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Literature / The Masque of the Red Death

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And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. note 

The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood. 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 of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.
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"The Masque of the Red Death" is one of Edgar Allan Poe's most famous short stories, first appearing in Graham's Magazine in May 1842 as "The Mask of the Red Death". Poe rewrote and revised the tale before publication in Broadway Journal in July 1845 with its now-familiar title.

Prince Prospero's home country isn't doing too well. A horrible plague called The Red Death is ravaging the countryside. The symptoms most notably include massive bleeding from the pores, especially the face, followed by death within an hour.

Not wanting to be troubled by the dying peasants, Prospero takes himself and several hundred of his closest friends and sequesters everyone inside one of his secluded abbeys. Well stocked and with lots of entertainment, they plan to ride out the plague.

One night, Prospero decides to hold a masquerade ball in a procession of differently colored rooms. The final room is black and has a large clock in it. Just at midnight, the guests notice a strange figure among them, costumed like a corpse who has died of the Red Death. Outraged at this show of poor taste, Prospero chases the figure into the final room — and promptly drops dead. The frightened and angry revelers strip off the figure's costume to find nothing underneath it at all...except the Red Death, now in their very midst. Then they all die. The clock stops, the lights go out, and "Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."


On the surface it appears to be a relatively simple, straightforward story compared to the heavy likes of The Fall of the House of Usher and "The Pit and the Pendulum". However, close reading of the text reveals a story chock-full of symbolism and thoughts on the nature of death and life.

Sounds like a regular trip down Poe avenue, no?

And darkness and decay and the Red Tropes held illimitable dominion over all.

  • Allegory: Some scholars read the tale as one of these for the progression of life, with each successive colored room representing another stage (fittingly, Prospero dies in the final room, which is draped in black). On the other hand, Poe was noted for his disdain of over-analysis, so others advise just taking it as a straightforward horror story. It's worth noting when Masque was first published in 1842 it carried the subtitle "A Fantasy", which seems to indicate Poe didn't want anyone digging too deep into the meaning of the story.
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  • Anthropomorphic Personification: The figure in the Red Death costume turns out to be the Red Death itself!
  • Asshole Victim: Prospero and his cronies certainly aren't good people; their response to overwhelming human suffering is to hide themselves away and seal the doors so that the sight of death won't disturb their happiness.
  • Blood from Every Orifice: The most notable symptom of the Red Death is profuse bleeding from the pores, especially the face.
  • Bloody Horror: The calling card of the Red Death. We are reminded of this in one of the story's final lines:
    And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Prospero's first instinct, upon seeing the figure dressed as a victim of the Red Death, is to hang it for reminding them of the plague going on outside.
  • Downer Ending: The Red Death successfully infiltrates the abbey and kills everyone inside it. The last lines of the story are particularly chilling:
    And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
  • Dying for Symbolism: Prospero and the revelers' deaths convey the message that no one, no matter how rich and well connected, is proof against death, nor can walls keep out a disease.
  • Eldritch Location: Prospero's abbey is played up to be this, what with its maze-like design and the highly stylized rooms complete with gothic windows and overwhelming color palettes.
  • Hell Is That Noise: The clock in the black room, to the revelers. When it chimes the hour, the sound is so disconcerting that everyone stops what they're doing to listen.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Once the Red Death is revealed, no one can escape the abbey because they have welded the doors shut.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The figure in the Red Cloak is revealed to be the Anthropomorphic Personification of the Red Death itself, before it disperses and kills everyone present.
  • Idiot Ball: You'd think Prospero would be more concerned about the strange figure who appeared out of nowhere during the party rather than what he was wearing.
  • Masquerade Ball: The events of the story takes place during one of these.
  • New Season, New Name: When the first edition of the story was published in 1842, it carried the title "The Mask of the Red Death". When the revised final edition was published in 1845, the title was changed to the now-familiar "The Masque of the Red Death", taking emphasis away from the cloaked figure and onto the masquerade ball itself, probably to let readers know Prospero and his friends are supposed to be the evil ones here.
  • No Face Under the Mask: When the revelers finally rip off the figure's mask, there's nothing underneath except the disease.
  • Plaguemaster: Played With. The figure in the Red Death costume appears to just be a form the disease took on to spread itself into the abbey; it dissolves once it's done its job.
  • Tick Tock Terror: The seventh room features a looming and ominous black clock whose tone is so peculiar and intimidating that each time it chimes, everyone pauses and feels uncomfortable. When the clock strikes midnight, the Red Death arrives. It even stops ticking when the very last person succumbs to the disease, as if it was inextricably linked to the tragedy.
  • While Rome Burns: Prospero and his buddies try to party and have a good time while the Red Death savages the rest of the country. The narrative even makes clear that they feel proof against the disease; they just don't want to watch the peasants dying.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: The association of the Red Death with Time and Darkness — try as they might, Prospero and his guests can't keep a (malevolent) force of nature out of their festivities.
  • Your Costume Needs Work: The guests at the ball are all shocked by the tastelessness of someone dressing as a corpse who died of the disease they're all trying to ignore. Then someone rips the mask off and finds there's nothing underneath...

Alternative Title(s): Masque Of The Red Death


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