Death is Inevitable: How “The Masque of the Red Death” Illustrates the Inevitability of Death. “The Masque of the Red Death,” written by Edgar Allan Poe in 1845, displays a certain theme about the irrevocability of death. The story follows Prince Prospero as he tries to use his wealth and power to elude a deadly plague by hiding away in an abbey with a thousand other guests; however, Death is the conqueror of this tale as the story concludes with the death of Prince Prospero and all of the guests. In “The Masque of the Red Death,” Poe describes a theme that death is inescapable as can be seen in the narrator, the irony of the plot itself, and the vast amount of symbolism in the story.
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The narrator adds to the theme of the story because the narrator in “The Masque of the Red Death” is Death itself because of the inconsistencies planted by the author in person, tense, and chronology throughout the story. The beginning of “The Masque of the Red Death” is written in third person; yet, in three places in the story, the narrative is in first-person, suggesting that the narrative is actually a narrator, a character in the story. The next source of evidence is the difference in tense in the story. In the story, the tense of the narrative shifts from past to present. The significance of the tense shift suggests not only that the narrator was present during the events of the story but also that the narrator survived the event in order to tell the tale. The third piece of evidence alludes to the idea of Death as the narrator is in the chronology of the story. The story is obviously written during the time of feudalism and nobility; however, in the story, the narrator references Hernani, a nineteenth century work by author Victor Hugo. By using this reference, Poe is saying that the narrator was not only present at this event, possibly in the Middle Ages but also lived through the nineteenth century. The time difference placed by Poe spans hundreds of years, alluding to the idea that the narrator must be someone or something that has existed hundreds of years. Because Poe creates inconsistencies that do not adhere to a single type of narrator or narrative, Death itself becomes a very plausible choice for the narrator. The fact that Death is the narrator of the story only builds up and intensifies the overall theme of the story that death is inescapable.
Since Death is a plausible the narrator of the plot, the next contributor to the overall theme of the story is the sense of irony found in the plot of the story. In the story, Prospero has a title of nobility; however when word of the Red Death comes, Prospero flees, leaving the outside world to “take care of itself” (231). Prospero is irresponsible in the eyes of the reader, because he does not care about any of the subjects underneath him but considers his own life and the lives of his friends to be indispensable. The irony of the plot is seen in the superciliousness of Prince Prospero because he truly believes that his wealth and position in the world will allow to escape death. The irony of the story is rooted in this idea that death can be cheated because of money and power Throughout the course of the story, the Prince holds to this idea that he is above death; however, in the end of the story, allegorically, Death overcomes. The irresponsibility of Prospero becomes ironic because locking themselves in this massive abbey in an attempt to escape the disease is what seals their fate in the end of the story. The abbey as described by the author, “A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egressâ€¦” (231). When Death comes for them at the end of the story, it is by their own doing that they are trapped in this massive abbey, their only choice, to finally accept the call of Death.
While the role of the narrator and the irony found in the plot add to the theme, the principal contributor to the theme of “The Masque of the Red Death” is the multiple accounts of symbolism given in the story. The symbolism of the story is mostly seen in two elements of the story: the décor of the abbey and the ebony clock. The décor of the abbey is described for the reader in much detail, for a reason. The abbey is set up of seven rooms from east to west and are arranged in a color pattern of blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and the last room is black. The different colors of the rooms are symbolic of the human life cycle. The colors can be “read” from east to west because the east is symbolic of beginning while the west is symbolic of ending, like the cycle of the sun. The blue represents birth, the beginning. The purple can be viewed as development because the beginning (blue) has been mixed with life (red). The green suggests life as well, but more in the sense of growth or youth. The orange represents the peak of life, when the sun is at its highest. The white alludes to the idea of aging. Violet is much darker than the other colors, because it represents the slow decay of life. Finally, the black room represents death. Throughout the story, the guests never enter into the black room because they fear death. The symbolism of the colors of the room is also found in the climax of the story. Prince Prospero chases red death from the blue room and ending with his death in the black room, representing the ending of a life. The guests all run into the black room to unmask red death, and they all die. Also in the black room, the big ebony clock is found. The big ebony clock is also a symbol associated with death. However, the clock does not mean death directly. The clock represents the idea that even though the guests are “cheating” death time still goes on. Time does not stop for the guests, and the guests know that they too will die no matter what they do. This thought is represented in the story because every time the ebony clock chimes signaling the hour, all the guests stop their gallivanting and partying and become silent, as if frozen. The ebony clock is a constant reminder to the guests of the Prince that they will not overcome death, but only that their life has one less hour. The symbolism of the ebony clock and the décor of the abbey are a major contributor to the idea that death is unavoidable.
Edgar Allan Poe uses his mastery of writing to convey the idea that Death is inexorable in “The Masque of the Red Death.” This central overall theme that death is inescapable can be seen in the narrator, Death itself, in the ironic nature of the plot, and most blatantly in the vast amount of symbolism scattered throughout the story. Death is inevitable for everyone: no amount of money or power can alter this natural order.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Masque of the Red Death.” Introduction to Literature. 1st ed. Boston: Pearson, 2011. 231-6. Print.
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