Study Guide

The Masque of the Red Death Versions of Reality

By Edgar Allan Poe

Versions of Reality

The Masque of the Red Death

This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the Prince's own eccentric yet august taste. (2)

We first learn that the Prince is the creative type, and apparently has a strange yet compelling taste. This is the first suggestion that he's an artist figure.

There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. (2)

It's interesting that in the midst of the run of the mill pleasures of life, Poe also throws the arts – music, ballet, and, above all, Beauty (with a capital B – something Poe himself loved to write about). Prospero's abbey is not only a palace of pleasure, it's also a palace of art, and "Beauty."

The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange --the fifth with white --the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries…(4)

Prospero's design gets more intricate still. The color progression of the rooms seems to suggest a symbolic meaning, especially since the last room, the black room, appears so obviously to represent death. It's often been suggested that the progression of colors represents the stages of human life. (See "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more on this.) The symbolic suggestiveness adds even more to the feeling that this is a dream world.

There was no light of any kind emanating from lamp or candle within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. (4)

Prospero has also carefully designed the lighting effects in the suite, so that the light seems almost unnaturally to be shining through the windows (even though it's night outside). Everything in this world is unnatural, a product of Prospero's artistry and imagination. We are in a world of "fantasy."

Here the case was very different; as might have been expected from the duke's love of the bizarre. The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect. (4)

As Poe launches into a description of the suite that Prospero has designed, the world of the story contracts and we become fully immersed in Prospero's world. Think about it: we've now moved from a focus on Prospero's kingdom (the opening paragraph), to the abbey he designed (the second paragraph), and now to a single set of rooms within the abbey. The story starts to coincide with the products of Prospero's own imagination. And because Prospero is so odd, the story starts to feel more off-balance, surreal, and dreamlike. The suite, for example, is literally off-balance: it's out of alignment, with sharp and irregular turns.

These windows were of stained glass whose color varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity was hung, for example, in blue --and vividly blue were its windows. (4)

Prospero's world (the suite) – which is now the world of the story – takes on more detail, and another level of strangeness. The rooms are color-coded, in brilliant, solid hues. Doesn't that feel deeply surreal? That the windows are made of something so fine as stained glass is another detail that adds to our sense that Prospero is a meticulous artist.

The tastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for colors and effects. He disregarded the decora of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not. (6)

This is the passage in which Prospero is most clearly described in language that suits an artist. It's also suggested that he's mad. The narrator refuses to tell us himself whether Prospero actually is mad; he's only willing to say that Prospero's followers don't think he is. This isn't the most reassuring declaration of sanity.

The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. (1)

Poe makes no connection to reality in the beginning of his story. He does not tell us where the country that the Red Death devastates is located, nor when the story is set. And the disease he describes is a purely fictional one. We're immediately immersed in a different world, just vague enough to be a dream.

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. (7)

Now Poe has moved on from Prospero's rooms to describing the masqueraders and the atmosphere of the party. But the whole masque, not just the rooms, feels as if it could have been a product of Prospero's imagination. The costumes are bizarre and grotesque, as "the madman [cough…Prospero] fancies." The overlap between the world of Prospero's wild imagination and the fantastic, dreamlike world of the story now feels total. And Poe has started using an explicit language of dreams.

When the eyes of Prince Prospero fell upon this spectral image (which with a slow and solemn movement, as if more fully to sustain its role, stalked to and fro among the waltzers) he was seen to be convulsed, in the first moment with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage. (10)

When the Red Death arrives on the scene, something changes. The Red Death feels no more real than anything else at the ball. It's called a "spectral image," meaning it looks somehow non-material or "otherworldly," like a ghost. To that extent, it fits into the dream world. It's even described as "playing a role," like an actor – lending another sense of unreality to the whole situation. But Prospero is no longer in control of the dream world. He's shocked, disgusted, and outraged and outraged to see the Red Death. But it is not in his power.