Symbolism in The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe
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Literary critics have analyzed the symbolism in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” with vast and varying degrees of interpretation. However, some have argued there is no underlying meaning conveyed in the story at all due to Poe’s strong opposition to the use of allegory as a tale of parable (Roppolo 134). Ironically, Poe gained notoriety for his use of heavy symbolism to create allegories that allowed his works to maintain lofty “classic” status rather than fade into obscurity. Edward Davidson suggested, “Poe was an allegorist in spite of himself” (181). Richard Wilbur held a similar sentiment. He felt, “Poe’s stories are allegorical not only in their broad patterns but also in their smallest details” (104). Critics who take an allegorical approach to their analysis of “The Masque of the Red Death” emphasize the story’s symbolic nature. Therefore, while this story is literally about a plague called the Red Death, it also functions as an allegorical narrative about man’s response to the knowledge of his immortality. The symbols sprinkled throughout the story have remained relatively consistent in most critics’ analyses. The consensus is the characters, the seven rooms and their respective colors, and the ebony clock each hold a more profound meaning beyond their literal element. These symbols uphold the story’s allegory as well as provide imagery that is open to multiple interpretations.
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Poe presented the first examples of symbolism in “The Masque of the Red Death” at the very beginning of the story with the introduction of the Antagonist, the Red Death, and the Protagonist, Prince Prospero. “The Red Death,” Poe explained, “had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and horror of blood.” (662). Symptoms of the Red Death led critics to theorize that Poe based the disease on Tuberculosis, which killed many of those close to him. This theory adds a personal element to his story, creating an even deeper meaning to the Red Death as a symbolic representation of Death itself. Others have connected it with the Black Death, which depopulated much of Europe during the Middle Ages.
These individuals also suggest Prince Prospero symbolized the end of feudalism. The Black Death reduced numbers of workers, which led to a demand for labor and played an essential role in ending feudalism in Europe. Because Prospero only invited wealthy knights and ladies to his castle at the expense of peasants and commoners, he represented the socioeconomic divide between landowners and peasants that existed during the feudalistic period (Lorcher). In his critique, “Allegory in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death.’” S.A. Takacs expounded on this interpretation. He offered his perspective: “since the wealthy have locked themselves away, the victims of the Red Death are primarily of the lower classes. When the Red Death appears at the masquerade dressed as its victim, it perhaps terrifies the masqueraders not just because the disguise is gruesome but also because it reminds them of the people they have forsaken.” He then concluded, “the deaths of Prospero and his friends then becomes the vengeance of the lower classes: even though in life we may be unequal in wealth, we are all equal in the eyes of death.”
Another common interpretation focused on Prince Prospero as a symbol of the wealthy, privileged people who think they can avoid suffering and death or think they are above the powers of mortality. This thought is evident in the text when Prospero invited “a thousand friends” from his court to “defy contagion” and escape the plague by hiding in the confines of his castellated abbey. After the fifth or sixth month of seclusion, Prospero held a masquerade ball. He provided “all the appliances of pleasure” to distract his guests from thoughts of their vulnerability to the Red Death. The Prince’s actions symbolize how all humans tend to distract themselves with material pleasures in order to evade confronting their mortality.
The masquerade ball took place in seven connected, but at the same time, carefully separated rooms. Critics examined the significance of the number seven, the location of the rooms, and the symbolism of the colors. Some considered the seven rooms a biblical reference, which alluded to Prince Prospero’s indulgence in “The Seven Deadly Sins.” There is not much evidence to support this claim; therefore, few critics feel this was the exact message Poe wanted to convey. This theory implies Prospero demonstrated pride in his belief he was more powerful than death, gluttony in his desire for excessive extravagance concerning material objects; Such as the abbey or the various entertainment he provided for his guests. The Prince displayed wrath when he became angry with the uninvited guest and attacked him. Lastly, he showed greed when he was very particular about the guests whom he invited to stay at his abbey. His greed caused him to withhold help from those who need it most in favor of individuals who possess high social status. However, “The Masque of the Red Death” does not provide examples to indicate the Prince was envious, lustful, and slothful. Its most substantial weakness lies in its inability to translate allegorically to the story and to additional metaphors that would otherwise correlate to each other.
