Nearly every story written by Edgar Allan Poe explores the concept of death, and “The Masque of the Red Death” is no exception. “The Masque of the Red Death” is a very intricate short story written in 1842 by Poe. Poe uses symbolism throughout the story in the form of the rooms, the clock, and the Prince to illustrate that death is inevitable.
The first symbol Poe uses to show that death is an inevitability is the rooms. In the story, Poe describes colored rooms within the Prince’s “castellated abbey”.
The rooms are blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and black (respectively). Furthermore, the blue room is in the east while the black room resides more west. Given that the rooms go from blue (color associated with a newborn) to black (associated with death) and they run from east (where the sun rises) to west (where the sun sets), it becomes evident that Poe is illustrating the close proximity of life and death, as well as the inevitability of death given that all symbols regarding the rooms come to an eventual “end”.
The first six rooms all hold significance in the story, as they each represent some part of life, and in them beat feverishly the heart of life”.
However, Poe places clear emphasis on the black room as a symbol of death. At any normal party (or even in any regular house) a black room would not be used to entertain guests. This is one of the first indicators that something is not quite right with this black room.
One of the first ways Poe signifies the black room is through its thorough descriptions – “shrouded in black velvet”, “panes here were scarlet – a deep blood color”, “ghastly in the extreme”. Each of these phrases was carefully chosen by Poe to ensure the reader would feel the darkness (literally and metaphorically) the room possesses.
Shrouded is a word referring to death, ‘a deep blood color’ is a reference to the Red Death, and ghastly means to cause great horror or fear, which was exactly Poe’s purpose for the room. Not only was the room black, a connotation for death, but Poe also positioned it the most west of all the rooms; the sun sets in the west, indicating the end of the day, and the rooms (that represent the stages of life) end in the west, symbolizing the end of life. During the masquerade, the Prince’s guests avoid the black room as best they can because of its dark presence. “But in the western or black chamber the effect… 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”.
However, despite the Prince’s and the guests’ efforts to avoid the room that symbolizes their demise, the Red Death still finds its way into the party and sentences everyone present to death in the black room. All of this combined shows Poe’s purpose was to illustrate that death cannot be cheated. It is an inevitable part of life, no matter how hard one tries to avoid it. Another symbol Poe uses to further communicate this point is the clock.
In “The Masque of Red Death”, Poe uses the symbol of a clock to show death cannot be cheated. As described by Poe, the clock is made of ebony and resides in the black room. Ebony is a heavy shade of black and (as mentioned before) black is a color associated with death, and the black room is as well. Given this information, it is safe to conclude that the clock symbolizes death. At the strike of each hour, the clock rings out, and as it does, all activity ceases. “…there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical…thus the waltzers ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company…”.
The guests and musicians become nervous and unsettled. “…… it was observed the giddiest grew pale and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation”. However, when the clock quiets, the cessation ends and the whole company light-heartedly resume their activities. “But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assemble…”. “the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly…”. Knowing what the clock represents and how the company reacted to its striking’s, it can be seen that they react this way because they are worried death will be upon them at each hour.
However, when they make it through the ringing, they carry on, laughing and dancing because they feel they have cheated death, since that is what the clock represents, after all. Once the clock strikes midnight (the end of the night), however, the people do not laugh and dance once the clock is silent. This time, they are all dead because the Red Death appears and takes the entire company, thus proving Poe’s point – you cannot cheat death. Poe also uses Prince Prospero to show death is inevitable. Finally, Poe uses Prince Prospero to illustrate the futility of attempting to escape death. On the first page of the story, Poe tells us the Prince was “happy and dauntless and sagacious” even though people around him were dropping like flies from the Red Death.
The Prince did not seem worried about the disease because he felt physical barriers, such as high walls and iron gates, of his “castellated abbey” would protect him from death. The Prince even went so far as to entertain his friends to a party. “It was toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual significance”. Prince Prospero is using the masquerade to celebrate that he and his fellow attendees have escaped the Red Death, and therefore death as a whole.
Symbolism can also be found in the Prince’s name. ‘Prospero’ resembles the word ‘prosperous’, which means to flourish. Poe uses the symbol of the Prince’s name to further push the idea that the Prince believes he can and has cheated death and is prospering inside his secluded home with his friends. However, no matter what precautions the Prince took, the Red Death still crept its way into the masquerade. When the Prince first notices the Red Death, Poe describes his behavior as initially frightened but then enraged – “…first moment with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage”. Even when faced with Death itself, Prince Prospero still acted indignant and tried to ‘beat’ it. He ran at the Red Death with a sword, but the Red Death still prevailed since death is inevitable and there is no escaping it.
In the short story, “The Masque of the Red Death”, author Edgar Allan Poe uses symbolism to show death cannot be cheated. Through the black room representative of death, the clock made of ebony that sends chills to everyone as it rings out, and the Prince Prospero who feels he is the one who will cheat death, Poe shows death is not a force to be reckoned with; it cannot be cheated. Death is an inevitability.