Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death” begins with a description of a plague, the ”Red Death.” It is the most deadly plague ever, as “no pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous.” The symptoms of the plague include “sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores.” The “scarlet stains” on the body, and especially the face, of its victims are the ”pest ban” or first visible signs of the disease. Once the stains appear, the victim has only thirty minutes before death.
In order to escape the spread of the plague, Prince Prospero invites “a thousand hale and lighthearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court” to seal themselves “in deep seclusion” in an abbey of his castle, allowing no one to enter or leave. With adequate provisions, Prospero and his privileged guests attempt to ”bid defiance to contagion,” by sealing themselves off from the suffering and disease spreading throughout the rest of their country. The Prince provides for his guests ”all the appliances of pleasure” to help them not to ”grieve” or to ”think” about the Red Death raging outside the walls of the abbey.
Toward the end of the fifth or sixth month, the Prince holds a masquerade ball for his guests, “while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad.” The Prince takes elaborate measures in his decorations for the ball, which is to take place in “an imperial suite” of seven rooms, each decorated in its own color scheme. The only lighting in each room comes from a brazier of fire, mounted on a tripod, which is set outside the stained glass windows of each room, causing the color of the glass to infuse the entire room. The progression of rooms is from blue to purple to green to orange to white to violet to black. The seventh room, decorated in black velvet, is lit by the fire burning behind a red-stained glass window. But the effect of the red light is ”ghastly in the extreme,” and the seventh room is avoided by most of the guests.
In the seventh room is a “gigantic clock of ebony” which strikes at each hour. The sound of the clock striking is ”of so peculiar a note and emphasis” that all of the guests, as well as the orchestra and the dancers, pause at each hour to listen, and there is “a brief disconcert in the whole company.” But the revelers remain “stiff frozen” only for a moment before returning to their music and dancing.
At the stroke of midnight the guests, pausing at the sound of the clock, notice a mysterious “masked figure” in their midst. The figure wears “the habiliments of the grave” and the mask on its face resembles ”the countenance of a stiffened corpse.” The costume of the mysterious figure has even taken on ”the type of the Red Death.” Its clothing is “dabbled in blood” and its face is “besprinkled with the scarlet horror.”
When Prince Prospero sees this mysterious figure, he orders his guests to seize and unmask it, so that he may hang the intruder at dawn. But the guests, cowering in fear, shrink from the figure. In a rage, Prospero, bearing a dagger, pursues the masked figure through each of the rooms—from blue to purple to green to orange to white to violet. The figure enters the seventh room, decorated in a ghastly black and red, and turns to face Prospero. The Prince falls dead to the floor. But when the guests seize the figure, they find that, underneath its shroud and mask there is “no tangible form.”
The guests realize that the Red Death has slipped into their abbey ”like a thief in the night” to claim their lives, “and one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel.” The last line of the story describes the complete victory of the Red Death over life: ”And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
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.