The Masque of the Red Death
by Edgar Allan Poe
The Masquerade/Dream Imagery
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
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.