Through unique interpretations, H. H. Bells Jr., Brett Zimmerman, and J. P. Roppolo prove the seven rooms, their sequence, and their colors draw on each other to symbolize the stages of life. According to critic H. H. Bell, Jr., Poe adopted this concept from Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” from As You Like It. Shakespeare took man’s life and divided it into seven parts. The first stage is infancy. After infancy, a man becomes a schoolboy, “creeping like a snail, unwilling to go to school” (Shakespeare). This line is a simile for the slow growth of a boy gaining more knowledge to become successful in adulthood. Next, is a lover, followed by a soldier; the period in life when he begins to take his responsibilities seriously and dedicate himself to a cause, whether it be protecting his nation or simply supporting his family. Then, he becomes a judge, someone of import no longer trying to prove himself. Instead, he sits back and comments on the world. In the sixth stage, he is an old man. He loses the traits he used to possess, and his childish traits reappear. He becomes naïve and carefree, losing all sense of consciousness. In this stage, he is nearing the final stage, which takes his self-importance, ego, and memory, thus returning him to a childlike vulnerability. This stage is the point in which a man’s life fades away into what is ultimately “mere oblivion” (Shakespeare).
Various cultures have held an interest in the evolution of man and often affiliated it with the course of the sun. For instance, Egyptians recognized their Sun God, Ra, as a symbol of man’s journey from birth to death: “In the morning he is the newly born child; at noon he reaches the peak of his might and power; and in the evening, he symbolizes old age, decline and finally, death before he is reborn the next morning as the symbol of rebirth” (Renggli 3). The layout of Prince Prospero’s Imperial Suite reflected the symbolism of the ascension and descension of the sun. The first room of the seven chambers is located at the eastern extremity, which symbolizes birth because it is the direction in which the sun rises. The last chamber is located furthest west, which symbolizes death, for the sun sets in the west.
Provided the procession of rooms signified the progression of man, one can infer the rooms’ colors also played a role to further that metaphor. Brett Zimmerman began “The Puzzle of the Color Symbolism in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’: Solved at Last?” with a reference to a fellow critic, G.R. Thompson, who wrote “one of the favorite pastimes of critics is trying to identify the symbolic meaning of the colors of the seven rooms” (qtd. in Zimmerman 60). Despite the number of critics who think otherwise, Zimmerman argued, “it is difficult to believe that a symbolist such as Poe would refuse to assign significance to the hues in a tale otherwise loaded with symbolic and allegorical suggestiveness” (60).
The first room is blue. And, as previously stated, it is the easternmost room; Therefore, the color relates to beginnings and the morning of life. In many of Poe’s previous works, he associated blue with the neo-platonic notion of pre-birth existence. Thus, Zimmerman concluded in his analysis, blue represented divine truths, eternity, and immortality (62-64). The second room is purple. Purple is the color of paradise in another one of Poe’s tales, “The Domain of Arnheim.” So, like blue, purple also signifies a closeness to divine truths. The color of this room is the first to relate to Prince Prospero’s life specifically. For centuries purple has been closely associated with royalty because it used to be very expensive to make. This room may also suggest the beginning of growth because it is a combination of blue, which denotes birth, and red, which symbolizes life and intensity.
The three subsequent rooms indicate fertile adulthood. The third room is green, which, in the Middle Ages, became a symbol of madness. Green, as a symbol of madness, is displayed frequently in modern media. For example, in the Marvel franchise, Loki, The Hulk, and Hela, Goddess of Death, are all represented by this color. According to Zimmerman, the room undoubtedly referenced Prospero, “whose love of bizarre décor led to speculations of his sanity” (65). Additionally, the room correlates to the springtime, which is the awakening of life. It is a period of youth in which people bloom.
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The next room is orange and is located approximately in the middle of the Imperial Suite. Orange is the color of autumn. In this season, the leaves begin to lose their green color. The orange room symbolizes the middle of one’s lifespan: the transitional period between youth and old age. Like autumn foreshadows winter, this room foreshadows the end of one’s life. The color of the fifth room is White. White represents complete maturity or old age. It is the color of going to one’s death, which is the reason the Aztecs chose it to represent the West. So, as Prospero exits the orange room and begins to enter the western part of his suite, he is, literally and symbolically, going to his death (Zimmerman 66). The sixth room is violet. Zimmerman explained, “violet lies directly opposite of green. Thus, it stands not for the springtime passage from death into life, but the autumnal passage from life to death” (qtd. in Zimmerman 67). The seventh room Poe described as “closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue” (663). This room is the only one in which the window does not correspond with the décor; “the panes here were scarlet- a deep blood color” (Poe 663). It is indisputable black is associated with death. Red, as it is in “The Masque of the Red Death,” is emblematic of disease or plague. The seventh room is the final room in the suite and Prince Prospero’s final resting place.
