The Masked Figure
The “masked figure” that appears at Prince Prospero’s costume ball is the most illusive “character” in the story. Upon the stroke of midnight, the guests first notice this “masked figure,” who is “tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave,” and looks like the corpse of a body afflicted by the Red Death, its face “besprinkled with the scarlet horror.” Prince Prospero orders that the figure be unmasked and hanged at dawn, but his guests refuse to unmask him. The figure then retreats through all seven rooms of the abbey, pursued by Prince Prospero. When the figure reaches the seventh room, it turns to face the Prince, who falls instantly to his death. When the guests rush to seize the figure, they find that, beneath the corpse-like costume, there is no ”tangible form.” The masked figure turns out to be The Red Death itself. It had crept into the sealed abbey “like a thief in the night.” The last line of the story indicates that the Red Death has triumphed over life: ”And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
Prince Prospero is the central character of ”The Masque of the Red Death.” Despite the plague of the Red Death which rages throughout his country, the Prince ignores the suffering of others and invites “a thousand friends” from his court to seal themselves in an abbey of his castle in order to protect themselves from the pestilence. In order to distract them from the death and suffering outside their walls, the prince provides his guests with “all the appliances of pleasure,” and holds a masquerade ball after the fifth or sixth month. In all of his arrangements, Prince Prospero’s taste is extravagant and “bizarre.” When the mysterious figure bearing the masque of the Red Death appears at his masquerade ball, the Prince demands that he be unmasked and hanged “at sunrise.” Yet, while his guests shrink in horror from the figure, the Prince, carrying a dagger, pursues it through the first six rooms to the seventh. When he confronts the figure, the dagger drops from his hand and he falls to the floor, dead.
There is some indication that Prince Prospero may be a mad man, and that the entire story is his dream or delusional vision, and all its characters figments of his imagination.
The Thousand Friends
While a deadly plague devastates his country, Prince Prospero invites “a thousand hale and lighthearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court” to escape the plague by hiding in the abbey with him. While there are no individual characters among the Prince’s guests, the “thousand friends” share a collective role as characters in the story. The prince holds a masquerade ball, at which his guests appear in outlandish costumes. As none of the guests, also described as ”a multitude of dreams,” are given any specific character traits, they could be interpreted as mere ”fantasms” of the Prince’s imagination, or imaginary projections of the Prince’s psyche. When the mysterious masked figure appears at the ball, and Prince Prospero orders his guests to seize the intruder, they collectively shrink back in fear and, when the figure moves past the Prince, “the vast assembly, as if with one impulse” cowers in fear, allowing it to pass them without impediment. Yet they cannot escape the Red Death: “And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.” Like the Prince, his “thousand friends” cannot escape the inevitability of their own deaths.
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.