The Mask as a Humanistic Reflection on

Edgar Allan Poe’s

“The Masque of the Red Death”

Laura Miller


Allegory of a Mask


Death is a subject that human beings are both intrigued and frightened by.  Edgar Allan Poe became a household name with his gothic tales that discussed the grotesque and danced with themes of death.  “The Masque of the Red Death” is a short story in which the fear of mortality drives a rich and prosperous prince into seclusion only to be met by a cloaked figure who ultimately takes his life.  Poe uses allegory as a tool in order to convey both literal and symbolic meaning throughout the telling of the story, for example with the masked phantom that is literally the plague and symbolically the proof that you cannot escape death.  As a true example of allegory there are two masks represented in this short story, the literal veiled figure and the symbolic abbey that Prince Prospero and his merrymakers escape to.  The masking in this story has a very profound power; fear. 

            Fear of disease and death is what drives Prospero to seek refuge from a dangerous plague that is spreading quickly throughout his kingdom.  Rather than give in to his emotions, “when his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys” (Poe 1).  In the next several months that pass, gaiety is had by all and the worries of the outside world fade from their minds.  In the midst of a fantastic masquerade the guests begin to notice a masked figure who was not there before.  At first there were murmurs and whispers of his presence that evolved into astonishment and disbelief and ultimately led to shock and repulsion at his intrusion.

The man was tall and skinny and was fully covered in “habiliments of the grave” (Poe 5).  What was most offensive about the figure was the covering on his face.  It was made to resemble a corpse, so much so that close examination could not determine that he wore a mask at all.  The group’s fears are further played upon when it is realized that the masked phantom’s face is covered in blood, just as a person afflicted with the Red Death was known to have been before they passed.  Not only did this disguise signify death to all of those in attendance, it represented the specific cause of death that they were trying to escape.  With the revelation of the cloaked figure, it becomes clear that they failed in their undertaking.

Not all masks are those that are worn.  Although the guests take part in a masquerade and a phantom appears who is disguised, there lies another mask within the story that furthers awareness that death is inevitable.  The abbey that the prince confines him and his revelers to becomes a faćade that secludes them from the outside world.  The architecture is a creation of the prince and it is said that he had a hand in even the minute details that were contained within those walls; this may be the reason why he withdrew from the outside horrors into this safe haven.  Rather than using his wealth to help those afflicted by the plague, the prince escapes thinking that “the external world can take care of itself” (Poe 1).  Eventually death catches up to Prince Prospero and his mask betrays him and is revealed not to be a sanctuary of safety, but a clock ticking down the time until his inevitable demise.

            Although his kingdom is in disarray and almost half of the population has been killed, the prince maintains a demeanor that is quite puzzling.  He is happy and content to not only seclude himself but to treat both him and his guests to whatever pleasures they desire.  “A masked ball of the most unusual magnificence” (Poe 2) ensues and the abbey provides a veil that hides them from the outside world.  All delight at the festivities and lose themselves in revelry because they knew that it was foolish to think about the plague or those that had perished because of it.  Thought then turned towards pleasure in which “there were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine.  All these and security were within.  Without was the Red Death” (Poe 1).  There seemed to be only one reminder of the outside that had an effect on the crowd; the sounding of a great ebony clock “whose chiming imposes a stop-start movement on the festive company” (Roth 51).  When the clock struck, it seemed to lift the veil for just an instant, causing the group to pause and remember why they were in seclusion for only a moment.

            Poe goes through some length in describing the Prince’s imperial suite which is made up of seven rooms, each decorated in a different color (blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and black).  Each room has tapestries to match its color and a stained glass window that when illuminated would yield a strange effect; all except the black room.  When the black room was illuminated, it produced a scarlet hue that of the color of blood and many of the guests refused to enter it.  Many theories revolve around the specific meaning of the rooms and their respective colors, it is widely accepted that they represent various stages in a life cycle.  Theses rooms travel East to West and are not in alignment, with a sharp turn every 20 to 30 yards.  With this information we can begin to visualize the details of the structure that Prospero created.  Early in the story, the Red Death is explained in graphic detail and specified that “the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour” (Poe 1).  Consider half of the face of a clock from six to midnight (the time at which the phantom is revealed) and you can observe that there are seven sections represented by each hour on the clock.  Then we consider the relationship of the masked figure and Prospero.  The prince confronts the specter near the blue room and the masked intruder makes “his way uninterruptedly, with the same solemn and measured step” (Poe 6), systematically entering each room until Prospero catches him in the black room.  These two characters become the hour (masked man) and second (Prospero) hands of the clock, and when they finally meet one another, Prospero becomes victim to the thing he so wished to escape from.

            The unique use of masking in this piece is derived from Poe’s use of allegory throughout and “the story becomes more interesting, as well as broader in scope, when one concentrates on these allegorical elements” (Bell 101).  In each mask, there is both a literal/physical aspect and a profound symbolic meaning behind it.  Our phantom is the plague that somehow breaks into the prince’s fortress and yet he is a reminder that you cannot hide from death.  The literal mask of the figure so closely represents the sickness that those who see him cannot differentiate between a person who is in costume and one who is afflicted and this is precisely what causes the spread of so much fear within the group.  When the phantom’s mask is removed, it is revealed that nothing is beneath because “one cannot see a disease, only its physical manifestations” (Zimmerman 57).  The “castellated abbey” is the wall between the afflicted and the healthy seeking refuge and yet upon further inspection is the mechanism ticking down the minutes until death.  Although the story does contain a literal clock, the time period that is the most meaningful is the point at which Prospero contracts the disease (11:30pm), his realization that he is afflicted (midnight), and his passing (shortly after midnight) which is represented by the architecture.  All of this allegory and metaphor lead back to the moral of the story that tells us that attempting to dodge death is futile, and Death will find you, even if you are wearing a mask.


Works Cited

Bell, H. H. "" The Masque of the Red Death": An Interpretation." South Atlantic Bulletin 38.4 (1973): 101-105.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Masque of the Red Death. Hayes Barton Press, 1944.

Roth, Martin. "Inside" The Masque of the Red Death"." SubStance 13.2 (1984): 50-53.

Zapf, Hubert. "Entropic Imagination in Poe's" The Masque of the Red Death"."College Literature 16.3 (1989): 211-218.

Zimmerman, Brett. Edgar Allan Poe: rhetoric and style. MQUP, 2005.