Table of Contents
2. Physical Features of the Abbey
3.2 Rooms and Colors
3.4 Death and the Masque
4. The Narrator of “The Masque of The Red Death”
4.1 The Narrator is one of the dying revellers
4.2 The Narrator is an ‘impossible narrator’
4.3 The Narrator is Death himself
5. “The Masque of The Red Death” and the Grotesque
6. “The Masque of the Red Death” – An Allegory, A Memento Mori
6.2 Memento Mori
7. Final Remarks
“The Masque of the Red Death” first appeared in May 1842 in Graham’s Magazine. It is generally grouped together with three other of Poe’s stories, namely “King Pest”, which first appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger in September 1835, “The Cask of Amontillado”, published in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book 33 in 1846, and “Hop-Frog”, published in The Flag of Our Union in 1849. Since all these stories take place during the carnival season, they are called “The Masquerades”.
In her book “The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe. A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation”, Marie Bonaparte takes a Freudian approach to Poe’s stories, Sigmund Freud himself wrote the preface, and claims that all the above tales are connected to Poe’s father complex [Bonaparte; 507]. In her interpretation of “The Masque of the Red Death”, the figure of the Red Death is an incorporation of the father who returns to punish the son.
This is just one reading of the story. Much has been published about “The Masque of the Red Death”, one of Poe’s most read tales. Scholars have tried to find its roots, like Burton R. Pollin, who assumes that Poe used his own “Shadow – A Parable” as a source for “The Masque of the Red Death”. Others attempted to compare the story of Prince Prospero and his followers to other great works of art, for example Christopher Brown, who saw parallels between “The Masque of the Red Death” and Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. A lot of research has also been done on the narrator of the tale – I will only elaborate on the most plausible theories on who it is that is telling this tale. Equally important, “The Masque of the Red Death” is said to contain one of the most exact definitions of the grotesque in the literary sense.
Finally, as almost all of Poe’s tales, “The Masque of the Red Death”, too, contains an incredible amount of symbolism. Everything from the significance of blood over the importance of the number seven in mysticism to the meaning of colors can be traced in this tale, which must also be read as an allegory and a memento mori.
2. Physical Features of the Abbey
Poe has always been concerned with the atmosphere that can be created by decorating a room in a certain way. In “Philosophy of Furniture”, first published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in May 1840, he explained some of the principles of interior decoration that he deemed fundamental. Some of these principles already foreshadowed the decoration of the abbey in “The Masque of the Red Death”. He wrote: “The soul of the apartment is the carpet. ... Indeed, whether on carpets, or curtains, or tapestry, or ottoman coverings, all upholstery of this nature should be rigidly Arabesque” [Poe; 463; emphasis added] and arabesque the decoration of Prospero’s vaults is.
The Prince created seven rooms – the significance of the number seven will be discussed in detail later – which were so “irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one room at a time.” [Poe; 269]. They were probably connected by a hallway, which turned after every twenty or thirty yards to reveal a “novel effect” [Poe; 269].
Alongside each room and hallway wound a corridor which was not accessible to the revellers inside the abbey. In these corridors were the only sources of light, braziers of fire, which were set on tripods. The quality of this light has also been described before in “Philosophy of Furniture”: “In truth, even strong steady lights are inadmissible.” [Poe; 464]. The light fell into the rooms through “tall and narrow Gothic windows” [Poe; 270], which were situated “to the right and left, in the middle of each wall” [Poe; 270].
The color of the windows was always according to the prevailing color of the room. The windows in the black chamber are the only exception to the rule: they were of “a deep blood color” [Poe; 270]. The effects caused by these windows inside the room were so frightening “that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.” [Poe; 270].
I have tried to imagine one possible way the rooms could have been arranged within the abbey:
illustration not visible in this excerpt
The vaults themselves, into which Prospero and his followers withdrew while Red Death was raging outside, were surrounded by strong walls which had iron gates with welded in bolts so as to leave “no means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within.” [Poe; 269]. Thus the Prince believed to have created a “hermetically sealed world” [Bonaparte; 515] Red Death had no access to.
Gerald Kennedy argues that by isolating himself from the rest of the world, Prospero rejects the anguish and death of the outside world, since within the abbey “it was folly to grieve, or to think” [Poe; 269 / Kennedy; 201].
At least subconsciously, though, the Prince was aware that death cannot be entirely excluded from the human scene. This is why he included the seventh chamber with an ebony clock that is counting the minutes until Death will descend on him and his guests [Kennedy; 201]. David Keterer even goes as far as to considers this kind of seclusion an attempt by Prospero “to escape life and to avoid the trauma of death by living in a self-created world of arabesque art” [Keterer; 200].