Nevertheless, J.P. Roppolo rejected the notion that the seventh chamber was the room of death. He clarified, “death occurs in fact in each of the rooms. It is, however, the room in which the reminders of death are strongest” (Roppolo 140-141). Within the seventh apartment stood the large ebony clock. The clock serves as a grim reminder of forthcoming death. When the clock struck the hour, the partygoers ceased all actions of revelry to hearken to the clock’s ominous chime. The peculiar note emanated throughout the rooms evoked terrible disconcertment among the group. The guests’ reaction to the hourly chimes symbolizes the uneasiness felt during periods of growth when an individual takes a moment from the distractions to acknowledge how close they are to the end. When the chiming completely stopped, “a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly” (Poe 664). The revelers resumed their activities until the next chime of the clock. At the stroke of midnight, the bell rang out exactly twelve times and, of course, elicited the same tremulous response. The moment the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, individuals who had found leisure suddenly became aware of the masked figure whose presence had previously gone unnoticed (Poe 664). The chimes of the clock acted as somewhat of a caveat for the Red Death. The Prince can no longer hide from death in the confines of his abbey. The Red Death had slipped in “like a thief in the night” (Poe 666).
The relationship between time and the Red Death is necessary to know in order to grasp the symbolism of the Ebony Clock in its entirety. Brett Zimmerman explored this relationship in his critiques, “Allegoria and Clock Architecture in Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’” and “Prospero’s Clock-Architecture in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ Revisited.” In both his works, Zimmerman offered a diagram of Prince Prospero’s Imperial Suite. Zimmerman’s diagram illustrated a curve in Prospero’s suite, which follows the tracings of half a clock face. After the masked figure quickly garnered the attention of everyone. Prince Prospero angrily demanded he is seized and hung. Due to fear, no one dared put forth a hand to seize him. Thus, the Red Death made his way uninterrupted through the rooms. In a rage, Prospero chased after him. Zimmerman maintained, “Prospero represents the quickly moving minute hand as it makes its way from the 11:30 p.m. position through the thirty minutes to midnight, while the Phantom of the Red Death represents the slowly moving hour hand” (126).
The Phantom walked through the blue room into the purple, and from the purple room into the green. He continued through the green room into the orange. Then he made his way through the white and the violet rooms, and at last, entered the black room. As he passed literally through the various rooms, he symbolized the passing of time throughout the course of life. Prospero followed this course when he chased after him into the black room. There he intended to kill the masked figure, in yet another vain attempt to cheat death. In the end, he succumbs to the Red Death. As everyone must face the fact of their own death, the Prince dies literally facing his.
Despite Poe’s detestation for allegorical narrative, “The Masque of the Red Death” is not just a story it is a series of symbolic tableaux open to multiple interpretations. Critics ascertained, Poe inserted his personal experience with death and elements of socioeconomic class structure to reflect societies evasive attitude towards death. In his story he gave significance to the seven rooms, their arrangement, and the symbolism of the colors associated with each room to convey the stages of life from birth to death. The clock connects the metaphors of the characters and the rooms. It stands to both reflect the progression of life and to remind the guests that life, like the course of Prince Prospero, is short. Each of these symbols lend credence to the interpretation that the story is an allegory for man’s futile attempts to stave off death.
- Bell, H. H. “‘The Masque of the Red Death’ An Interpretation.” South Atlantic Bulletin, vol. 38, no. 4, 1973, pp. 100-105.
- Davidson, E. H. Poe: A critical study. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard University Press. 1957.
- Lorcher, Trent. “A Guide to Symbols in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’: Rooms, Colors & More.” Bright Hub Education, 8 Oct. 2019, https://www.brighthubeducation.com/homework- help-literature/59492-the-masque-of-the-red-death-symbolism/. Accessed 27 Nov. 2019.
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- Renggli, Franz. “The Sunrise as The Birth of A Baby: The Prenatal Key to Egyptian Mythology.” Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, vol. 12, June 2000, pp. 3. http://www.franz-renggli.ch/en/artikel/The_surise_as_birth_of_a_baby.pdf. Accessed 30 Nov. 2019
- Roppolo, J. P. “Meaning and ‘The Masque of the Red Death.” Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Regan, Prentice-Hall, 1967. pp. 134-144.
- Shakespeare, William. “The Seven Ages of Man.” As You Like It. http://www.ngca.co.uk/docs/the%20seven%20ages%20of%20man.pdf. Accessed 31 Nov. 2019.
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- Wilbur, Richard. “The House of Poe.” Romanticism, 2016, pp. 103-105, DOI: 10.4324/9781315638249-8.
- Zimmerman, Brett. “Allegoria and Clock Architecture in Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death.’” Essays in Arts and Sciences, vol. 29, Winter 2000. pp. 1-16.
- ---. “Prospero’s Clock-Architecture in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ Revisited.” Poe Studies, vol. 50, 2017, pp. 126-130. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/681408. Accessed 29 Nov. 2019.
- ---. “The Puzzle of the Color Symbolism in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’Solved at Last?” The Edgar Allan Poe Review. vol. 10, no. 3, 2009. pp. 60-73. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41506370. Accessed 31 Nov. 2019.
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