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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Rooms
The colors of the seven rooms are just too juicy a detail not to mean something, aren't
they? The black and blood red room seems so obviously to represent death, shouldn't
the other rooms mean something too? A lot of commentators have thought that, and
there is something of a general agreement among many of them about the meaning of
the rooms.

Supposedly, the suite is an allegory of human life. Each room, in other words,
corresponds to a different "stage" of human life, which its color suggests. The first clue
that the suite is allegorical is that the rooms are arranged from east to west. East is
usually the direction associated with "beginnings," and birth, because the sun rises in
the east; west (the direction of the sunset) is associated with endings, and death.

According to this reading, the blue room, which is furthest to the east, represents birth.
The color suggests the "unknown" from which a human being comes into the world. The
next room is purple, a combination of blue (birth) and red (associated with life, intensity)
suggests the beginnings of growth. Green, the next color, suggests the "spring" of life
(youth), orange the summer and autumn of life. White, the next color, suggests age –
think white hair, and bones. Violet (a combination of purple and blue, or purple and
grey) is a shadowy color, and represents darkness and death. And black, obviously, is
death. Pretty nifty, huh?

Also, notice how there's no red room? Why's that? You might think of red as a better
color than orange for summer/autumn, or as a better color than purple for growth. But
our guess is that Poe wanted to save the color red in this story especially for its
association with blood, fear, and death. That means it's always goes with black, just like
the Red Death and the darkness go together at the end of the story, and red and black
go together in the seventh room. If there were a red room, it would confuse the color
system and obscure the meaning of "red."

Now another interesting thing about the allegorical reading of the rooms is that it gives
an added meaning to other bits of the story. The fact that the revelers don't go into the
black room indicates their fear of death (although you don't need to give a meaning to
each room to figure that one out). But besides that, remember that the Red Death walks
from the blue room to the black room – it walks the course of life, leading from birth to
death. Prospero follows that course when he chases it: he runs from the blue room to
the black room, where he dies. His followers also rush into the black room to unmask
the Red Death, and also die. So the course the characters walk in the story is both
literally and metaphorically the course from life to death.
The clock
The big, black, creep clock is located in the black room, so it's not that hard to guess that it's
meant to be a symbol of death. More precisely, it's a symbol of the passing of "the Time that
flies" (5), and the inevitability of death. Its eerie chiming on the hour is a regular reminder to the
revelers that their lives are drifting away with the time, and that death is approaching. Of course,
the effect is enhanced even more by that way the clock has of stopping all the dancing and
music – in short, all the life – of the party, and making everyone laugh nervously.

The castellated abbey

The abbey is a place of confinement. It's cut off and secluded (hidden away where no one can
find it). Beyond that, its doors are welded shut from the inside. Which means everyone's
trapped: no one can get in or out. The sense of confinement (a staple of Gothic lit) is crucial to
giving the story its "threatening" atmosphere.

Does it mean anything that the place of confinement is a "castellated abbey"? Well, big, dark,
gloomy castles are classic settings for Gothic fiction, so there's nothing terribly new there. But
you might also think of the abbey as a symbol of worldly power, standing above the peasants
who we learn at the beginning are being ravaged by the Red Death. As a castle and an abbey, it
could represent both the state and the church. And you might think that makes its fall to the Red
Death suggestive of some sort of apocalypse. (There's more on that below.)

The Red Death

he Red Death is, well…death. Granted, it's a spectacularly gruesome form of death, probably
calculated by Poe for maximum freak-out appeal. Think of it: having contortions and bleeding
from all of your pores (particularly your face) until you die? Though as an image, there's
something strangely stylish about it. After all, it's not as if the victims are drenched in blood.
Judging from the Red Death's appearance, it's more delicate than that: the victims are sprinkled
all over with it, almost "decorated" by it. It's grotesque (gross) and aesthetic (almost beautiful) at
the same time – like the story itself.

But as far as symbolizing something goes, the Red Death is just a slightly revamped image of
plain old Death. The story shows how it can't be escaped, and how Prospero's attempt to
escape it is doomed.

Now why did Poe choose red as a color to be associated with death, rather than just the more
obvious black? If he'd chosen black, he could have just gone with the "black death," (i.e., the
bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th and 17th centuries – see more below) instead
of having to invent his own plague. Our suspicion is that it's because red's a brighter and more
dramatic color than black, and tends to increase black's own "freak out" effect when the two are
put together (as in the red and black room). The story is bright and dramatic – with its colored
rooms and its wild, whirling, costumed revelers. The effect of the imagery is almost dizzying.
The red-black combo is really loud – it screams at you – so it fits well into that crazy aesthetic,
which Poe might be using for a couple of different purposes (see below).
You might also wonder whether Poe based the Red Death on any real disease. Scholars have
pursued that question. In general, they're interested in figuring out Poe's sources of inspiration
for this story, and it certainly seems as if Poe's conception of the story was helped along by
accounts of the Bubonic plague, also known as the "black death." Just like Poe's Red Death, it
devastated the countryside of Medieval Europe beginning in the 14th century, and occasionally
caused people to shut themselves up for protection from the contaminated. But the symptoms of
the diseases bear little relation to each other, besides the fact that they're both fatal. For all we
know, the Red Death is entirely fictional, conjured up by Poe, as we said, just for spine-tingling
effect.

