The Masque of the Red Death
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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Plot Summary
Type of Work
Meaning of Masque
The Red Death
Word Choice, Imagery
Writing Inconsistencies
Complete Free Text
Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
.......A 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. 
.......However, the prince is safe and happy in an abbey to which he has withdrawn with a thousand knights and ladies selected from his court.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.
.......Inside, 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. 

.......There 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. 
.......Nevertheless, 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 other rooms. 
.......After 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?”
.......Prospero 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 the mask. 
.......Poe 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.

The 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, Prospero; 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. 
Entertainers, Musicians, Dancers: They amuse the prince and his guests. 
Uninvited Masquerader: Intruder dressed like the corpse of a victim of the red death.

Type of Work and Year of Publication

"The Masque of the Red Death" is a short story in the Gothic horror genre. It was published in 1842 in Graham’s Magazine.

Meaning of Masque 

In 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.

The Red Death 

Poe’s 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. Plague 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 of pleasure.” 

Word Choice, Figures of Speech

As 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). 

Possible Sources: Boccaccio, Shakespeare 

Poe 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 masterpiece, The Decameron, and borrowed elements from at least one Shakespeare play, The Tempest, and possibly another, As You Like It. In The 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. In The 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.” In As 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.)

Writing Inconsistencies 

.......Generally, 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:

The Shifting Point of View

.......At 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 I 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. 

    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 such as I have painted, it may well be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation.

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. 
.......Suppose, 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. 
.......A 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. 
.......Of 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.

Tense Shift

.......Another 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:

    There 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.
    .......But 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.
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. 


.......The 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 Character

.......Poe 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.

Biographical Information

Edgar 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.