Study Guide

The Masque of the Red Death Symbolism, Imagery, and Allegory

By Edgar Allan Poe

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Seven Colored Rooms

The colors of the seven rooms are just too juicy a detail not to mean something, aren't they? The black and blood red room seems so obviously to represent death, shouldn't the other rooms mean something too? A lot of commentators have thought that, and there is something of a general agreement among many of them about the meaning of the rooms.

Supposedly, the suite is an allegory of human life. Each room, in other words, corresponds to a different "stage" of human life, which its color suggests. The first clue that the suite is allegorical is that the rooms are arranged from east to west. East is usually the direction associated with "beginnings," and birth, because the sun rises in the east; west (the direction of the sunset) is associated with endings, and death.

According to this reading, the blue room, which is furthest to the east, represents birth. The color suggests the "unknown" from which a human being comes into the world. The next room is purple, a combination of blue (birth) and red (associated with life, intensity) suggests the beginnings of growth. Green, the next color, suggests the "spring" of life (youth), orange the summer and autumn of life. White, the next color, suggests age – think white hair, and bones. Violet (a combination of purple and blue, or purple and grey) is a shadowy color, and represents darkness and death. And black, obviously, is death. Pretty nifty, huh?

Also, notice how there's no red room? Why's that? You might think of red as a better color than orange for summer/autumn, or as a better color than purple for growth. But our guess is that Poe wanted to save the color red in this story especially for its association with blood, fear, and death. That means it's always goes with black, just like the Red Death and the darkness go together at the end of the story, and red and black go together in the seventh room. If there were a red room, it would confuse the color system and obscure the meaning of "red."

Now another interesting thing about the allegorical reading of the rooms is that it gives an added meaning to other bits of the story. The fact that the revelers don't go into the black room indicates their fear of death (although you don't need to give a meaning to each room to figure that one out). But besides that, remember that the Red Death walks from the blue room to the black room – it walks the course of life, leading from birth to death. Prospero follows that course when he chases it: he runs from the blue room to the black room, where he dies. His followers also rush into the black room to unmask the Red Death, and also die. So the course the characters walk in the story is both literally and metaphorically the course from life to death.

The Clock

The big, black, creep clock is located in the black room, so it's not that hard to guess that it's meant to be a symbol of death. More precisely, it's a symbol of the passing of "the Time that flies" (5), and the inevitability of death. Its eerie chiming on the hour is a regular reminder to the revelers that their lives are drifting away with the time, and that death is approaching. Of course, the effect is enhanced even more by that way the clock has of stopping all the dancing and music – in short, all the life – of the party, and making everyone laugh nervously.

The "Castellated Abbey"

The abbey is a place of confinement. It's cut off and secluded (hidden away where no one can find it). Beyond that, its doors are welded shut from the inside. Which means everyone's trapped: no one can get in or out. The sense of confinement (a staple of Gothic lit) is crucial to giving the story its "threatening" atmosphere.

Does it mean anything that the place of confinement is a "castellated abbey"? Well, big, dark, gloomy castles are classic settings for Gothic fiction, so there's nothing terribly new there. But you might also think of the abbey as a symbol of worldly power, standing above the peasants who we learn at the beginning are being ravaged by the Red Death. As a castle and an abbey, it could represent both the state and the church. And you might think that makes its fall to the Red Death suggestive of some sort of apocalypse. (There's more on that below.)

The Red Death

The Red Death is, well…death. Granted, it's a spectacularly gruesome form of death, probably calculated by Poe for maximum freak-out appeal. Think of it: having contortions and bleeding from all of your pores (particularly your face) until you die? Though as an image, there's something strangely stylish about it. After all, it's not as if the victims are drenched in blood. Judging from the Red Death's appearance, it's more delicate than that: the victims are sprinkled all over with it, almost "decorated" by it. It's grotesque (gross) and aesthetic (almost beautiful) at the same time – like the story itself.

But as far as symbolizing something goes, the Red Death is just a slightly revamped image of plain old Death. The story shows how it can't be escaped, and how Prospero's attempt to escape it is doomed.

