The Masque of the Red Death Summary, Symbolism, and Analysis

Kevin Watson, Megan Pryor
  • Author
    Kevin Watson

    Kevin Watson has taught ESL, Spanish, French, Composition, and literature for over 33 years at universities in France, Spain, Taiwan, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Japan, and Ecuador. He has a bachelor’s in education and master’s in applied linguistics from the University of South Florida and a master’s in creative writing from the New School in New York City.

  • Instructor
    Megan Pryor

    Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.

''The Masque of the Red Death'' is written by Edgar Allen Poe. Dive deeper into his famous plague story with a summary and analysis of ''The Masque of the Red Death''. Updated: 08/03/2021

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Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Masque of the Red Death'

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" is a short story written in 1845. It is an allegory on multiple levels. "The Masque of the Red Death" is a gothic plague story set in a castle, similar to its predecessor, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, which is generally considered the first gothic novel. Part of gothic literature involves a creepy setting like a castle, often complete with dungeons, eerie staircases, attics, secret passages, and a sense of haunting.

Another possible influence to the story is history itself. In the mid-1300s, the Black Death killed over 20 million people, a third of the continent's population. A later plague struck in the 1660s and wiped out a quarter of London's population. Plagues in Medieval Europe were fairly common and would provide plenty of examples to influence Poe's story.

Like the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, Poe's writing falls into the category of Dark Romanticism. The Dark Romantics were a sub-genre of Romanticism, which was more a celebration of beauty, nature, and life. As the name implies, Dark Romanticism explore the grim and frightening nature of humanity and death. The Dark Romantics embodied evil in figures such as Satan, vampires, ghouls, ghosts, and devils. This was the far end of the spectrum from Romantics and Transcendentalists, who thought there was perfection in mankind.

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'The Masque of the Red Death' Summary

In "The Masque of the Red Death", a plague is sweeping the countryside. It kills quickly and in a grotesque manner. The victim develops red blotches and bleeds through the skin. Prince Prospero invites one thousand people to his abbey fortress to be the designated survivors as the plague ravages the kingdom. Those invited believe they have been spared this horrible death and have eluded the plague. The gates are sealed and no one can enter or leave.

After six months, Prince Prospero throws a masquerade ball and encourages his guests to dress as grotesquely as possible. During the evening, the orchestra stops for the great wall clock to sound the hour and then resumes. A tall figure arrives, more horrifying than the other guests, and everyone is terrified. The prince is enraged and rushes forward with a dagger, but the tall, gaunt figure turns and the prince falls dead to the floor. The guests seize the tall figure and find nothing beneath the mask and cape. In the end, everyone lies lifeless from the Red Death.

Red Death and the Clock

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'The Masque of the Red Death' Symbolism, Motifs, and Literary Devices

There are several examples of symbolism, motifs, and other literary devices in "The Masque of the Red Death".

'The Masque of the Red Death' Rooms

The seven colored rooms are thought to represent the seven stages of life. They begin in the east and head west like the sun toward the end of the day. The room colors and their meanings are as follows:

  • Blue (Birth)
  • Purple (Growth)
  • Green (Spring and youth)
  • Orange (Summer and autumn)
  • White (Old age)
  • Violet (Impending death)
  • Black (Death)

The black room has a red window, which casts an eerie light over its interior. Red can mean intensity as it is part of the color purple, which is blue and red together, or the early growth in life. But in the story, death by the plague comes with red splotches and blood on its victims.

The focus in the story is the masquerade ball, which takes place in seven adjacent rooms, each lit in a different color to symbolize the stages of life.

The last room is death. It has black velvet tapestries, but strangely, the window bears a scarlet color that casts a blood-red hue on the room. The end comes in this room, where the tall visitor, or the Red Death, infects Prospero and everyone there.

The Clock

The clock is an imposing symbol of time, passing and winding down to the end. In this story, it has a haunting effect on all present as each hour is noted by all and everything stops. It has a monotonous clang and is given its own sort of life with its "brazen lungs". When the clock struck, the musicians were "constrained to pause" and dancers all "ceased their evolutions". Ceasing evolution almost implies an hourly death. All were distressed by this, and the "giddiest grew pale". When it would finish, there followed "a light laughter" and the "musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly."

All seem to sense something disconcerting about this hourly reminder that time is passing.

The Castellated Abbey

The castellated abbey is described as a fortress with high, impenetrable walls. It symbolizes safety and protection, and in the context of a plague, a sort of inoculation against infection and death.

Dream Imagery

The entire feeling of the masquerade ball, the odd disposition of the rooms and their strange colors, the moments where the "writhing dancers" and "swelling music" and the "giddiness" and the whole dizzying scene stops for the ominous chime of the clock. And the guests are all costumed in grotesque masks caught up in a revelry, as if celebrating the epidemic and the disfigurement of its victims. The entire effect is that of a distorted nightmare.

Relation to Shakespeare

In Shakespeare's The Tempest, the character of Prospero is a magician who controls nature by creating a storm to bring his treasonous brother to him. In a similar way, Prince Prospero creates a safe place for his guest to weather the storm of the Red Death, thus believing he controls nature.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the disease in The Masque of the Red Death?

The disease is the Red Death, which causes the victim to have sharp pains and dizziness and then get red blotches and bleed through the pores.

What do the masqueraders symbolize?

The masqueraders represent the aristocracy because that's who they are. But they don't decide the theme of their costumes; Prospero tells them to be as grotesque as possible and they do. This seems a cavalier way of pretending they are the disfigured dying and the dead outside the abbey walls, all for amusement.

What is ironic about Prince Prospero's death?

It is ironic that Prince Prospero takes such comprehensive precautions to isolate himself and his guests from the Red Death and still, he dies.

What do the 7 rooms symbolize?

These seven rooms with their colors represent stages in life from birth represented by the color blue to death in black.

What does the mask symbolize in The Masque of the Red Death?

The mask can symbolize the grotesque victims of the Red Death outside the abbey walls. It also is worn by the plague itself, disguising itself to fit in with the revelers. This mask allows the disease to move freely among the masqueraders, undetected.

What is the main theme of The Masque of the Red Death?

The main theme of The Masque of the Red Death would be the inescapable nature of death. Even the seclusion of the abbey does not provide protection from the plague.

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