Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary
"The Masque of the Red Death" is a gothic story, so named for the dark and supernatural landscape and the mysterious sequence of events that occur within the story. Gothic literature was prominent in England throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, and there is little doubt that Poe was exposed to it during his school days in London. This particular story was first published in Philadelphia's Graham's Magazine in May of 1843 while Poe served as this publication's editor. There are several items of importance to mention about this story.
First, the overall plot focuses upon the hubris of an upper class that thinks itself above the powers of mortality. In many ways, Prospero believes that he is invincible and enjoys being in control of all that occurs; he goes so far as to create his own little universe and grotesque people to inhabit it, as they dress up for the parties that he sponsors. Prospero thinks that he is god, holding power over life and death. These people are unaffected by the suffering and death they know occurs outside of the castle, for they trust that Prospero will protect them from danger, nor does Prospero care about those people either. He only wants to save himself. These class distinctions are also raised in a lengthier work entitled The Decameron by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. Here, too, a group of nobles from Florence, Italy flee from the bubonic plague and tell stories along the way, letting the rest of the people in the city to suffer unaided. The idea of a selfish ruling class that abandons the masses in times of misfortune or suffering is hardly a rarity, but instead recurs throughout literature. In the end, Poe makes it clear that neither money nor royalty can save one from death and destiny. All class distinctions are quickly stripped away as the Red Death consumes Prospero as readily as it had the poverty-stricken people outside of the castle. Prospero, like Noah, thought that he could save his "chosen people" from the Flood, only to realize that he, too, was fated to die with everyone else. The story is very humbling in scope.
Furthermore, the very layout of the castle suggests a progression towards death and decay, forming a microcosm for the very process of life itself. Most obvious is that the first, blue, room is in the east, and the final, "bloody" room is in the west, mirroring the life of the day. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west; or in other words, the sun is "born" in the east and "dies" in the west. This idea is applicable in understanding human life too, as we see in the story. All of the partygoers die in the black room as they try to overtake the masked figure. Prospero falls first, and his entire kingdom then crumbles around him and dies. It is no mere coincidence that this is in the westernmost room; as the sun expires in the west, so too do these people. Similarly, the colors of these rooms represent a progression from beginning to end as it roughly appears on the color spectrum of a rainbow from lighter colors such as blue, green, and purple, and which ends in the color red. The "bloody" red room thus becomes a place of ending not only due to the westward location, but also because of its color. Finally, there is the fact that there are seven rooms and that this room with the ebony clock is also the seventh, and final, room. All of these symbols point out that the palace layout moves from a beginning to an end, from life into death.
The presence of a black clock in this seventh room is the only instrument to connect the partygoers to reality; its chime is the only thing that breaks Prospero's spell. After the clock stops ringing, the people are described as "dreams," wandering around throughout the palace's ornate rooms, only to be reawakened when the chime sounds again. Indeed, the guests lose themselves within Prospero's fantasy, thinking that alcohol and dancing can save them and make the Red Death just disappear. They all think that they can escape, but the clock always reminds them that time is still ticking onwards, that they will not live forever, and their lives are measured by simple numbers and nothing more. The clock reminds them that they cannot escape, and that their lives are still being measured, and that is why they fear it and wish to forget it. Like the rhythmic beating of a heart, the clock reminds them also that they are human, that they are not dreams, and reminds them that Prospero is not a god, and nor does he control Time and its power over life. Finally, these people fall victim to the Red Death, as the clock told them that they all would, and then with the death of the last person, the clock, too, stops ticking, since there is no mortal life left to measure or record, nor is there any heart left that beats. With the death of the last person, even Time disappears, with nobody left to record it or to remember it. As the story says, only the Red Death ticks onwards in the end, and the Red Death makes no distinctions between rich and poor, common or royal, old or young, virtuous or wicked -- that Red Death is all that remains.
One final point to make is to recognize Poe's own lifelong infatuation with death and dying. While only two years old, Edgar witnessed the death of his mother from tuberculosis, and was forced to spend the rest of his life as an orphan cared for by a surrogate father who refused to formerly adopt him. Later, the mother of a school friend, Jane Stannard, also died after he became quite attached to her. More significant, in 1842 around when this story was published, Poe's wife Virginia had become increasingly ill, and she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed his mother. "The Masque of the Red Death" thus takes on a central meaning, that Death follows you everywhere as it followed him throughout his entire life. Perhaps he recalls the "Prince Prospero" from William Shakespeare's The Tempest, which is another very supernatural tale filled with faeries and magic, although that play has a happier ending. One cannot help to note that there is also a close resemblance to "Prospero" and "Poe." Edgar Allan was known to drink heavily to escape from his fears, from his failures, and from his financial woes; it was a lifelong battle. Like the revelers in Prospero's castle, perhaps it is Poe who still recognized through the alcoholic haze and grand dreams which intoxication inspires, that there is always an inevitable end that lurks out there from which there is no escape. In many ways, the "Red Death" is another name for the degenerative disease of human mortality that afflicts us all.