Dream imagery/The masquerade

Doesn't "The Masque of the Red Death" feel as if it's one weird, scary dream? Nowhere is that
feeling stronger than with the masquerade ball itself. Everything's just a little too wild, a little too
intense, a little too frenzied, and a little too "grotesque" to be real. There are the blaring, over-
the-top colors of the suite and the off-kilter alignment of the rooms. There are also the
masqueraders themselves, dressed up in all kinds of bizarre costumes, forming a truly mad
collage of images. Poe explicitly uses dream language when he describes them:

There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious
fancies such as the madman fashions. There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton,
much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited
disgust. 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. (7)

All of this seems too fantastic to be real. It's like the product of a twisted imagination, or a very
strange dream. Poe's description of the "writhing" dancers (a word he uses several times), or of
the "swelling" music (7), or the "giddiness" (5) suggests a frenzied, dizzying scene. It's chaotic,
uncontrolled, and all mixed-up. It's like the whole world is whirling around, as tends to happen in
a bad dream.

What's more, in this world, everything – the rooms' colors, the clock, the ball itself – seems to
mean something. This descriptive language is hypermeaningful (overly meaningful), or
"oppressively meaningful," you might say. Real life isn't: it's filled with lots of things that,
thankfully, don't mean anything. That kind of hypermeaningfulness is much more like something
you'd find in a dream…or in the mind of a madman (who thinks everything has to have some
meaning, often a threatening one).

Poe also does a couple of things to cut the whole world of the story off from reality, which we
discuss in setting.
Shakespeare

You might notice that Prince Prospero shares his name with the main character of
Shakespeare's The Tempest. In fact, that's only the beginning of the interesting ties between
Poe's short story and Shakespeare's late play.

One nifty connection, which some scholars have taken to be really important, is the mention of a
"red plague" in The Tempest. The "red plague" shows up in a curse uttered by
the Caliban character (who's kind of a bad guy) early in the play:

You taught me language, and my profit on't


Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!
(The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2, lines 437-439)

Now is there any more to this connection than the similarity of "Red Death" and "red plague"?
We can't find one, at least not without getting speculative. But it wouldn't be too much of a
stretch to suspect the phrase gave Poe an idea, since there are other connections to The
Tempest in the story as well.

Most of the other connections are best explored by looking at the similarities between the
Prosperos in the two works. To hear more about that, check out our character analysis of Prince
Prospero. You might also want to check out the great article "Art and Nature in 'The Masque of
the Red Death,'" by Kermit Vanderbilt.

Apocalyptic imagery

Does that line about the Red Death coming "like a thief in the night" sound familiar? If it
does, that's because it's a really famous line from the Bible. It's from Paul's First Letter
to the Thessalonians 5:4, in which Paul is referring to the last judgment. According to
him, Jesus will come when the world is least expecting it ("like a thief in the night"), to
judge sinners for all of eternity. If you're caught unprepared, you're in trouble. So it's
better to always be expecting the judgment, and focused not on the "pleasures of this
world" (which have a tendency to be sinful) but on the promise of the next. Otherwise,
you're a fool.

Poe takes Paul's phrase about Jesus and applies it to the Red Death. In doing so, it
might look as if he makes the Red Death into an "apocalyptic" figure – a figure who
symbolizes the end of the world. Like the "sinners," Prince Prospero and his friends
foolishly ignore the inevitable end of "life's pleasures" that lies at the end of the road,
and like them, they pay the price for it. The "pleasures of this world" don't fare too well in
"The Masque of the Red Death." But what's different is that, instead of judging sinners
like Jesus is supposed to, the Red Death just kills everybody. The inevitable end Poe
envisions in his story isn't one of judgment and eternal salvation or suffering. It's
summed up in that last line: "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held
illimitable dominion over all" (14).
If you find this line of thought about the story interesting, it can be deepened by
exploring the ways in which the masquerade at the heart of Poe's story might be a
symbol for "the world." In apocalyptic literature, "the world" is usually a bad word: it
refers to the base, evil, and profane kind of life we live "down here," as opposed to the
higher life with God. The world just before the judgment (which is supposed to be the
moment when the world is at its very worst) is often depicted as topsy-turvy, chaotic,
violent, frenzied, grotesque, and thoroughly absorbed in decadent sin. Does this remind
you of anything?

