The Human Delusion: A Close Reading of The Masque of the Red Death
To understand the horror Prince Prospero experienced in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death one must first look to better understand the tense relationship between life and death. Through his gory details and intricate symbolism, Poe delves into the dark recesses of our mind to pull out common fears concerning our ultimate fate and forces the startling realization that death is absolute. Practically every aspect on both the surface and meta-level of Poe’s short story reinforces the finality of death.
Delving into the short story, the reader is immediately faced with striking images concerning the dichotomy between the outside world, ravished and plagued by the Red Death, and the inside world, a lustrous, safe Ivory tower of avarice Prince Prospero has retreated into. The plague, being described as having “profuse bleeding at the pores” (Poe, 1) and causing “seizure, progress and termination” (Poe, 1) within just half an hour of contraction, clearly causes some disconcert within the reader, but why? In The Lure of Horror Christian Jarrett seeks to understand the psychology of what frightens us by categorizing it into fear of contamination, fear of predation, and finally the fear of loss of self. So, by using gruesome imagery, Poe plays to the reader’s evolutionary fear of disease and infection in order to show the lengths that one, specifically Prince Prospero, might go to avoid it. Poe goes so far as to outright state that “All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death” (Poe, 2). This, of course, ends up being a futile attempt, but by initially establishing the court as this impenetrable fortress immune from the outside forces of death and disease, the downfall, and its meaning, becomes that much more impactful. Not even Prince Prospero, entirely representative of wealth and power, as evidenced by his name being phonetically similar to “prosperous,” eventually subsides to the overwhelming power of death, suggesting that no one may escape its grasp.
Not only has the outside world been eclipsed in the shadow of death, but Poe has intertwined images of death within the court as well, the clock being chief among them. In reality would any person actually have a solemn moment each time a clock chimes? Even if the sound was particularly ominous, it is far more likely that Poe was rather using the clock as an instrument to further develop his message that death is absolute. The clock serves as an reminder to the partygoers of their own mortality and there is “a brief disconcert of the whole gay company” (Poe, 5), nevertheless, they immediately relapse into a lulled sense of comfort and make “whispering vows… that the next chiming of the clock should produce no great emotion” (Poe, 5). Despite their best wishes the clock will indeed march forward, unconditionally, with a finite amount of time existing before it eventually strikes twelve, signaling the end of both the night and lives of the partygoers. Each tone in between serves only as an uncomfortable moment of recognition that their time is indeed limited and coming soon; yet that lesson is easily forgotten and the court guffaws at the idea of taking it seriously. Roy has a similar recognition in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner during his famous C-Beams speech in which he reveals “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain” (Scott, “Blade Runner”). This is especially significant because in understanding our insignificance— that our unique experiences and entire being will ultimately end up lost in the vast swaths of time, Roy does what the partygoers fear and demonstrates his humanness in understanding of one of the greatest existential and human challenges there is.
So finally, at the strike of twelve and appearance of the Red Death, “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” (Poe, 14) With this, Poe reiterates the motif of the story one last time: our futures all ultimately lead towards death. People live their lives like the guests, through petty distractions and baubles in order to avoid embracing this inconvenient truth and coming to terms with what it means to live authentically, i.e. in the shadow of death. As Patrica Wheat observed when studying The Masque of the Red Death in her essay The Mask of Indifference, “avoidance of death can only be temporary, as transitory as the parts of a play. The courtiers become not only guests at a masquerade, but also literal masquers, players in death’s court.” (Patrica, “The mask…”) Wheat’s comments are especially pertinent here, because it portrays the courtiers not as people, independent and safe within the confines of the palace, but as property, entertainment, and amusement belonging to death.
The Masque of the Red Death is Edgar Allen Poe’s 1842 short story written as an allegory to show death’s absolute supremacy over humans, which is a somewhat uneasy thought. However, Poe impresses upon the reader that ignoring death doesn’t change the fact that it will eventually seize us in its cold embrace. He points out our perception has no bearing on death’s rule and to try to cheat is to stick one’s head in the sand and ignore all evidence suggesting the futility of such an attempt.