Summary: A terrible plague, known as Red Death, has beset the lands of Prince Prospero. After the plague has killed more than half of his subjects, the Prince gathers up his closest friends and associates and they retreat to a secluded abbey surrounded by high walls. Stocked with ample portions of food and drink, the group shuts itself up to await the plagues demise. Six months later, the Prince holds a grand masquerade ball in his private chambers. One of the guests arrives dressed as Red Death. Enraged, the Prince confronts the man and is struck dead. The rest of the guests realize that the figure really is Red Death and begin to drop dead from the disease.
Analysis: Edgar Allan Poe had a vivid, nightmarish imagination and that creativity is one of the reasons why he has risen to the ranks of the literary elite in American literature. Another reason is because he was such a fascinating character – encompassing failure and post-humorous success, a marriage to his cousin, and, of course, a life-long battle with alcoholism that killed him at the age of 40.
Unfortunately, while many of his stories and poems are horrifyingly original (Poe is truly the literary grandfather of Stephen King), Poe is an inconsistent writer (Give him an A for effort – because Poe tried so hard in everything he ever wrote). “The Masque of the Red Death” is a perfect example of Poe’s strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller.
The limited success of “Masque” lies mainly in Poe’s ability to create a surreal landscape and infuse it with enough creepiness to, if not scare readers, certainly to give us pause. Poe uses this ability to great effect in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Black Cat,” two of his better stories. It’s not as prevalent in “Masque,” but he does manage to create just enough sinister atmosphere for the story to work on that level. We also need to tip our cap to Poe for inventing the “epidemic” narrative for without “Masque” we might not have gotten Albert Camus’s The Plague or Stephen King’s The Stand.
Otherwise, “Masque” has several glaring weaknesses. Poe’s writing can be as blunt as a mallet to the head and in “Masque” that obviousness is in full form. The main character, if there is such a thing in this story, is Prince Prospero (even the name lacks subtlety). The Prince for whatever bizarre reason has set up his inner chambers into seven distinct rooms of differing colors: blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and black. They represent each stage of human life from birth to death. Overlooking all of this is a gigantic ebony clock that chimes haunting notes on the hour. All of this set decoration seems – and is – so staged. There only because Poe requires it for his story.
When the Prince and his associates, locked away from the Red Death plaguing the kingdom, throw a grand masquerade ball it is within this maze-like rainbow of rooms. The reader is left to ponder why? The only explanation we are given for the ball or the ominous interior design is that the Prince is well… weird.
So is it any surprise that when the costumed reveler who turns out to be Red Death incarnate kills the Prince that they run through all the rooms starting at the first and ending up in the last one – the black one – where the Prince ends up dying? Of course not. “Masque” is a morality play, an allegory that tells us the obvious – “You can’t cheat death.”
But in the end it’s the writing that really harms “Masque.” There are not efforts to even try and establish characters other than the superficial Prince. When he dies (and we know all along that he’ll die) there’s no emotional connection to him. He’s simply another prop in Poe’s allegory. The story is also filled with too much telling and not enough showing. “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 that which might have excited disgust.” Poe doesn’t bother to show us the beautiful, wanton, bizarre or terrible with any specific examples.
In the end, “The Masque of the Red Death” only survives as filler in anthologies of Poe’s work. It is minor and inferior in every way.
Read our literary criticism of Anton Chekov's "A Dead Body"
Labels: Edgar Allan Poe, literary criticism, literature