In this lesson, we will study Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, ‘The Masque of the Red Death.’ After a brief summary of the plot, we will analyze the story’s symbols and motifs and discuss its theme. We will conclude the lesson with a short quiz.
Summary of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’
Edgar Allan Poe was a famous American short story writer and poet who is notable for his contributions to the American Romantic movement.
Although he is perhaps best known for his poem, ‘The Raven,’ Edgar Allan Poe wrote many poems and short stories before his untimely death in 1849 at the age of 40. Poe published ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ in 1942, and like much of Poe’s work, it is considered an exemplar of the Gothic fiction genre.The plot of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is actually quite simple. The Red Death is a fictional plague sweeping through the land. Prince Prospero, the main character in the short story, is hiding from the plague in an abbey, along with a bunch of other nobles. Despite the plague being quite horrific and consisting of symptoms like sweating blood and dying within 30 minutes, the nobles think they are safe in the abbey. In fact, they are so relaxed about their situation that Prospero hosts a big masquerade ball.
The only downside of the abbey, which is quite luxurious, is the decor. There are seven rooms which are color-coded and arranged east to west. The last of these rooms is a creepy room that is decorated in black and scarlet. This room contains a huge clock that scares the guests whenever it chimes on the hour.
The clock does not disrupt the masquerade for long, however. People keep partying until it strikes midnight. Then, a mysterious figure shows up, which is disturbing because the doors to the abbey are welded shut to keep all the plague-infested people out. The figure is dressed in a bloody robe, and the figure’s mask is designed to look like someone who has died from the Red Death.Prospero chases the figure through the abbey until he corners the figure in the creepy room, which is the room farthest to the west. When the stranger looks at Prospero, Prospero drops dead. The other noblemen corner the stranger and unmask him.
Once he is unmasked, they realize that he does not possess a body. Everyone in the abbey catches the Red Death and dies.
Symbols and Motifs
Let’s take a look at some of the symbols and motifs of ‘The Masque of the Red Death.’ First, let’s discuss the seven rooms.
Arranged in a row from east to west, the seven color-coded rooms in the abbey are considered symbolic of the progression of life. The stages they represent are birth (blue), youth (purple), adolescence (green), adulthood (orange), old age (white), imminent death (violet), and death itself (black/scarlet).The seventh room, which represents death, is the room into which Prospero chases the stranger. It is also the room that everyone at the party avoids until the very end of the story.
Once Prospero and the other nobles cross into the room, they all contract the Red Death and immediately die.Now, let’s talk about the clock.Have you ever heard the phrase ‘Time is running out’? Well, if the black room represents death, and there is a huge black clock in the room that marks each and every passing hour so loudly that all of the guests at the party take note of it, it seems fairly obvious that the clock is a symbolism of the fleetingness of life and the inevitability of death. You can hide in an abbey to escape a plague, but you can’t hide from death itself, since even if you manage to avoid the plague, you will still die of old age eventually.Finally, let’s discuss the color red.The color red features heavily in ‘The Masque of the Red Death.
‘ While sometimes red can symbolize passion or life-sustaining blood, red is exclusively associated with death in this story. The fictional plague is named the Red Death because it makes people bleed out of the pores on their face. Red is also used along with black to decorate the room that is supposed to represent death.
Finally, let’s look at a major theme of ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ which is the inevitability of death.The last line of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ sums up the story’s main theme of the inevitability of death: ‘And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
‘ In case you are not familiar with the word, ‘illimitable’ means ‘limitless.’ ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ ends with Prospero and all of the other nobles dying, despite their best efforts to avoid the plague. This final line suggests that even if they had done things differently, their fate would have been the same.
Death is inevitable.
American author Edgar Allan Poe was part of the American Romantic movement and wrote many Gothic poems and short stories, including the short story, ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ which was published in 1892, seven years before he died. This short story is a strong example of the Gothic genre, since it explores the theme of the inevitability of death.In ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ Prince Prospero and a group of noblemen hide in an abbey to try and escape a bloody and fatal plague sweeping the land. They cannot escape the Red Death, however, and when, at the stroke of midnight, a stranger intrudes on a masquerade they are holding inside the sealed abbey, Prospero confronts the stranger in a sinisterly dark and eerie room, only to die.
The other nobles die too, immediately after unmasking the stranger and realizing that the stranger possesses no physical form and is, in fact, the Red Death itself. Poe drives home the theme of the inevitability of death through his use of:
- Seven colored rooms that depict the progressive stages of life
- A clock that marks the constant flow of time
- The color red, which he exclusively associates with blood and death
The Masque of the Red Death Overview
|Edgar Allan Poe||major part of the American Romantic movement who wrote many Gothic poems and short stories|
|‘The Masque of the Red Death’||published 1892, example of the Gothic genre|
|Red Death||a personified fictional plague shows up at Prince Prospero’s hidden party|
|Symbolism||seven color-coded rooms in the abbey are considered the progression of life representing birth (blue), youth (purple), adolescence (green), adulthood (orange), old age (white), imminent death (violet), and death itself (black/scarlet)|
|Motif||the clock, symbolism of the fleetingness of life and the inevitability of death|
|Theme||death is inevitable, it comes for everyone|
After finishing this lesson, students should be ready to:
- Identify Edgar Allan Poe’s genre, writing movement, and time period
- Summarize his short story ‘The Masque of the Red Death’
- Describe the various symbols, motif, and the theme of the story