Poe Study Guides
Michael J. Cummings...©
terrifying disease called the Red Death ravages the dominion of Prince
Prospero. So lethal is it that it kills within a half-hour after the onset
of its symptoms: sharp pain, dizziness, and bleeding from the pores.
the prince is safe and happy in an abbey to which he has withdrawn with
a thousand knights and ladies selected from his court. The abbey, which
resembles a great castle, is surrounded by a sturdy wall. Its iron gate
has been welded shut, making it impossible for anyone to enter or leave.
the prince has stocked food and drink aplenty and maintains companies of
musicians, dancers, and clowns for entertainment.
After about six months,
while the disease was taking its toll outside, the prince held a masked
ball in a maze-like suite of seven rooms specially decorated according
to a theme color. One room was blue; the second, purple; the third, green;
the fourth, orange; the fifth, white; and the sixth, violet. A stained-glass
window in the wall between each of these rooms and the outside corridor
matched the color of the room. The seventh room was hung with tapestries
of black velvet. However, here the stained-glass between the room and the
corridor was scarlet instead of black.
were no candles to light any of the rooms. Rather, illumination was provided
by a brazier of fire set on a tripod in the corridor outside each of the
stained-glass windows. Thus, shimmering blue light, mimicking the movement
of the leaping flames, illuminated the first room, shimmering purple light
illuminated the second room, and so on. Into the seventh room, the black
one with the scarlet window, the fire projected blood-red light that was
ghastly to behold. The masqueraders were reluctant to enter this room.
Adding to the foreboding atmosphere of the room was an ebony pendulum clock
that tolled the hour with a deep chime that echoed through the winding
hallways and unnerved all the guests.
the party is a smashing success overall, with the guests–outfitted in every
manner of odd, alluring, and grotesque costumes–enjoying themselves immensely.
But no one enters the seventh room. Instead, everyone congregates in the
the ebony clock strikes twelve, the revelers in the blue room, where the
prince is mingling with his friends, notice a new masquerader among them.
They express surprise, utter whispers, and finally recoil in terror and
disgust. And no wonder. This masquerader, tall in and thin, is outfitted
as a corpse in a grave. His mask is as stiff and fearsome as a dead man’s
face. Daubs of red on his costume make it clear that he has come in the
guise of the Red Death. Prince Prospero reacts with a shudder signifying
fear or disgust. Then he becomes angry. He asks, “Who dares insult us with
this blasphemous mockery?”
orders the unmasking of the intruder and declares that he will be hanged
in the morning from the fortress’s battlements.
But no one undertakes the
task. The intruder then moves from room to room. Prospero withdraws a dagger
and chases him. In the black room, the intruder turns and faces Prospero.
There is a cry. The dagger falls to the sable carpet. Then Prospero falls.
Finding courage, Prospero’s friends then attack the intruder. To their
horror, they discover that there is nothing inside the costume or behind
ends the story by revealing the identity of the intruder:
And now was acknowledged
the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And
one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel,
and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the
ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of
the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable
dominion over all.
action takes place in the castle-like abbey of a prince who rules a dominion
in an age of castles and knights. Poe does not name the country, but he
uses words suggesting Italy. These words include the name of the prince,
a reference to improvisers as improvisatori; and a reference to
fashion embellishments as decora.
Prince Prospero: Selfish,
wealthy ruler who withdraws to a castle-like abbey to avoid an epidemic
of a deadly disease.
Knights and Ladies:
Members of the court whom the prince has invited to the abbey. There are
one thousand of them in all.
Dancers: They amuse the prince and his guests.
Intruder dressed like the corpse of a victim of the red death.
of Work and Year of Publication
Masque of the Red Death" is a short story in the Gothic
horror genre. It was published in 1842 in Graham’s Magazine.