Now why did Poe choose red as a color to be associated with death, rather than just the more obvious black? If he'd chosen black, he could have just gone with the "black death," (i.e., the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th and 17th centuries – see more below) instead of having to invent his own plague. Our suspicion is that it's because red's a brighter and more dramatic color than black, and tends to increase black's own "freak out" effect when the two are put together (as in the red and black room). The story is bright and dramatic – with its colored rooms and its wild, whirling, costumed revelers. The effect of the imagery is almost dizzying. The red-black combo is really loud – it screams at you – so it fits well into that crazy aesthetic, which Poe might be using for a couple of different purposes (see below).

You might also wonder whether Poe based the Red Death on any real disease. Scholars have pursued that question. In general, they're interested in figuring out Poe's sources of inspiration for this story, and it certainly seems as if Poe's conception of the story was helped along by accounts of the Bubonic plague, also known as the "black death." Just like Poe's Red Death, it devastated the countryside of Medieval Europe beginning in the 14th century, and occasionally caused people to shut themselves up for protection from the contaminated. But the symptoms of the diseases bear little relation to each other, besides the fact that they're both fatal. For all we know, the Red Death is entirely fictional, conjured up by Poe, as we said, just for spine-tingling effect.

The Masquerade/Dream Imagery

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.

Art Imagery

A lot of the same stuff that suggests the masquerade is a dream – hat sense of unreality, hypermeaningfulness, exaggerated colors and imagery – may also suggest that the masquerade is a product of the imagination…an artist's imagination. For more on the art theme, check out Prospero's character analysis.

The Shakespeare Connection

You might notice that Prince Prospero shares his name with the main character of Shakespeare's The Tempest. In fact, that's only the beginning of the interesting ties between Poe's short story and Shakespeare's late play.

One nifty connection, which some scholars have taken to be really important, is the mention of a "red plague" in The Tempest. The "red plague" shows up in a curse uttered by the Caliban character (who's kind of a bad guy) early in the play:

You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!

(The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2, lines 437-439)

Now is there any more to this connection than the similarity of "Red Death" and "red plague"? We can't find one, at least not without getting speculative. But it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to suspect the phrase gave Poe an idea, since there are other connections to The Tempest in the story as well.

Most of the other connections are best explored by looking at the similarities between the Prosperos in the two works. To hear more about that, check out our character analysis of Prince Prospero. You might also want to check out the great article "Art and Nature in 'The Masque of the Red Death,'" by Kermit Vanderbilt.

Apocalyptic Symbolism

Does that line about the Red Death coming "like a thief in the night" sound familiar? If it does, that's because it's a really famous line from the Bible. It's from Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians 5:4, in which Paul is referring to the last judgment. According to him, Jesus will come when the world is least expecting it ("like a thief in the night"), to judge sinners for all of eternity. If you're caught unprepared, you're in trouble. So it's better to always be expecting the judgment, and focused not on the "pleasures of this world" (which have a tendency to be sinful) but on the promise of the next. Otherwise, you're a fool.

Poe takes Paul's phrase about Jesus and applies it to the Red Death. In doing so, it might look as if he makes the Red Death into an "apocalyptic" figure – a figure who symbolizes the end of the world. Like the "sinners," Prince Prospero and his friends foolishly ignore the inevitable end of "life's pleasures" that lies at the end of the road, and like them, they pay the price for it. The "pleasures of this world" don't fare too well in "The Masque of the Red Death." But what's different is that, instead of judging sinners like Jesus is supposed to, the Red Death just kills everybody. The inevitable end Poe envisions in his story isn't one of judgment and eternal salvation or suffering. It's summed up in that last line: "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all" (14).

If you find this line of thought about the story interesting, it can be deepened by exploring the ways in which the masquerade at the heart of Poe's story might be a symbol for "the world." In apocalyptic literature, "the world" is usually a bad word: it refers to the base, evil, and profane kind of life we live "down here," as opposed to the higher life with God. The world just before the judgment (which is supposed to be the moment when the world is at its very worst) is often depicted as topsy-turvy, chaotic, violent, frenzied, grotesque, and thoroughly absorbed in decadent sin. Does this remind you of anything?

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