Symbolism of Color in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ Edgar Allan Poe focuses an intense amount of information on the setup of Prospero’s suite within ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. The topic is addressed in the beginning of the story with great detail and is mentioned again during the final chase. It is impossible for this concentrated focus to be without meaning. Symbolism is commonly used by writers to convey hidden feelings and to compel the reader to see beyond the written word. Symbolism forces the reader to focus intelligently on not only the words on the page, but the unseen implications they convey.
The meanings within Poe’s text are greatly debatable since every reader views things differently. Poe’s use of symbolism in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ seems fairly consistent according to critics. Poe uses the location and colors of the rooms within the castellated abbey to illustrate the progression of life from birth through death. He also uses the scene with the “spectral image” (Poe 265) to suggest humanity’s immense fear of death. Support from Poe and his critics will illustrate the importance of this symbolism within the tale of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’
One of the first topics that Poe addresses in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is the location of the rooms within the abbey. Poe tells the reader that in most palaces, “suites form a long and straight vista, while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either hand, so that the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded”(Poe 262). This palace is quite different in that “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”(Poe 262).
The rooms are situated in a way that forces the viewer to see only one room at a time and each room is located from East to West. This directional location most commonly refers to the progression of the sun through the sky. The birth or rise of each new day begins in the East and dies or sets in the West, this is symbolized through the color of each room within the abbey. If the first room is located “at the eastern extremity”(Poe 262), then it is logical to assume that the rooms proceed in a westerly path which puts the last room at the western extremity.
According to H. H. Bell Jr. , “These directions are time-honored terms which have been used to refer to the beginning and the end of things- even life itself”(Bell 101). As the evidence will soon show, the first room is symbolic of birth while the last indicates death. This directional progression is the first sign of the symbolism signifying the procession of the rooms from birth through death. The first room described within Prospero’s suite is located “at the eastern extremity”(Poe 262) and is decorated entirely in blue.
The color blue is often used to represent new birth or renewal. Expanding upon the example of sunrise and sunset, the first thing one typically notices upon the rising of the sun is the lightening of the sky. Therefore, the initial color of the sunrise or birth of the new day is blue. This is significant in “The Masque of the Red Death” because it is the first room described, as well as being the one in which Prince Prospero is located when the “spectral image” (Poe 265) is first noticed at the masquerade ball.
This indicates that Prospero begins his chase after death at birth or during the dawning of new life. The second room described is adorned in purple. The color purple is often associated with prosperity or accomplishment. It is the stage of adulthood in which someone has gained power or accomplished goals within life. The color purple is commonly associated with royalty, which is significant in relation to Prospero considering his royal standing as a Prince. The color purple can often be seen in the setting of the sun or the death of each day, which seems to indicate the decline of life.
Though the location of the room within Prospero’s suite signifies that it is close to the start of new life, Poe seems to be pointing out that we are all traveling toward death from the moment of our birth. The next room encountered in Prospero’s suite is “green throughout”(Poe 262). The color green is often associated with money which logically follows the success or accomplishment of the previous room. Another way to look at the color green is to see it as a verdant color.
Bell suggests that the color green indicates “that which is verdant, with that which is full of life and vigor- indeed with a man who is in the prime of his years”(Bell 103). This color suggests a man who has prospered from his accomplishments and is at the top of the hill of life. When the sun begins to rise into the sky, the first thing it illuminates on Earth is the ardent green of the surrounding grass. This illumination signifies the notice one receives from his peers when he prospers from his achievements. The fourth room exemplified in the tale is “furnished and lighted in orange”(Poe 262).
The color orange, according to Bell, suggests “the autumn of life. Prospero could well be considered here to be beyond his prime, but by no means old yet”(Bell 103). The color orange is often evoked through the multiple shades of autumnal leaves. The color orange is also found in both the sunrise and sunset which could indicate mid-life. At this time a person is no longer young, but neither are they old; they are stuck somewhere between the two. Kermit Vanderbilt stated that “the orange room, corre-sponding [sic] to the high noon of existence, becomes the harvest or fulfillment of human labor and ambition”(Vanderbilt 381).
This room not only signifies the fulfillment of labor and ambition, but also the slow decline unto death. Once one begins the descent down the hill of life, it is never known how fast the bottom may come rushing up to meet you. Death is no longer a thing in the distance, but the visible end of one’s life. The fifth room is entirely white. This color is generally associated with aging or old age. The reason for this association is quite obvious in that it is the color most commonly attributed to the hair of elderly people. The color white is often symbolic of purity or cleansing.
It appears that Poe is saying that when people see the immanent approach of death, they begin a process of cleansing or purifying themselves in preparation. In trying to tie in the metaphor of the sun’s path of life, the color white seems to signify the light and airy quality of the clouds seen when the sun it at its highest. The elderly are trying to achieve this airy quality of purity before death comes to greet them. The sixth and final room of life is bedecked entirely in violet. This color is the darkest of the life colors which seems to correlate with the gravity that is forced upon all people of great age.
