“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.”

“Masque of the Red Death” is a Gothic short story written by Edgar Allen Poe, the basic premise of which follows the mad and hedonistic Prince Prospero and in the midst of a dangerous plague called the ‘Red Death’, refuges along with 1000 other nobles within the securely welded walls of his castellated abbey. After five or sixth months of being secluded and safe from the chaos ensuing in the external world, Prospero throws an unusual and phantasmagorical masquerade. After the gigantic clock in the secluded and glaringly illumined black room tolls its heavy monotonous clang at midnight, a blood coated corpse-like figure reveals itself to the revellers, unnerving them with its personified resemblance of the same ‘Red Death’ plaguing the nation. This enrages Prospero which, after attempting to murder the rigid figure, falls to the ground a corpse, bleeding profusely and writhing with pain upon setting eyes on its horrid face, causing the revellers to surge towards the figure out of terror and rage and suffering the same brutally gory fate. In this report, I will be explaining how I believe Poe effectively uses language features such as connotative language, symbolism and imagery to develop the unnervingly off-putting arrangement of the setting. I will explain how these features aided in allowing the reader to understand the significance of the setting to the story’s message and how it made me feel unsettled by the setting’s intensely sinister appearance.

Poe uses connotative language to develop the secluded and eccentric, though off-putting nature of the castellated abbey in which the story takes place, using words such as ‘deep seclusion’, ‘extensive’, ‘magnificent’ and ‘eccentric’ to describe the Gothic structure of the castle, a castle often being the commonly associated setting of Gothic fiction. Emphasizing the seclusion and desperate ‘defiance to contagion’ are words such as ‘strong’, ‘lofty’ and ‘iron’ to indicate the entrapping enclosure of the girdling walls and prison-like iron gates. I believe that Prospero’s extra precautionary measures to strengthen these walls indicate the desperation and fear felt by himself and the revellers because of this deadly plague threat. Prospero’s hiring of the courtiers, with their ‘furnaces and massy hammers’, to weld bolts into these walls and the iron gates, indicate this, him being desperate to conceal and therefore avoid contact with the ‘Red Death’ and ignore (‘out of sight out of mind’) the chaos and devastation experienced by the peasants suffering in the external world. By emphasising the seclusion of the setting, Poe made me truly grasp how desolate and empty this world feels. By having Prospero excessively secure the iron walls, Poe indicated the extent to which this apocalyptic climate had affected Prospero’s psyche and from the start to the end, I was concerned and in anticipation for when he hits his breaking point. These people are in such a hopeless catatonic state and by removing (or not mentioning) the presence of any nearby civilisations or ‘safe zones’ from the setting, Poe suggested that these walls may be the only safety from the ‘Red Death’.

Poe’s choice to allocate a corresponding colour to each of the seven chambers of the imperial suite in which the masquerade is held in is purposely done for a symbolic effect, in each of the room “a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor… of stained glass whose colour varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber”. These colours are connotatively linked with external associations, being symbolic of the colours associated with stages of human life. I believe this because of the particular eastern to western order and associations of the corresponding colours. Vivid blue is the furthermost east room, connotative to the pure, serenity and peace of the blue skies and waters, therefore symbolizing the birth of human life. Purple and green are the next two, which is connotative to the graceful growth of lavenders and the vibrant green natural beauties of the springtime, therefore symbolizing the growth of human life in childhood and adolescence. Orange is the fourth, connotative of the warming sun of summer and the distinctive beauty of free falling leaves of Autumn, symbolizing the freedom and happiness of adulthood. White is next, connotative of emptiness and the plainness of a blank page, symbolizing aging (white hair) and gradual loss of excitement for life. Next is violet, a faded hue of purple connotative of reflection and awareness, symbolizing the acceptance of near death, growth (purple) having expired. Furthermost west is the black and scarlet chamber, which is heavily elaborated by Poe compared to other rooms, being an obvious indicator of the symbolic order of these coloured chambers by symbolising the death stage of human life. To add to my belief, Prospero and the revellers avoid this room, fearing the death associated with it and only, in the end, enters to confront the ‘Red Death’, dying upon entry at the sight of the figure which further evidence that the room represents death. Also, the ‘Red Death’ walks from east to west without interruption, evoking fear within those of all stages of human life and not dying when reaching the black chamber, indicating the immortal and unstoppable nature of this ‘Red Death’ plague. The arrangement of the setting intrigued me, it hooked me in and made me theorise as the story went on as to the significance of these colours. I also felt confused and slightly dismayed by the bizarre colour scheme, this vivid array of colours contrasting with such a grim and gruesome storyline, this effect I believe being intentional. 

Poe intricately uses imagery to describe the black chamber, mentioning specific details such as “a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire that projected its rays… upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes… ghastly in the extreme.” No lamp or candle exists to source the light, for the blazing fire produces its own illuminating, gaudy and fantastic appearances to discomfort and daunt those who enter. Scarlet red light seeps into the room through the glass pane giving the reader an unsettling mental image of this crazy aesthetic combo, creating a bright and dramatic use of imagery for us to understand how the revellers feel. Particular attention is also shone on the “gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy monotonous clang…” Being located in the dreaded black chamber, this clock tolling its ‘clear and loud and deep’ each hour, the revellers and orchestra cease to engage in their performance whilst the clock echoes peculiar notes out of its ‘brazen lungs’. This indicates that the clock symbolizes the imminent death that creeps closer with each toll, “the Time that flies” with each hour, especially in such dire circumstances. It acts as a reminder to all the revellers that though confined, they are trapped and therefore not safe and secure in an event of chaos within the walls, they are still in reach of the ‘Red Death’. I believe this Poe also wanted to convey this message to the reader. Each clang of the clock, like the revellers, made me experience a depressing realisation that impending doom is unavoidable and that death will always be waiting to claim my life. Through utilising imagery to detail the hellish objects within the black chamber, Poe made me wary of what lurks within the dark chamber, despite the room being described as empty. 

Overall Poe expresses the moral of not denying or ignoring that death is fore coming and it rules all, by using the personified figure of the red plague in the form of the supernatural god-like “Red Death” entity which kills all who face it, to demonstrate death itself. Personally, I believe Prospero and his grotesque upper-class revellers deserved the grim fate received, due to their ignorance and carelessness, them partying whilst the peasants are ravaged by the ‘Red Death’ outside the confined walls. They were committed to solitude because of their noble order. As always, Poe is very effective in applying language features such as imagery and symbolism to the Gothic setting and chilling atmosphere to discomfort the reader. This is the third of Poe’s short stories I have responded to and the same confined, isolated and gloomy type of setting is used in all, therefore Poe clearly continuously presents this common Gothic troupe. Being an almost fantastical nightmare -likely inspired by the infamous ‘Black Plague’ of the medieval age- makes the story an irresistibly captivating masterpiece and this story is definitely my favourite of Poe’s.

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  1. Lucas,

    Some good analysis. Increase your own personal response- by using these techniques, what impact/effect does the story have on you? What reactions/thoughts do you have about the text? Do you think these are intended by the author? Why/why not? Justify your position.

    Mrs. P

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