Poe Week: The Masque of the Red Death

In one of my Literature textbooks, this is the story the book chose to best set the example of how important setting can be to a story.

Poe's incredible talent in setting a mood through the most miniscule of details is powerful as he establishes dread, irony, and a hefty infusion of Gothic feel by detailing the colors of a series or rooms and what they represent to the audience and characters. The symbolism of the clock is musical and alluring; the ominous clang and the dancers reactions with its dong indicating the time further spells out a forboding mood and tone.

Even the pattern the rooms are walked through speaks volumes. The first room as light blue can symbolize brightness and innocence, skys and springs and births and new beginnings. Each of the seven rooms have a window, all with the color matching the interior of their walls, the exception being the final, seventh room: black.

Poe has stated that stories should be best enjoyed if they can be read in one sitting. The Masque of the Red Death is indeed short, only a few pages long, and it should speak volumes that Poe chose this short space to go into detail about the rooms. He goes into the most detail about the black, final room as its significance - death, the ultimate end, the irony - is the most important element of the story. It is also in this room that the clock beckons and waits.

Without getting into details about any of the characters, Poe concentrates on setting and the most important and only qualities about the prince that the audience needs to know - his fear of the Red Plague and death, his ultimate arrogance in the face of death, believing he can seal it off and defeat it by abiding within his castle walls.

The party-goers feel the same, reassured by the self-imposed power the prince claims, dancing around at midnight behind their masks, stopping only when the clock chimes its ominous call, feeling a small hesitation but quickly ignoring it again as they resume merry dancing and happily embracing false securities. Death as the ultimate inevitable force erupts onto the party, as the prince then proceeds from room to room in a circular order, indicating from life to different stages of color, to the inevitable black which is the end room, from which there is no escape.

Poe was an original type of writer who aspired to make a solid career as a literary critic. Confident in his writing ability and seeking to inject freshness into words by developing the world's first detective story and gothic pieces which whispered doses of irony, he isn't the type to resort to already used phrases nor cliches. Because of this, I find high relevance in the ending paragraph, where he writes:

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night.

Instantly I recognized "come like a thief in the night" as the biblical words spoken by Jesus when referring to the apocalypse. It would come without warning and begin the reign of death, as He comes "like a thief in the night."

A powerful tale about the finality of an ending which can't be avoided, Poe is to be admired for capturing such a significant range of emotions using creative settings in a short span of pages.

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