It is at this time that people begin to truly face their lack of a future. When someone reaches great age, contemplating death and imagining it around every corner is to be expected. The violet color of the room is given greater importance by the room that immediately follows. The color is burdened with a darker meaning due to its location. The last color seen in the sunset is a deep, dark shade of violet. This could attest to the fact that it is one of the darkest colors possible other than black. This color seems to vividly symbolize the end of life, the very last stage of the hill of life, and the moments before one encounters death.
The last room encountered in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is the most unique. It is the only room in Prospero’s suite in which “the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations”(Poe 262). This room is hung in black tapestries that fall “in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue”(Poe 262). The windows of the room were scarlet, a color as deep as blood. This room is the most symbolic of them all in that it is the only room that obviously symbolizes the death and destruction of mankind.
This room is also the most westerly of all, which according to several previously cited sources indicates death in and of itself. Joseph Patrick Roppolo states that “The appearance – the presence – of blood is confirmation or assurance of the existence of the Red Death or, more broadly, of death itself” (Roppolo 64). This accounts for the reveler’s reaction to the room of death. According to Poe, the room “produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all”(Poe 262).
The color of the window panes is symbolic of the Red Death, the very thing which every one of the revelers is trying to run away and hide from. The black color of this room is only seen in the sky when there is no light source to accompany it, the time between the sunset and the next day’s sunrise, it is the color of the world at the death of each day. According to Vanderbilt, “the blood-colored panes depict, of course, the dread effects of the plague, and the black tapestries represent death itself”(Vanderbilt 382).
This puts the seventh room into a perspective that may not easily be seen, one which recognizes Prospero’s decision to create this world separated from disease and pestilence. Roppolo states that “Prince Prospero’s world came into being because of the Red Death, which, although it includes death, is the principle of life”(Roppolo 68). By this he means that life includes death but should not be defined by it. Prince Prospero was standing in the chamber of birth or renewal when his eyes first fell upon the spectral image. The mummer solemnly walked from one room to the next with Prospero chasing after him.
Prospero’s chase after the spectral image led him from the room of birth and renewal into accomplishment, wealth, middle age, old age, great old age and finally into the room of death. The chase after the masked figure symbolizes the progression of Prospero through each stage of life until he comes face to face with the masked figure in the room of death. It is at his entrance to this room that Prince Prospero “fell prostrate in death”(Poe 266). It is at this point that Prospero has symbolically walked through each stage of life in an effort to chase death, only to find it waiting there to meet him.
The revelers threw themselves at the masked figure only to find that it was not a tangible thing but the essence of death itself. After this revelation they all fell to their deaths from the very thing they had secluded themselves from. According to Edward W. R. Pitcher, “The dwelling, however tightly secured against the dreaded Unknown, is no defense against Necessity . . . and however carefully constructed and with whatever purpose, man is still the walled-in fool . . . an inmate of the death-in-life prison”(Pitcher 246). This emphasizes the idea that one can never hide himself from death.
It is not a phase of life that can be avoided through simple willpower or desire. Everyone will face their own death, but it is not something that should be chased after. Life should always be lived to its fullest with full knowledge that death could be waiting around the next corner. Prospero’s seclusion in the castellated abbey seems to provide a measure of this lifestyle, in that the revelers are celebrating life, but not one of them believed that death could come within the abbey. Had they have done so, the conclusion of life may not have been quite as exaggerated as it was.
Every being within this world created by Prospero mistakenly believed himself to be inoculated from death. The fact that death was able to gain entry within their hallowed halls provided a sense of chaos and despair among the revelers that may have been avoided had they have understood that death is a part of life. Roppolo states that “Blood, Poe has been saying, is (or is symbolic of) the life force; but even as it suggests life, blood serves as a reminder of death”(Roppolo 67). The body can only produce blood when it is alive, but the sight of it is an instant reminder that each of us will one day meet our death head on.
Poe uses symbolism in the location and color of the rooms within the abbey to illuminate a solid progression from the beginning of life through death and uses Prince Prospero and the revelers to illustrate humanity’s fear of death. Whether or not Poe is arguing against disbelief of death is greatly debatable, but it is quite obvious that he has used ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ to clarify the thought processes of humanity in regards to death and it’s link to life.
Works Cited Bell, H. H. , Jr. “’The Masque of the Red Death’: An Interpretation. ” South Atlantic Bulletin 38. 4 (1973): 101-105. Print. Pitcher, Edward W. R. “Beyond ‘Gothic Flummery’: A Cosmoramic View of Poe’s Symbolism and Ideas. ” The Sphinx: A Magazine of Literature and Society 4. 16 (1985): 241-249. Print. Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Masque of the Red Death. ” The Essential Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Benjamin F. Fisher. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004. 261-266. Print. Roppolo, Joseph Patrick. “Meaning and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. ” Tulane Studies in English 13 (1963): 59-69. Print. Vanderbilt, Kermit. “Art and Nature in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. ” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 22. 4 (1968): 279-389. Print.