Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” may be interpreted variously as a parable for man’s fear of death, a moral tale with biblical implications, or the delusional vision of a madman waging an internal battle for his own sanity. Depending on each of these interpretations, the narrator may be identified as a personification of Death, a divine being or an insane individual.
Death and Time
“The Masque of the Red Death” can be interpreted as an allegorical tale about the folly of human beings in the face of their own inevitable deaths. If the Red Death symbolizes death in general, then the Prince’s attempt to escape the pestilence, in “defiance of contagion,” is symbolic of the human desire to defy death. Prince Prospero attempts to create a fortress that will be impervious to the Red Death, providing his guests “all the appliances of pleasure” as a means of distracting them from the contemplation of death. The entire masquerade ball can be read as an allegory for the ways in which humans attempt to distract themselves from thoughts of their own mortality by indulging in earthly pleasures. Yet, the “masked figure” who appears at the masquerade ball is the Red Death itself, which, despite all precautions, slips in “like a thief in the night” to claim the lives of everyone within, just as death eventually claims all mortals. As Joseph Patrick Roppolo has pointed out in his article ”Meaning and “The Masque of the Red Death,'” the Red Death symbolizes ”life itself. The one ‘affliction’ shared by all mankind. Furthermore, because all of the people are dead by the end, and Death is the only one who survives to tell the tale, Leonard Cassuto, in his article ”The Coy Reaper: Unmasking the Red Death,” has argued that the narrator of the story must be Death itself.
Thus, the masquerade ball may be interpreted as symbolic of human life, the hours during which the ball takes place as symbolic of the limited time each person must live, and the seven rooms of the abbey in which the ball is held as symbolic of the stages in a man’s life, from birth to death. In his pursuit of the masked figure through the seven rooms of the abbey, Prospero metaphorically passes through all the stages of life. H. H. Bell, Jr. has pointed out in his article “‘The Masque of the Red Death’—An Interpretation” that Poe seems to represent these rooms as “an allegorical representation of Prince Prospero’s life span.” This is partly indicated by the fact that the first room is located in the Eastern end of the abbey and the last room in the Western end. Because the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, this arrangement is suggestive of the dawn and dusk of life. Bell explains that “these directions are time-honored terms which have been used to refer to the beginning and end of things— even of life itself.” Furthermore, the seventh room is decorated in black, which is associated with night and death, and red, which the story strongly associates with the bloodiness caused by the pestilence of the Red Death. Out of fear, the guests avoid the seventh room, just as the living tend to avoid reminders of death. In the other six rooms, meanwhile, “beat feverishly the heart of life.”
The placement of the great ebony clock in the seventh room connects the passage of time with the progression of the rooms from birth to death. The clock signifies the story’s preoccupation with Time as an instrument of death. That Poe chose to capitalize the word Time, personifying it by giving it a proper name, further suggests that he is referring to ”time” not in a literal sense, but as in an allegorical sense. Extending the metaphor of a single day for a life span, as implied by the location of the seven rooms from East to West, the clock marks out the time remaining in the lives of the guests, ending at midnight.
While Prospero’s guests dance and the orchestra plays, the striking of the clock each hour is a foreboding reminder that the passing of time brings them all closer and closer to the moment of their own deaths. Each time the clock strikes, and the music and dancing stops, everyone is reminded of their own impending death, the old more acutely than the young, for “it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.” Bell has suggested that ”Poe meant for the clock to count off periods of life—not mere hours.” So that when the revelers pause at the striking of the clock ”they think not in terms of an hour having passed but rather in terms of just so much of their lives as having passed.” While the ball is meant to distract them from thinking about death, the chiming of the clock inspires in the guests “meditation” on the limited time left in their lives.
The clock’s chiming midnight signifies the end of life, as it coincides with the guests becoming ”aware” of the presence of death amongst them. At the sight of the “masked figure,” these thoughts become more persistent: ”and thus it happened, perhaps that more of thought crept, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful among those who reveled.” The closing lines of the story again suggest that the clock measures the time limit placed on everyone’s life, so that “the life of the ebony clock went out with the last of the gay.”
‘’The Masque of the Red Death” in told in such a way that its story takes on an almost Biblical tone, recounting a tale of sin, punishment by God and Apocalypse. The story opens with a description of a “pestilence,” which, by the end, has wiped out all human life. Such a devastating “pestilence” evokes biblical implications, as plague or pestilence in the Bible is sent down by God to punish humans for their sins. As a parable reminiscent of a Biblical story,’ “The Masque of the Red Death” is a tale of a divine punishment of those who are oblivious to the suffering of others less fortunate than themselves.
