By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Among Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous tales, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is one of the shortest. In just a few pages, Poe paints a powerful picture of a luxurious masked ball, which is then interrupted and ultimately destroyed by the presence of a mysterious figure. You can read ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ here before proceeding to our summary of the story below.
In summary, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is about a mysterious disease or plague which kills the sufferer within half an hour, causing pain, sudden dizziness, and profuse bleeding. To avoid this terrible pestilence, a wealthy noble named Prince Prospero retreats with his retinue of a thousand of his friends and hangers-on to one of his abbeys, where they promptly set about enjoying themselves with parties, revels, and other entertainments:
The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death.’
The rest of the world is of no concern to the Prince and his courtiers, who live at the abbey among luxuriance and plenty.
After they have been at the abbey for around six months, the Prince holds a masquerade for him and his friends, which takes place across seven rooms, ‘an imperial suite’:
In many palaces, however, such suites form a long and straight vista, while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either hand, so that the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded. Here the case was very different; as might have been expected from the duke’s love of the bizarre. The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose color varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity was hung, for example, in blue – and vividly blue were its windows. 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. 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.
During the course of this masquerade – which, of course, provides ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ with its title, at least on one level – a visitor appears at the abbey, a masked figure who arrives among the guests upon the stroke of midnight:
The figure was 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. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood – and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.
The Prince accuses one of his courtiers of mocking him by dressing up in such a fashion; but when the Prince draws his dagger and pursues the figure through the various chambers of the imperial suite, to the velvet chamber, the figure turns to confront him. With a sharp cry, the Prince falls dead to the sable (i.e. black) carpet of the room. When the courtiers try to grab hold of this masked figure which has apparently killed their prince, they find that the figure doesn’t appear to have any tangible form: it’s as though he’s a ghost. Every one of the thousand courtiers then succumbs to the plague of the Red Death and dies.
So much for a summary of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. We’ve put together some words of analysis here about this horrific little story.
I loved Poe’s short stories when I was a kid.
We cover this one with sophomores. It definitely gets their attention.
It’s such a strange story, even by Poe’s standards. There’s so much rich symbolism in it!