THE MASQUE OF THE RED


DEATH THEME OF MORTALITY
 BACK

 NEXT

How could an Edgar Allan Poe story called "The Masque of the Red Death" not be
about death? Death is everywhere in this story, from the opening description of the "Red
Death" plague to the closing line about death's "dominion." Images and symbols of
death practically drip from its pages, reminding the characters, and the reader, of
death's inevitability. The characters in the story all try to ignore and escape death,
preferring to stay focused on living life to its fullest. But mortality can't be avoided, as
they are reminded when Death literally crashes their party.

Questions About Mortality


1. What symbols or images of death can you find in the story?
2. What is the connection between Death and Time in "The Masque of the Red
Death"?
3. Is death presented as a force of evil in "The Masque of the Red Death?" Or is it a
neutral force?
4. Why do you think Prince Prospero chooses to design a room so suggestive of
death, since this is just what he and his followers are trying to avoid?

Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
Death in "The Masque of the Red Death" is not an evil force but a natural one.

Prince Prospero does not ignore death; he wants to be the master of it.

THE MASQUE OF THE RED


DEATH THEME OF VERSIONS
OF REALITY
 BACK

 NEXT

In the "The Masque of the Red Death," Edgar Allan Poe immerses us in an atmosphere
that feels more dreamlike than real. This is in no small part because, as the story
progresses, we get drawn ever more completely into a world imagined by Prince
Prospero, the designer of the castle where the story takes place. Prospero is an
eccentric artist figure – he may actually be mad – and everything in the masquerade ball
he throws bears the mark of his weird but ingenious artistry. From the seven elaborately
colored rooms in which the ball is held, to the whirling, writhing, costumed
masqueraders, everything feels fantastic and imagined, like a dream or a work of art
spun out of control. Just like in a dream or an artwork too, here, everything seems to
mean something. In this world, it's almost impossible it to draw the line between what's
real and what's a product of Prospero's half-mad mind. And there's a curious overlap
between the imagination of Prospero and the imagination of Poe himself.

Questions About Versions of Reality


1. Is Prince Prospero actually mad?
2. Why might Prince Prospero be called an artist figure? Is he one? What evidence
do you see in the text?
3. Does "The Masque of the Red Death" feel surreal to you? Why? If so, how does
Poe achieve this effect?
4. Why do you think Poe uses such explicit dream imagery to describe the
masquerade?

Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
The masquerade is meant to suggest that life itself is dreamlike.

The masquerade ball is actually Prospero's own dream

THE MASQUE OF THE RED


DEATH THEME OF FEAR
 BACK

 NEXT

Poe's main aim in "The Masque of the Red Death" is to create a growing sense of fear
and dread in his reader, starting in the opening sentence and building straight through
to the story's dark climax. There's nothing in the world Poe creates which lets the reader
feel at home, no source of comfort or stability. The reader's fear is also mirrored in the
fear felt by the masqueraders in the story towards their own death and anything that
reminds them of it. Over the course of the story, their fear builds in a clearly traceable
manner, from a nervous unease to an "unutterable horror" at the climax.

Questions About Fear


1. What techniques does Poe use to build fear in the reader?
2. Is fear the main force that drives Prospero and his friends to retreat to Prospero's
castellated abbey? Or is it something else?
3. How does the fear of the masqueraders develop through the story? Can you
point to specific moments in the text?
4. Is anything besides death an object of fear in the story? What might be?

Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
Prospero's revelers do not experience any genuine fear until the Red Death actually
appears at the ball.
THE MASQUE OF THE RED
DEATH THEME OF
FOOLISHNESS AND FOLLY
 BACK

 NEXT

Prince Prospero, the main character in "The Masque of the Red Death," lives mainly for
pleasure, as do his friends. Better not to think, and not to grieve, they believe – just
enjoy life and keep on laughing. They refuse to give death the time of day, and so when
a plague strikes the kingdom, they retreat to a pleasure palace to keep on partying, with
buffoons and alcohol galore. Poe structures his frightening tale around a contrast
between the looming presence of death and the happy-go-lucky folly of Prospero's
court, who foolishly believe they can ignore it.

Questions About Foolishness and Folly


1. What indications are there in the text that Prince Prospero and his friends are
foolish? Or are there any? What does it mean to be foolish in the context of the
story?
2. In what respects does Prince Prospero not seem foolish?
3. Ultimately, do you think Prospero and his friends are foolish? Or do they have the
right attitude to their situation? Why?