Renaissance Europe, a masque was an elaborate entertainment featuring participants
wearing costumes and masks. They sang, danced, recited poetry, and sometimes
participated in a dramatic presentation. A masque could also consist only
of a procession or pageant of costumed persons–or simply the kind of costume
ball staged by Prince Prospero in “The Masque of the Red Death.” Of course,
in Poe’s story, masque not only refers to Prospero’s ball but also to the
disguise (mask) of the Red Death. One may also argue that it refers to
an entertainment staged by Death, for it was he who drove Prospero and
his friends into the abbey–a grand stage where, he knew, they would seek
to put him out of mind with a divertissement. In short, Death had a ball.
fictional red death resembles a real disease that occurred in Medieval
and Renaissance Europe–septicemic plague. Within hours after infecting
a person, this deadliest form of plague caused high fever and turned the
skin purple. A victim of septicemic plague sometimes got up in the morning
hale and healthy, without an ache or a pain, and went to bed in a grave.
was spread from rats to humans by fleas. The disease manifested itself
in three forms: bubonic plague, which caused painful swellings (buboes)
in the lymph nodes of the armpits and groin; pneumonic plague, which filled
the lungs with fluid; and septicemic plague, which poisoned the bloodstream.
Septicemic plague was far less common than the other two forms of the disease.
Sometimes one form of the disease killed by itself; at other times, it
progressed into another of the forms before claiming a victim. Together,
these three manifestations of plague were known as the Black Death because
of the livid hue of corpses caused by subcutaneous hemorrhaging. Black,
of course, is the color of the seventh room in “The Masque of the Red Death.”
(1) No man or woman can
escape death. It is human nature, of course, to attempt to escape death,
and many of us in the modern world resort to extreme measures to postpone
entering the “seventh room” as long as possible. For example, some of us
make unnecessary visits to physicians, refuse to prepare a will, or buy
“magic” pills that promise youthful vigor well into old age.
(2) Members of a community–especially
the leaders–have a duty to help those in need. Prospero and his courtiers
abandon the rank-and-file citizens of the realm, welding shut the iron
gate of their refuge so that no one from the outside can get in. Although
Poe does not sermonize against Prospero’s selfishness and his failure to
take care of his people, he does imply that the prince is acting shamefully.
“The external world could take care of itself,” the narrator says, reporting
on Prospero’s attitude of complacency and neglect. “In the meantime it
was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances
Choice, Figures of Speech
in other works of his, Poe chooses words carefully so that each one contributes
to the overall effect of horror. A notable example is his use of the word
"stricken" in the following passage:
When the minute-hand made
the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from
the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep
and exceedingly musical. . . .
Ordinarily, a writer uses struck
as the past participle of strike, because stricken as the
past participle has a different meaning. Stricken means afflicted,
sickened, or injured. Thus, in this passage, stricken
seems entirely appropriate, for the clock is counting down to the time
when the Red Death will strike. In this same passage, Poe effectively uses
personification, a figure of speech in which an inanimate object becomes
a person. Here, brazen lungs gives the clock a humanlike quality.
Elsewhere, Poe also uses alliteration effectively, as in this clause: "His
broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the
scarlet horror" (broad, brow, besprinkled).
Sources: Boccaccio, Shakespeare
may have drawn upon the works of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) and William
Shakespeare (1564-1616) for inspiration in writing “The Masque of the Red
Death.” Specifically, Poe appears to have imitated the frame-tale in Boccaccio’s
The Decameron, and borrowed elements from at least
one Shakespeare play,
The Tempest, and possibly another, As You
Decameron, seven men and three women withdraw to the countryside to
escape a plague outbreak in Florence. To bide their time, they tell stories,
sing, and dance.
Tempest, the main character is Prospero, ruler of a magical island.
One of his subjects, a beast-like man named Caliban, curses Prospero, saying
he hopes he dies of “red plague.”
You Like It, the character Jaques (spelled without a c) recites
a speech describing “the seven ages of man”–that is, the stages of life
from infancy to old age. It has been suggested that the seven rooms in
Poe’s story represent the seven stages of life outlined by Shakespeare.
The first room would represent infancy, and fittingly Poe locates it in
the easternmost part of the imperial suite. (The east is a primordial archetype
associated with the rising sun and birth.) The last room, the seventh,
would represent old age and death, and Poe locates it in the westernmost
part of the imperial suite. (The west is a primordial archetype associated
with the setting sun, old age, and death.)