The response of Prince Prospero to the pestilence of the Red Death which has “devastated” his country is one of decadence. In other words, he responds to the massive suffering of people less privileged and powerful than he by turning a blind eye to their plight and surrounding himself and his friends with extravagant distractions. While a deadly pestilence ravages his country, the Prince remains “happy and dauntless and sagacious,” oblivious to the suffering of others. When “his dominions were half depopulated,” his response is to retreat with his friends and distract them from “grieving” or “thinking” about the plight of their fellow countrymen by indulging them in lavish entertainment. The response of the general population to those afflicted by the Red Death is also portrayed as selfish and unsympathetic, for the “scarlet stains” which mark the bodies of those afflicted “were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellowmen.” Yet the Prince, with all his power, goes a step further in this response, as he contrives to “shut out” all those vulnerable to the plague, denying then any “aid” or “sympathy” in the process. The response of the Prince and his privileged friends to this massive suffering is harsh and unfeeling, their attitude being that “the external world could take care of itself.”
The final line of the story is Apocalyptic in tone, written in a style reminiscent of the type of statements made in the Bible. As Patrick Cheney has pointed out in his article “Poe’s Use of The Tempest and The Bible in ‘The Masque of the Red Death,'” in the final paragraph, “the language, rhythm, and allusion are unmistakably Biblical.” This is particularly so of the closing line: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” As with the word Time, the fact that Poe chose to capitalize the words “Darkness” and “Decay” personifies these elements, thereby elevating them to a level of myth or parable. The personification of Darkness, particularly, calls to mind the Prince of Darkness, a name for the Devil. Cheney in fact refers to the Red Death as an “anti-Christ.” Given this ending, it would be possible to conclude that, since evil has triumphed over the land, the narrator of the story may be the personification of evil. On the other hand, however, if this is to be interpreted as a morality tale of Biblical proportions, it could be argued that the narrator is in fact a divine presence, who has punished humanity for its sins.
G. R. Thompson, in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, has pointed out that Poe was “the master of interior monologue of a profoundly disturbed mind.” “The Masque of the Red Death” may certainly be read on a psychological level as just such an “interior monologue,” the delusional nightmare of a madman. The narrator suggests several times that there may be reason to believe Prince Prospero is insane, and that the entire story is his crazy dream. If this is the case, then the narrator of the story may be Prospero himself, describing his own mad vision. This would explain why the narrator distances himself from the statement that Prospero may be “mad” by suggesting that it is only the opinion of “some” people, for he mentions that “there are some who would have thought him mad.” However, the narrator just as quickly denies this assessment by calling forth the opinion of his “followers,” who “felt that he was not.”
Furthermore, the narrator specifically refers to the Prince’s “friends” or “followers” as literally “dreams,” as “To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams.” The guests are later referred to as “an assembly of fantasms.” In other words, the “bizarre” figures which populate the Prince’s masquerade ball may merely be figments of his mad imagination. That these “dream” guests may be mere reflections of the Prince’s mind is further suggested by the description that “these—the dreams—writhed about, taking hue from the rooms.” That is, the guests at the masquerade ball, referred to as “dreams” take their “hue” or color from the reflections of the glass in each room. This could serve as a metaphor for the way in which dreams take their form, or ”hue” from their status as reflections of the dreamer’s mind. In this case, the chiming of the clock is a reminder not so much of death in particular, but of reality intruding momentarily into the insane dreamworld of the mad man, for, each time the clock chimes, the “dreams are stiff-frozen.” At a literal level, the chiming of a clock is generally a sound which awakens people from a dream state. But, once the sound of the clock has died down, “the dreams live, and writhe to and fro more merrily than ever.”
Eventually, the madness of the Prince is projected onto the “fantasms” which populate his mind; the “dream” guests are referred to as “mad revelers,” indicating that they may be projections of the Prince’s own mad mind. The masked figure of Death which appears at the ball even takes on the characteristic of madness, as his “mad assumptions” have the effect of evoking “awe” in the other guests. The madness of the Prince himself again emerges in response to the audacity of the masked figure, as the Prince “maddening with rage,” pursues it to the seventh room.
In a psychological reading, the struggle between the masked figure and the Prince Prospero could be interpreted as the internal mental struggle between a man’s sense of reality and his insane delusions. Thus, when the masked figure is revealed to have no bodily form, it is because it exists only as an imaginary “fantasm” with no physical existence in reality. In this case, the triumph of the masked figure over the Prince represents a triumph of insanity over sanity; the “death” of Prospero and his “dreams” could represent the death of the self when it is taken over by its own insanity.
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.
Liz Brent, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000