On Tuesday, we put together a brief plot summary of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, Edgar Allan Poe’s short but terrifying story about a prince who retreats to his castellated abbey with a thousand of his courtiers, to avoid the horrific and fast-acting plague known as the ‘Red Death’. You can read Poe’s story here. Now, it’s time for some words of analysis concerning this intriguing story which, like many of Poe’s best stories, seems to work on several levels.
First, there is the literary precedent for the basis of Poe’s story: the Italian writer Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century work The Decameron is about a group of noblemen and noblewomen who retreat to an abbey to flee the plague, or Black Death. All that’s changed in Poe’s basic setup is the colour of the plague, to the fictional ‘Red Death’. Interestingly, Poe originally titled the story ‘The Mask of the Red Death’, which places the emphasis on the masked figure who shows up at the end; in replacing ‘Mask’ with ‘Masque’, Poe shifts the focus onto the masquerade which Prospero stages for his courtiers. (A masque doesn’t have to involve wearing masks: it was a private ball popular in Italy for many centuries. Masks were optional.)
The fact that Prince Prospero and his wealthy entourage all believe they can avoid the Red Death – that they can, indeed, cheat death itself – is obviously naive hubris (although they were very far from being wealthy, it’s worth bearing in mind that when Poe wrote ‘The Mask of the Red Death’ in 1842, his wife Virginia had recently been diagnosed with tuberculosis – another then incurable disease involving blood, specifically when victims coughed up blood). Nobody, young or old, rich or poor, can escape the clutches of plague (or tuberculosis). And, indeed, nobody’s riches will prevent them from death – and this is clearly what the masked figure symbolises at the end of the story.
Prince Prospero, the only named character in the whole of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, has a name which immediately has two related meanings. ‘Prospero’ suggests prosperous and prosperity, reminding us that the character is a prince, wealthy, and able to shut himself away with a thousand of his closest friends to sit out the plague that’s ravaging the city. But the most famous Prospero in literature is the magician in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Is there an intertextual allusion going on here? Might Poe have intended to summon (as it were) Shakespeare’s island-dwelling mage?
We can almost certainly respond with a firm ‘yes’. For Poe’s Prince Prospero, like the exiled duke and magician of Shakespeare’s play, becomes insulated or ‘islanded’ in the abbey where he walls himself and his followers up: both Prosperos are thus set apart from the rest of the world, and both are noblemen who use their power to control those around them, to create their own world, in a sense. But the ironic twist in Poe’s tale is that it is ‘rough magic’, or at least some supernatural force, which destroys his Prince Prospero, in the form of the intangible masked visitor who breaches the walls of the abbey and kills everyone there.
So that explains the symbolism behind Prince Prospero’s name. What about the other details? The significance of the number seven to the tale – namely, those seven rooms that make up the imperial suite at the abbey – is that ‘seven’ suggests the Seven Ages of Man (summed up by Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It; and then summed up even more pithily by Robert Conquest in a limerick) through which every human passes.
But the thing about the Red Death is that it can strike people down before they’ve had a chance to experience all seven stages of their threescore years and ten, so there’s something unsatisfying about this analysis. Instead, perhaps the colour symbolism is where Poe wants us to place significance: the first room is blue, and then, we learn,
The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange – the fifth with white – the sixth with violet.
Although these colours don’t precisely correspond to the colours of the spectrum – the rainbow, if you will – the presence of violet, and the significance of the number seven, imply the idea of totality, of all colours being present. These colours are a reminder of the gaudiness of the Prince’s life: he has the money to be able to afford such rare colours as royal purple (and this cluster of rooms is called, remember, an imperial suite).
But it’s the presence of red in that seventh and final room which is the most significant detail:
The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue. But in this chamber only, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet – a deep blood color.
Black for death; red for the Red Death. And the black velvet of those tapestries adorning the walls – the walls of the room in which Prince Prospero and all of his friends will meet their doom – suggests the softness of death, the ease with which life slips away from those afflicted by the Red Death (death can occur in as little as half an hour, we’re told at the beginning of the story).
But all of this assumes that the events in the story really happened. Did they? Obviously on a literal level they didn’t, because Edgar Allan Poe made them up. But did Prince Prospero actually dream or hallucinate everything: the masquerade, the abbey with its coloured chambers, the ‘intangible’ visitant who kills everyone? Is it probable that a prince, even a ridiculously wealthy one, would really be able to hole himself up in one of his residences with a thousand companions? Perhaps.
But several details give us pause. First, we are told of Prince Prospero, ‘There are some who would have thought him mad.’ Second, there is the dreamlike aspect to everything in those colourful rooms:
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.
Poe was attracted to the idea of the palace as a symbol of the mind: he even wrote a poem, ‘The Haunted Palace’, which uses this very metaphor as a way of exploring his own troubled mind. Could the final surprise in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ be that the events which we are told never happened at all, except in the mind of the ‘mad’ Prince Prospero? Poe was a pioneer of the ambiguous supernatural tale, as ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘William Wilson’, and others testify. He often leaves a story open for doubt as to whether what we have been told is reliable, or whether the events of the story really were supernatural, or merely the product of a character’s unsound mind.
The story, then, is ambiguous: it invites both a supernatural and psychological interpretation. However, one final piece of evidence might be submitted in favour of a psychological analysis: Prospero’s name. If he does summon Shakespeare’s magician, he summons someone who is capable of dreaming up the world he inhabits, through magic. Does Prince Prospero dream up the abbey and its coloured rooms, through the power of his own troubled imagination? We’d be wise to remember Prospero’s own words from Shakespeare’s play:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
If you found this analysis of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ helpful, you might also enjoy our discussion of Poe’s classic story ‘The Cask of Amontillado’.