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Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" should be studied at many levels: (1) the literal level - the literal level is a study of the events that actually take place in the story; (2) an allegorical level - an allegory is a story in which the objects, characters, and events are symbolic of something grander in scale. In order to understand the story allegorically, one needs a firm understanding of symbols in "The Masque of the Red Death."
You can find the full text of the short story here.
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Symbols & Analysis
The Red Death symbolizes the inevitability of death. Although there is no specific disease with the exact symptoms described in the story, critics believe the disease's description has elements of tuberculosis, a disease which killed many of those close to Poe. It also brings forth memories of the Black Death which depopulated much of Europe during the Middle Ages.
The Castle represents man's efforts to prevent death. Regardless of wealth, social position, or popularity, death arrives as an uninvited guest.
Prince Prospero symbolizes the end of feudalism. Prospero's inviting only wealthy knights and ladies to his castle at the expense of peasants and commoners represents the socioeconomic divide between landowners and peasants that existed during the feudalistic period. It is not coincidental that the Black Death, which reduced the number of workers, led to a demand for labor and played an important role in ending feudalism in Europe.
The Ebony Clock is a constant reminder of death and symbolizes the inevitability of it. The revelers could neither stop its pendulum from swinging nor could they prevent its ominous tones from dampering their enthusiasm.
The Seven Rooms represent the stages of life. More on this later.
The Masqueraders symbolize all humans and gives creedence to the interpretation that the seven rooms represent the seven ages of man (covered further in the next section).
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Colors play an important role in this story:
Red - The most obvious color symbolism in "The Masque of the Red Death" is in its title. Red symbolizes death and blood. The gruesome description of the Red Death gives the color a ghastly connotation, especially in light of the red window panes contained in the death room at the far western end of the imperial suite.
Black/Ebony - The seventh room was "closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue" (146). This seventh room contains "no light of any kind" and represents the darkness of death. In this room stands the ebony clock. Upon hearing its chimes the guests were reminded of death: "the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation" (147).
Blue/Purple/Green/Orange/White/Violet - These are the colors of the first six rooms in the imperial suite. I will address them together insomuch that they represent a prism and therefore reflect a progression, lending creedence to the interpretation that the story is an allegory for life. This interpretation, however, is complicated by the fact that the color of Prospero's room do not occur in the same sequence as they do in a prism, possibly reflective of Prospero's twisted sense of fairness or an attempt by the author to associate particular colors with a specific period in life.
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Why Seven Rooms in "The Masque of the Red Death"?
One interpretation is that the seven rooms represent Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man" from As You Like It: (bolding is from me).
"All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances; / And one man in his time plays many parts, / His acts being seven ages. At first the infant, / Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms. / And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like snail / Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, / Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier, / Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, / Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, / Seeking the bubble reputation / Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice, / In fair round belly with good capon lined, / With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, / Full of wise saws and modern instances; / And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts / Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon, / With spectacles on nose and pouch on side, / His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide / For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, / Turning again toward childish treble, pipes / And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, / That ends this strange eventful history, / Is second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." (II, vii, 139-66).
Many consider "The Masque of the Red Death" an allegory. The seven rooms, therefore, represent the life of all humans. It differs in respect to Shakespeare's monologue insomuch that death (symbolized by the sounding of the ebony clock) oft intervenes in the six rooms preceding death. The physical arrangement of the seven rooms also lends itself to this allegorical interpretation:
(1) the first room lies furthest East, or where the sun rises;
(2) the last room lies furthest West, or where the sun sets;
(3) the rooms are arranged in such a manner "that vision embraced but little more than one at a time" in the same way life only provides short glimpse into the future.
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- Pride/Vanity - Pride is the excessive belief in one's own abilities, similar to vanity, which is setting one's heart on things of little value. Prospero's belief that he is more powerful than death is a vivid demonstration of pride.
- Envy - It is unclear who the Prince might envy, but he sure is trying hard to impress someone.
- Gluttony - Gluttony is the act of consuming more than one is required. Instead of using his means to protect more people, something he is obligated to do as prince, he lavishes his guests with "ample provisions" and "the appliances of pleasure."
- Lust - Lust is an excessive craving for the pleasures of the body, usually associated with sex. The era in which Poe wrote prohibited the explicit or implicit description of sex, but what do you think was going on at an anything goes party?
- Anger - The Prince becomes angry with the uninvited guest and attacks it.
- Greed - Although it is apparent Prince Prospero shares his wealth with a thousand guests, he helps those who need it least and withholds his substance from those in need.
- Sloth - Sloth is the absence of work. The prince seems like a hard worker; his work, however, is on the physical realm not the spiritual realm.
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What do you think they mean? If you have an alternate interpretation, let me know in the comments.
- Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Masque of the Red Death." The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales. New York: Penguin, 1998. 145-51.