The Symbols Of Death In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque Of The Red Death”

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Edgar Allan Poe is infamous for his short tales of terror that have captured the imaginations of readers. His familiarity with the macabre and death has given his stories a distinct feel of darkness and sadness while reminding the reader of their own mortality. “The Masque of the Red Death”, like many of Poe’s other tales, was intended to carry a message to the reader. Poe wrote this tale of death and plague to reflect what was happening in society at a time when tuberculosis was ravaging the nation and to remind the elite that their money or status could hardly protect them from the “pestilence” and certainly could not protect them from death itself.

In Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” a plague (the Red Death) was ravaging the country and taking many victims to their ends. Prince Prospero was a very wealthy prince who decided that he was going to avoid the plague, so he gathered his knights and friends and walled them all up inside his palace before the plague could claim any of them. While the plague continued to rage on outside the walls, the Prince and his guests enjoyed a lavish masquerade party. The masquerade was held in seven rooms, each very different from one another and arranged so that one could only see one room at a time. The rooms were each shrouded in their own color; the last of the rooms was dark and black, and in it there was a clock that would ring each hour. The room was so dark that all of the partygoers avoided it, and the clock so ghastly that each time it rang the guests would be paralyzed as it echoed throughout the rooms. When the clock struck midnight and as it chimed out the hour, all the partygoers were again frozen, and this is when they all noticed a stranger among them. This infuriated Prince Prospero who chased the stranger to the black room and confronted the stranger, ultimately leading to Prospero’s death. When the guests ripped off the strangers cloak, there was nothing there. Thus, even in the walls of Prospero’s palace, death was among them.

A common theme throughout Poe’s works is mortality and death. Poe was obsessed with death and thought of it as “the ultimate deformity of life, the truly grotesque fact of our existence”. Prince Prospero, no matter how hard he tried, could not avoid death. He may have been wealthy and powerful, but death in the end comes for us all. Poe uses numerous symbols for death in this story to remind the readers that regardless of how much they fight it, they cannot avoid death. The first symbol of death in the story comes in the form of the seventh room which is “shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls” (Poe). The color black has long been associated with death, especially in regard to the Black Plague that claimed so many lived in Europe. The room is so haunting that none of the partygoers dare to go near it until Prince Prospero chases the intruder into the black room and promptly dies. The room symbolizes death as “the intense and utter raylessness of the night without end, of the Night that endureth for evermore, all void, and black, and silent” that we all are marching toward, but the intruder is in a way the grim reaper in the story, who comes to collect his bounty. The intruder is therefore another symbol for death, but this time it is death personified. Death personified in Poe’s story is dressed as a stranger among Prospero’s guests. Poe’s narrator describes the stranger’s costume and appearance as tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. His vesture was dabbled in blood – and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

The image of the stranger is the image of the plague that has been ravaging Prospero’s kingdom. The stranger reminds the guests of what they locked themselves away from and what they have been trying to forget about: the plague and death. Paul Haspel believes that death as character in the story was sent as a sort of punishment for the prince and the aristocrats because while people were dying they were “frolicking and making merry”; while people were dying they were having a ball with little thought to the suffering that was occurring outside the palace walls. Death came for them because of the neglectful choices they had made when it came to their fellow man. Death is an important aspect in the story; Poe felt the need to not only to use it as a symbol and reference it numerous times throughout the short tale, but he also felt the need to personify death, to give it a form, to have it interact directly with the characters in the story. Death isn’t the only unavoidable fact that Poe worked into his story. The unceasing march of time that it was leads each and every one of us towards our deaths is heavily symbolized throughout this horrifying tale.

The clock, while an inanimate object, serves as an important facet in the story. Haspel notes that “the clock has agency as a character, and commands the reader’s attention”. The clock symbolizes the everlasting march of time that we are all subjected to. While the aristocrats try to avoid it during the ball, they can’t help but be aware of it every time the clock chimes. This is similar to how many people don’t realize how much time has really passed until they look in a mirror and see how much they’ve aged with their reflection serving as a sort of wake up call similar to the ringing of the bell. The march of time and the progression of life is also symbolized by the way that the rooms are arranged in the hall that the ball is being held in. Poe’s narrator notes that you can’t see hardly more than a single room at a time, and May explains that “the seven rooms within the abbey seem to reflect the inescapable temporality of human experience” with each room ultimately symbolizing a stage of life leading towards the black room (and inevitably death). ” With the rooms symbolizing the stages of life, it makes sense for the layout to be in a way that wouldn’t allow the guests to see more than one, because we cannot truly see the different stages of life until we come upon them as we age.

The symbols in this story, as wells as Poe’s other stories, carry heavy importance. Often times, like with death and the march of time, Poe uses numerous symbols for the ideas he really wants to convey. While this gives his readings a grim and dark feeling, it reminds us that we are mortal and affected by the same things these characters are. Poe may have used the symbols in this story to send a message that he felt that society needed to hear, whether because they were ignorant or had decided to neglect them, but when we look at the story we can see what was happening at the time when Poe was writing this gruesome tale. In the story, Poe describes the plague as being particularly devastating by stating that “no pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. ” When he describes the symptoms, they bear similarity to many other diseases that have ravaged human society in the past. One description, though, stands out the most: the plague leaves “scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim”. This is strikingly similar to the infamous symptom of tuberculosis that causes its victims to cough up blood. At the time when “The Masque of the Red Death”, a cure for tuberculosis had not yet been found and it spread quickly and easily among the poor population of cities nationwide. Tuberculosis can be particularly deadly, and even today is “one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide”, with the highest percentage of deaths occurring in countries that don’t have easy access to the drugs for treatment or the vaccine to prevent tuberculosis in the first place. The symptoms of this deadly disease, along with coughing up blood, include “chest pains, weakness, weight loss, fever and night sweats”.

Poe was very familiar with tuberculosis not only because of how many people in society contracted it but also because this is the disease that claimed life of his first wife Virginia. Haspel states that in January of 1842, Virginia “suffered a sudden outbreak of bleeding from the mouth, a manifestation of the Tuberculosis that would claim her life five years later”, and relates another critics belief that “The Masque of the Red Death ‘must have been written in the anxious weeks following Virginia’s attack, when each day was passed through like one of the prince’s rooms in fear of her ending by another kind of red death’”. Since tuberculosis and plague hit so close to home for Poe, it makes sense that it would work is way into his writings. Poe loved his wife very much, so his description of the plague being particularly “hideous” and as grotesque as it was reflects the toll that Virginia’s sickness had on him. Prince Prospero and all of his friends at the party died, which could reflect how tuberculosis claimed those closest to Poe, making him feel as if, like in his story, tuberculosis would claim everyone.

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” was a story conveying the message that the march of time leading to our deaths was inevitable, and that no matter how hard we try we cannot avoid death, because it will come for us “like a thief in the night”. May describes how “Poe’s point is that it is the very presence of life that inevitably means death” which is why death cannot be avoided. For Poe, the reason Death needs to be included is not only because it can’t be avoided but also because “the evocation and experience of beauty, is heightened by discord” which is often caused by death and loss. If we were to live forever, we would never be able to appreciate art or beauty because we would always be able to see more; love would be meaningless because it would no longer be special, and life would just long with little joy to gain from achievements because time would no longer have meaning. Poe understood that while death is fear inducing and unavoidable, the end that it brings is what makes us able to appreciate life and love and beauty. As Poe has illustrated so many times in his works “Darkness and Decay . . . hold illimitable dominion over all. ”


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