Summary of the story
“The Red Death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous… There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face…shut out [its victim] from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow men….[T]he whole seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.”
When Prince Prospero’s “…dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and lighthearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys….A strong and lofty wall girdled it. This wall had gates of iron.” The Prince had the bolts of the gates welded which left neither means “of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within.”
“The abby was amply provisioned….The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure….buffoons,…improvisatori,…ballet dancers,…musicians,…Beauty,…wine. All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death.’ ”
“It was toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion,…that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence….[I]t was his own guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders. Be sure they were grotesque….There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments….madman fashions…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.”
The masque was held in an imperial suite consisting of seven rooms. “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…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….The fourth…orange…the fifth…white…the sixth…violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls,…[with] 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 were scarlet–a deep blood color.”
“There was no light of any kind …within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors…opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire…projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room….But in the…black chamber…so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered [was produced], that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.”
It was within this same apartment that there stood a gigantic ebony clock whose pendulum swang “to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang.” All who were present froze, and all activities ceased with the sounding of each hour by the clock. Musicians paused; waltzers stopped their dance; and the giddy grew pale. “But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly….”
The first six apartments were densely crowded unlike the seventh. The festivities continued “until at length there commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock. And then the music ceased…and the evolutions of the waltzers were quieted; and there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before….[As] the last echoes of the last chime…sunk into silence, there were many individuals in the crowd who had…become aware of the presence of a masked figure [that no one had detected before]….[T]here arose at length from the whole company…[an expression] of disapprobation and surprise-then finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust….[T]he mummer had gone so far as to assume the type [and appearance] of the Red Death.
“When the eyes of Prince Prospero fell upon this spectral image…he was seen to be convulsed, in the first moment with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage. ‘Who dares?…Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him–that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!’ [T]here were found none who put forth hand to seize him; so that unimpeded, [the figure] passed within a yard of the prince’s person…[and] made his way uninterruptedly, but with the same solemn and measured step…through [the first six chambers].” Prince Prospero with drawn dagger and maddened with rage rushed after the intruder. At last they entered the seventh and final chamber. The Prince had approached within three or four feet of the figure when the mummer suddenly turned and confronted him. “There was a sharp cry-and the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero….[Then] a throng of the revelers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and seizing the mummer…gasped in unutterrable horror at finding the grave cerements and corpselike mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness untenanted by any tangible form.”
“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night.” One by one the revelers died; and when the last one had died, “the life of the ebony clock went out….And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
The story covers a period of approximately six months during the reign of the Red Death. The action takes place in ” [the] deep seclusion of one of [Prince Prospero's] castellated abbeys.” The “masque” takes place in the imperial suite which consisted of seven, very distinct rooms. (See Style for a more indepth discussion of the significance of the setting to this particular story.)
This story has no characters in the usual sense which lends credibility to an allegorical interpretation. Only Prince Prospero speaks. His name suggests happiness and good fortune; however, ironically this is not the case. Within the Prince’s abbey, he has created a world of his imagination with masked figures that reflect “his own guiding taste.” These dancers are so much a product of the Prince’s imagination that Poe refers to them as “a multitude of dreams.” Even when the “Red Death” enters, the author refers to this character as a “figure” or a “mummer” who “was tall and guant, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask…was made…to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse….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.” When the mummer is seized toward the end of the story, all “gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave cerements and corpselike mask…untenanted by any tangible form.”
Point of View
Poe expressed his dislike for allegory – “a tale in prose or verse in which characters, actions or settings represent abstract ideas or moral qualities.” Poe argued that allegory was an inferior literary form because it is designed to evoke interest in both the narrative and the abstract ideas for which the narrative stands, which distracts the reader from the singleness of effect that Poe most valued in literature. “Under the best circumstances, it must always interfere with that unity of effect which, to the artist, is worth all the allegory in the world.” Yet Poe himself openly used allegory, as in “The Haunted Palace” verses which he inserted into his story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” as well as in “The Masque of the Red Death.” (See Style for allegorical interpretation.)
Style and Interpretation
Poe’s story takes place in seven connected but carefully separated rooms. This reminds the reader of the past significance of the number seven. (The history of the world was thought to consist of seven ages, just as an individual’s life had seven stages. The ancient world had seven wonders; universities divided learning into seven subjects; there were seven deadly sins with seven corresponding cardinal virtues, and the number seven is important in mysticism.) Therefore, an allegorical reading of this story suggests that the seven rooms represent the seven stages of one’s life, from birth to death, through which the prince pursues a figure masked as a victim of the Red Death, only to die himself in the final chamber of eternal night. The prince’s name suggests happiness and good fortune, and the prince, just like all beings uses happiness to wall out the threat of death. Prince Prospero’s masked ball or dance reminds us of the “dance of death” portrayed in old paintings as a skeleton leading a throng of people to the grave, just as the prince leads his guests to the Red Death.
The significance of time in this story is seen in the symbol of the “gigantic clock of ebony” which is draped in black velvet and located in the final room. Although the clock is an object, it quickly takes on human aspects as the author describes it as having a face and lungs from which comes a sound that is “exceedingly musical” but “so peculiar” that the “dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand,” in a momentary rigor mortis that anticipates the final one.
The relationship between the Red Death and time is a key to understanding the symbolic meaning of the story. The seven rooms are laid out from east to west, reminding us of the course of the sun which measures our earthly time. These rooms are lighted from without, and it is only in the seventh room where the color of the windows does not correspond with the color of the room, but instead is “a deep blood color” through which light illuminates the westernmost chamber of black, with an ebony clock on its western wall. In creating this room, Poe links the colors red and black with death and time.
“[S]carlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim” indicate the presence of the Red Death. Blood, the very substance of life, becomes the mark of death as it bursts through the pores. Death, then, is not an outside antagonist, to be feared and walled out as Prince Prospero attempts to do; but instead it is a part of each of us. Its presence is felt in our imaginations as we become aware of the control that time has over our lives. We hear the echoes of the “ebony clocks” that we carry within. Prince Prospero tries to escape death by walling it out, and by so doing, creates a prison out of his sanctuary. However, the Prince learns that no one can escape death. Death holds “illimitable dominion over all.”
No one escapes death. Human happiness (as represented by Prince Prospero) seeks to wall out the threat of death; however, the Biblical reference (I Thessalonians 5:2-3) at the end of the story reminds us that death comes “like a thief in the night,” and even those who seek “peace and safety…shall not escape.”