Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Read Death” describes a country devasted by a horrendous contagion called the Red Death. After leaving his people and his country to be killed by the plague, Prince Prospero takes a break from social distancing to throw a very opulent party. After seeing a gruesome-looking individual disrupting the merry-making, Prince Prospero yells angrily and chases the being with a dagger. The gruesome figure is actually the embodiment of the Red Death and proceeds to kill the prince and all of his guests. Poe’s use of imagery to contrast Prince Prospero’s opulence with the Red Death’s darkness emphasizes the human nature to avoid and suppress the inevitability of death, despite futility in doing so.
At the beginning of the short story, Prince Prospero appears to be prospering. The rest of his kingdom suffers from horrifying symptoms, including “profuse bleeding at the pores…which shut out the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men” (para. 1). In contrast, the Prince has taken shelter in a magnificent abbey girdled in by a “strong and lofty wall…[with] gates of iron” and welded bolts, both preventing him from feeling sympathy and from feeling the presence of the Red Death (para. 2). While the wall provides a literal barrier between the abbey, full of extravagant distractions, and the dismal dying masses, it also figuratively separates life from death. The strength and height of the wall can also be interpreted as a representation of the Prince’s perceived power. Like the wall, he stands above all, even the Red Death. His wealth is seen through lavish forms of entertainment he amassed, from “buffoons” to “wine” (para. 3). The Prince’s party, “a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence,” thrown for equally extravagant guests, furthers emphasizes his prestige (para. 4). The motivation for throwing this party lies in his preexisting “happy and dauntless and sagacious” attitude (para. 4). He believes that he has created a kingdom where he is in complete control and where he has the power to reign over all, even death. However, the story provides subtle clues that this is only an illusion, not a reality.
Death is always present, even when ignored and rejected as an inevitability by Prince Prospero. This can be seen through the Prince’s choice of decorum for his palace. The building contains seven rooms of varying colors, each of which is lavishly decorated. In order from East to West, the rooms are colored blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and finally black (para. 5). The black room is especially haunting to the partygoers, as the window “panes were scarlet—a deep blood color” (para. 5). The rooms symbolize life; no matter what a person’s life looks like, it will always end in blackness, or death. In the case of the Red Death, life ends in darkness and in blood, represented by the blood-red windows. The symbolism is continued through the directionality of the rooms. Just as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, the room representing ‘the end’ lies most farthest to the West, just like the end of the day. Synonymously with how the Red Death is ignored by the Prince and his guests, “there were few of the company” who entered the black chamber at all (para. 5).
Reminders of mortality are also heard by the revellers through the “gigantic clock of ebony” (para. 6). To accompany its “monotonous clang,” the clock makes “so peculiar a note” to mark the hour that it causes the orchestra to cease its chorus and “a brief disconcert of the whole gay company” (para. 6). The passing of time makes the entire party uncomfortable; there is nothing they can do to stop time. As the clock chimes to indicate the end of an hour, so it reminds the gathering that there is also an end to life. This revelation is especially distressing for the partygoers since they have gone such great lengths to shut out death and distract themselves with this lavish ball. The ebony clock reminds them that they are not in control of their fate after all, that no matter how much power they hold, they still hold no power over life’s end.
More visual imagery of death’s inconspicuous presence can be seen in the “multitude of dreams” floating about in the chambers (para. 8). Like the revellers, the dreams are carefree and exist in their own version of reality: a reality that is ignorant and oblivious from the gruesomeness and the anguish that the Red Death has brought upon the rest of Prince’s Prospero’s kingdom. When reminded of life’s finite timeline by the ebony clock’s striking the hour, the dreams become “stiff-frozen” like the Prince’s guests (para. 8). They are unable to keep up their ideal façade in the face of such a stark reality like death.
In the final confrontation between Prince Prospero and the Red Death, the fantasy comes to an end. Death transitions from being a mostly ignorable to a towering, eerie figure “shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave” (para. 10). The prince yells at the figure, still under the illusion that he yields complete command and authority, still believing that his richness holds him above death. The prince’s running through the seven chambers symbolize his passage through life’s entirety. The deaths of the prince and all of his guests coincide with the auditory imagery of the clock striking midnight; the end of the day also brings the end of life. The flames of the tripod, the only source of light coming from within the abbey, go out. Since the flames are located at the center of all seven chambers, they are meant to represent the heart of the abbey, a heart that stops beating with the rest. The stillness of chambers once lively with amusement and joyousness is an image that emphasizes how “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable domain over all” (para. 15).
Although “The Masque of the Red Death” is often interpreted as an allegory of poor government, the story actually touches on a much more personal subject: the natural tendency to avoid and overlook mortality. This leads to an attempt to control what is uncontrollable. In Prince Prospero’s case, this impulse proved to be self-destructive. In an irresponsible manner, the prince threw a lavish party during a largely inappropriate time. Not only was this a poor decision from a medical perspective, but the money put towards the ball could have gone towards helping the people of Prince Prospero’s country. These choices ironically lead to his death. Poe’s story serves as a reminder; although the journey of live is more important than the destination, it is still important to remember what the destination ultimately will be.