The general impression one gets after having a closer look at the physical features of the abbey is one of suffocation. There is no air in the rooms because the only openings lead to a closed corridor from where artificial light is cast into the rooms through stained glass windows. The vaults are like a tomb in which Prince Prospero and his guests are buried alive.
All of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales show an incredible richness of symbolism. Nothing in his narratives is a coincidence, a fact he himself states in “The Philosophy of Composition”:
“Having chosen a novel [effect], first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone- whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone – afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect. [Norton; 714]
Some stories, like for example “The Tell-Tale Heart” can be read and enjoyed on a simple level, but also offer room for a deeper interpretation. If we want to get close to grasping Poe’s brilliance, though, the need to analyse the symbolism within Poe’s writing is inevitable.
We call lifeless characters ‘bloodless’ and in many instances blood is defined as ‘the juice of life’. In “The Masque of the Red Death” blood is the exact opposite, it is the bringer of Death.
In no other of Poe’s narratives is blood of more importance than in this one. Blood appears for the first time in the second sentence, when Red Death is characterized: “Blood was its Avatar and its seal – the redness and the horror of blood.” [Poe; 269]. Here I would like to mention the association of blood with the color red, as the windows in the black chamber are of “a deep blood color” [Poe; 270]. While the color red is generally thought to be a bright color, the color of love, Poe habitually uses it as a sign of death. In “Al Aaraaf” a “red Daedalion” comes “on the timid Earth.” [Poe; 1004] and the Greek Oinos, narrator of “Shadow – A Parable”, who is drinking “The red Chian wine” [Poe; 457] tells us about the threat presented by “the red ring of the terrible Saturnus” [Poe; 457]. In “The Masque of the Red Death” red is equally the sign of Death, as those who fall victim to Red Death have “scarlet stains” [Poe; 269] on their body.
The narrator then sets out to describe the effects the Red Death had on its victims including “profuse bleeding at the pores … and scarlet stains upon the body” [Poe; 269]. Blood is the “pest ban which shut [the victim] out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men” [Poe; 269].
When Prospero and his friends lay eyes upon the figure of Red Death, they see “His vesture … dabbled in blood” [Poe; 272], which signifies the revellers’ impending death. In the end they “one by one dropped … in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel” [Poe; 273]. The story begins and ends in blood.
We can therefore assume that Poe deliberately chose the name Red Death . The pest, the occurrence of which Poe himself witnessed in his time, is generally called Black Death. Poe’s naming establishes a connection between red and death and therefore also between blood and death. If blood is the mark of death, no wall can offer protection, because blood is inside the body, it doesn’t come from without but from within. Like Red Death walks through all seven rooms with Prospero, blood is within us from the very beginning. As Gerald Kennedy puts it: “Death cannot be barred from the palace, … because it is in the blood, part and parcel of our humanity, not an extrinsic force.” [Kennedy; 202].
3.2 Rooms and Colors
The number seven is, besides twelve, the most important number in mysticism. The history of the world was divided into seven ages, there were seven wonders of the world, seven cardinal virtues as well as seven deadly sins. Even at universities, learning used to be divided into seven subjects.
In our tale, Prospero’s seven rooms represent the Seven Ages of Man [Keterer; 200]. This concept goes back to Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
Duke Senior. Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.
Jacques. 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;
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, 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 lin'd,
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 sav'd 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 every thing.”
According to Shakespeare, man’s first stage is “the infant”. Its room is the blue one. The color blue symbolizes water and therefore birth and life. The motif of birth is also contained in the fact that this room is situated at the easternmost extremity of the vaults, that is where the sun rises. It can therefore be understood as a bright and hopeful chamber.
The second room is kept in purple. It is the chamber of “the whining school-boy”. Purple is generally interpreted as a color of domination. People of high birth used to be described as ‘born in the purple’. They certainly dominated the lower classes and similarly did the schoolmaster dominate his pupils.
After leaving school the young man entered into the stage of “the lover”, which in Poe’s tale, is taking part in the third, the green room. The color green symbolizes at once hope for the future and inexperience. The green chamber can therefore be read as portraying the inexperienced lover, who still regards the world with optimism.
The optimism may soon disappear, though, since the next age of man is that of the “soldier” in the orange room. In Goethe once made a sketch of his Theory of Colors, in which he associated orange with being “edel”, noble and having “Vernunft”, reason. These characteristics, especially the former, have always been connected to knighthood.