Allegory and Parable
“The Masque of the Red Death” is considered an allegorical tale; this means that the literal elements of the story are meant to be understood as symbolic of some greater meaning. Britannica Online explains that an allegory “uses symbolic fictional figures and actions to convey truths or generalizations about human conduct or experience.” More specifically, this story may be read as a parable, a sub-category of allegory in which, according to Britannica Online, “moral or spiritual relations are set forth.”
As a parable, “Masque of the Red Death” is symbolic of how humans respond to the knowledge of their own mortality. The reaction of Prince Prospero and his “thousand friends” to the presence of the Red Death is an attempt to use their material privileges in order to escape the inevitability of their own deaths. But the fact that the ”masked figure” slips into their midst ”like a thief in the night” is symbolic of the fact that no amount or wealth or privilege can exempt a person from death, no amount of entertainment or distraction can completely eliminate the fear of death, and no amount of security can keep death from arriving at one’s doorstep. ”The Masque of the Red Death” affirms the futility of man in his elaborate attempts to deny and defy his own mortality.
Imagery and Symbolism
The seven chambers of the abbey, according to critic H. H. Bell, Jr., in his article ‘”The Masque of the Red Death’: An Interpretation,” represent the seven decades of a man’s life, so that the final chamber, decorated in red and black, represents death. Bell interprets the seven chambers as “an allegorical representation of Prince Prospero’s life span.” This view is supported by the fact that the first room is located in the East, which symbolizes birth, because it is the direction from which the sun rises, and that the last chamber is located in the West, which symbolizes death, as the sun sets in the West. Bell interprets each of the colors of the seven rooms—blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet— as symbolic of “Prospero’s physical and mental condition in that decade of his life.” The seventh room is the location of death, as it is eerily decorated in black and red—black being a color associated with death and night, and red being a color strongly associated with blood, and, in this story, the Red Death. Meanwhile, in the first six rooms “beat feverishly the heart of life.”
Located in the seventh room, the clock can be read as a symbol of the limited time each person has to live. Thus, the stroking of the clock each hour is a reminder to the guests of the limited time left in their own lives. Midnight represents the hour of death, because it is at midnight that the ”masked figure” is noticed by the guests. These allegorical details culminate in the death of the Prince, in the seventh room, shortly after the stroke of midnight, at the precise moment when he literally “faces” his own death. The clock as a symbolic representation of human life is also indicated in the closing lines, as ”the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay.”
At the most literal level, this story is told in the “third person,” meaning that the narrator is not a character in the story. However, as critic Leonard Cassuto has speculated, the narrator of the story may be the Red Death itself, since all of the people in the story are dead by the end, and the Red Death is the only one left to tell the tale. On the other hand, if the entire story is interpreted as the dream of a madman (the Prince Prospero), all its characters figments of his imagination (“dreams”), and his death not literal but psychological, then the narrator could be the Prince himself. Finally, because the story is told in the manner of a biblical morality tale, in which God punishes the evil by sending down a “pestilence” upon the land, it could be argued that the narrator is in fact a divine being.
The story takes place in an unnamed “country,” in no specific time period or geographical location, which has been ravaged by a deadly “pestilence.” The ambiguity of the exact setting lends the story a “once upon a time” element, and places it in the realm of a parable or fable.
Personification is the use of metaphorical language that assigns a non- human object or animal human traits. Poe indicates the personification of certain concepts by capitalizing them, as one would a proper name. He thus personifies The Red Death, Time, Beauty, Darkness, and Decay. This lends the story an element of myth or fairy tale, as each term seems to be symbolic of broader concepts that refer to the human condition in general.
Poe is considered one of the early masters of Gothic horror fiction. The genre was developed in the nineteenth century, originally in the literature of Great Britain, and is characterized by elements of the supernatural, gruesome scenes of horror, dark settings, and a preoccupation with death and madness. “The Masque of the Red Death” contains all of these elements.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Edgar Allan Poe, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.