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Poe was a meticulous stylist, a master storyteller who chose the right
word for the context and crafted sentences with utmost care. However, “The
Masque of the Red Death” contains a number of inconsistencies–or what appear
to be so. Consider the following:
Shifting Point of View
the beginning of the story, Poe unravels his yarn in third-person point
of view. In other words, he does not assume the role of a character in
the story–as he does in “The Black Cat,”
“The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The
Tell-Tale Heart,” stories in which he becomes a demented narrator who
tells the reader about a crime he committed. Instead, Poe becomes an observer
who is like a movie camera that can go anywhere and see anything while
recording scenes for a film. A third-person narrator does not use pronouns
such as I, me, my, mine, we, us, and our except in dialogue
that quotes a character. To use such words to refer to himself would be
to place himself within the story. However, Poe does exactly that–inexplicably
injecting himself into the story as an unidentified persona by switching
from third-person to first-person point of view and using the pronouns
and me. Here are the passages in which he does so. I have boldfaced
the words in question:
But first let me
tell of the rooms in which it was held.
These passages mean that Poe
has assumed the role of a character inside Prince Prospero’s abbey; this
character becomes an on-the-scene reporter. But how could he have lived
to tell his story? After all, the Red Death has killed everyone inside
the abbey. No one has survived.
And the revel went whirlingly
on, until at length there commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock.
And then the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of
the waltzers were quieted;
In an assembly of phantasms
as I have painted, it may well be supposed that no ordinary appearance
could have excited such sensation.
though, that the narrator is Death itself. This explanation is implausible,
for it is the masked intruder–not the narrator–who represents Death; the
intruder is a separate, distinct character.
more plausible explanation for the shifting point of view is that the narrator
is describing a dream or has assumed the role of a madman describing an
imagined experience. Either of these possibilities would help explain not
only the point-of-view problem but also a mystifying reference in the story
to a play entitled Hernani. French author Victor Hugo staged this
play in 1830–hundreds of years after the historical period in which “The
Masque of the Red Death” is set. The narrator of the above-quoted passages
from the Poe story could not possibly have seen or heard about Hernani
unless he lived in the 19th Century and was writing “The Masque of the
Red Death” to report on a dream or an imagined experience.
course, another explanation for Poe’s shifting point of view is that he
simply slipped up–that is, he made a writing error and failed to detect
it when editing and proofreading his story.
problem with the story is an inexplicable shift in tense. Midway through
the tale, the narrator switches from past to present tense. Following is
the present-tense passage printed in red type, accompanied by past-tense
passages in black type that precede and follow the passage in present tense:
was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something
of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.
To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of
dreams. And these –the dreams–writhed in and about, taking hue from the
rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as the echo
of their steps. And, anon, there strikes
the ebony clock which stands in the hall of the velvet. And then, for a
moment, all is still, and all is silent save the voice of the clock. The
dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand. But the echoes of the chime die
away–they have endured but an instant–and a light, half-subdued laughter
floats after them as they depart. And now again the music swells, and the
dreams live, and writhe to and fro more merrily than ever, taking hue from
the many-tinted windows through which stream the rays from the tripods.
But to the chamber which lies most westwardly of the seven, there are now
none of the maskers who venture; for the night is waning away; and there
flows a ruddier light through the blood-colored panes; and the blackness
of the sable drapery appals; and to him whose foot falls upon the sable
carpet, there comes from the near clock of ebony a muffled peal more solemnly
emphatic than any which reaches their ears who indulge in the more remote
gaieties of the other apartments.
It is possible that Poe shifted
to the present tense to heighten the sense of drama. However, the past
tense would have worked just as well, it seems.
these other apartments were densely crowded, and in them beat feverishly
the heart of life. And the revel went whirlingly on, until at length there
commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock.
story is obviously set in the age of castles and knights–probably Renaissance
Italy. However, the narrator makes a reference to a 19th Century literary
work–Hernani, by Victor Hugo. (See also Shifting
Point of View, above.)
References to the Main
refers to the main character as “the Prince Prospero” five times and as
“Prince Prospero” once. There seems to be no apparent reason why he would
use the definite article four times and omit it another time. On the other
hand, Poe’s use “duke” to refer to Prospero is acceptable, for duke can
refer to a prince who rules a duchy.
Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned
at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan,
a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed
to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans
and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to
the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University
of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies
at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose
writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several
magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper
in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror
published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and
international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story,
Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He
also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received,
he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths
of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently
had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a
contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.