outraged that his party has been interrupted and offended at this costume just like everyone else, Prospero cries aloud that this is "blasphemous mockery" and orders his guests to unmask him, declaring that he will be hung at sunrise outside of the castle. Standing in the blue room, the costumed form walks forward untouched by anyone, because they are so afraid, and it walks directly in front of Prospero out of the room and into the purple room, and on through the green, orange, white, and white rooms. The duke awakens from his spell and, realizing that nobody is going to stop this figure, decides to go after it himself. He is their leader, after all. Rushing forward and enraged, Prospero holds a long dagger in his outstretched hand as he prepares to stab the intruder, who has now not only dressed in such a ghastly outfit, but has also entered the palace chambers without his permission.

Reaching the westward and final seventh, "bloody" chamber with the ebony clock, Prospero prepares to lunge at the figure, until it abruptly turns around to gaze at the man. Prince Prospero screams abruptly and drops down dead upon the floor of that seventh room. Angered that their leader has fallen, the partygoers all rush into this bloody chamber at once and assail the figure, tearing off his costume and "gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave cerements and corpse-like mask, which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form" Poe, pg. 47. The figure has nothing beneath the costume; it is not even a human at all! Upon discovering this, the people know that this is the Red Death, "come like a thief in the night" to steal their lives away from them. In spite of the barricades and grand plans that Prince Prospero had devised for himself and one thousand guests, it proves futile to escape this wretched disease. Soon after, the people drop down dead one by one in that seventh room, and the ebony clock dies the last person. With no one to keep the burning braziers lit, these, too, burn out soon after, and the entire palace grows dark, cold, and empty of any movement except for the Red Death that "held illimitable dominion over all."

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