Symbolism in "The Masque of the Red Death"
The Masque of the Red Death is a short story written by acclaimed literary author, Edgar Allen Poe. The story is an emphasis on the fact that there is no avoiding death, no matter how hard you try, which is the overall theme. The text tells the story of Prince Prospero whose town is being plagued by the dreaded Red Death. He attempts to avoid the plague by inviting 1,000 of his closest friends, all of which are variably different, to isolate themselves in his palace. Throughout the story, Poe frequently uses symbolism to depict the theme of the Red Death.
Poe was a master of the English language and even laid hints to the overall theme of the story with simple symbolic phrases. At one point he describes the rooms as densely packed and "in them beat feverishly the heart of life." He set the mood by describing the party as fruitful only to foreshadow the events to occur after midnight. Of course, this has no real ramifications on the story, but it sets the tone for what Poe intends to accomplish by writing this story.
The literal symbolism in the story is quite prevalent as well. The most significant piece of the story itself is of course the rooms in which the masquerade ball was held. Poe describes seven beautifully decorated suites each for the guests to mingle and socialize in. The rooms are all different and "irregularly disposed" with "sharp turns at every twenty or thirty yards". As Joseph Roppolo would describe, the room's colors each represented a stage of life starting with blue and ending with black decorations and "deep blood color[ed]" window panes. The blue is seen as the beginning of life, moving to purple or the development of life, green being the nutrition of life, the orange being the sun setting on life, white for the preparation for the afterlife, most likely heaven, violet being the beginning of death and of course scarlet for death. All the guests are present in each room, except for the seventh and final room. It can be assumed that the revelers do not wish to be in this room for fear of death, in which the colors are representative of. Each room plays an important and symbolic aspect during the climax of the story, in which Prospero chases the Red Death through each room as if chasing death through each facet of life. Ironically, he runs towards his inevitable death instead of away from it. This was clearly Poe's intention as he wants to reflect the princes desire to run away from death but ends up running directly into it. Still, the interpretation of the color format has been debated by scholars for years, and as Eric H. du Plessis put it "the disharmonious color scheme participates effectively with other jarring elements in challenging the reader's artistic assumptions." Poe intended for the rooms' symbolism to be interpreted into what the reader assumes it to be.
The color system was not the only symbolism present in "The Masque of the Red Death". A crucial piece of symbolism was the ebony clock. Throughout the story, Poe makes reference to the clock striking the hour and created a "brief disconcert of the whole gay company." The clock is symbolic of the time we have in life. Poe presented the audience with a glimpse into the fear the masqueraders felt whenever the clock struck. This is even analyzed critically in an essay written by Hubert Zapf the clock of ebony which "symbolizes the structure of temporality underlying and terminating all human activities." The dancers stopped, the orchestra paused, and an eerie silence fell over the guests. It was as if the party attendees knew that death was on the horizon and were waiting and for their own demise. Poe wanted the characters that were running away from death to realize it was coming.
Edgar Allen Poe also makes it a point to create the main character with power. He is a powerful prince that locks away him and his friends in a monstrous castle that no one can enter or leave. This castle...
Cited: Cassuto, Leonard. "The Coy Reaper: Unmasque-ing the Red Death." Studies in Short Fiction 25.3 (Summer 1988): 317-320. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Rachelle Mucha and Thomas J. Schoenberg. Vol. 88. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 21 Mar. 2010.
Cheney, Patrick. "Poe 's Use of The Tempest and the Bible in 'The Masque of the Red Death. '." English Language Notes 20.3-4 (Mar.-June 1983): 31-39. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Rachelle Mucha and Thomas J. Schoenberg. Vol. 88. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 21 Mar. 2010.
du Plessis, Eric H. "Deliberate Chaos: Poe 's Use of Colors in 'The Masque of the Red Death." Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism 34.1-2 (June-Dec. 2001): 40-42. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Rachelle Mucha and Thomas J. Schoenberg.Vol. 88. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 21 Mar. 2010
Roppolo, Joseph P. "Meaning and 'The Masque of the Red Death '" _Tulane Studies in English_ 13 (1963): 65.
Zapf, Hubert. "Entropic Imagination in Poe 's 'The Masque of the Red Death. '." College Literature 16.3 (Fall 1989): 211-218. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Rachelle Mucha and Thomas J. Schoenberg. Vol. 88. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 21 Mar. 2010.
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