The Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allen Poe

We begin week two of A Hog’s Head Halloween with Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Masque of the Red Death.” It’s a short read – the text can be found here, and there’s a free audio of the story in the this collection at Librivox.

Begin discussion below, and we’ll have posts on Poe and this story later in the week!

Also, I intend to record a PubCast on Dracula soon.

47 thoughts on “The Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allen Poe

  1. Well, it had been a while since I read this story. Re-reading it, it’s clear why Poe is, if not the godfather of the gothic story, pretty darn close. The details he puts in the story–the description of the rooms and the colors in them, all the different kinds of party people who are gathered in a place that seems to be far removed from the red death–all contribute to a very atmospheric tale. When the mummer figure finally appears, the reaction of everyone to it is revealing. Of course, as the reader, I felt immediately that this figure was death, but the people who were in the story did not–they just felt uneasy around him(it?). It’s also ironic that in the end, neither the grand pooh-bah nor his elevated number of guests are immune to the red death. All the masques in the world could not put off the inevitable–a most satisfying conclusion, in my opinion.

  2. If I were Prospero’s intererior decorator, I’d have gotten rid of the ebony clock five – or six – months ago. Total bummer, stopping the festivities once an hour, scaring the revellers and interrupting the musicians. And the lighting scheme too leaves something to be desired.

    But lucky, lucky man to have one thousand “hale and light-hearted” friends. I might be able to get together a few dozen, but I couldn’t vouch that they’d all be hale. And defnitely not light-hearted.

    The rich truly are different from me and you.

  3. I see a lot of the same “protecting yourself from death” theme as in Harry Potter with Lord Voldemort, and Lord of the Rings with Sauron.

    I absolutely love the atmosphere set by this story, it creeps me out every time I read it. The idea revelry, and very surreal revelry at that, contrasts wonderfully with the very real danger of the plague.

    I also always wondered, because I never got it myself, how many different meanings are there behind the very specific color and order of the rooms?

  4. I feel the personification of Death has been spooking people for a long time. Poe’s Death is silent and he doesn’t need to speak because his victims are trapped. I was thinking the true horror would be amped up with more description of the activities that happen after the Duke falls dead. But Poe doesn’t take the obvious choice, instead he trains his eyes on creating such a monstrous atmosphere that we are actually in a state where we can imagine the horror in our minds more completely as to what happens as, one by one, each reveler falls victim.
    There is a German Lied by Franz Schubert that was published about 15 years before the Red Masque. It surely would have been performed in parlors everywhere in the US at that time and I wonder if Poe had heard it. This time Death is personified as handsome youth who comes with tender words for the girl. However, Schubert’s setting reveals something different – he gives Death a one-note range (much like a bell tolling) and a slow, funereal dirge underneath it all. The dirge reminds me of Poe’s mummer’s slow walk towards the Duke with everyone clearing the way.

    You can hear it hear. It’s short.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKh4JsWvsPw

    Translation
    The Maiden:
    Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!
    Go, fierce man of bones!
    I am still young! Go, rather,
    And do not touch me.
    And do not touch me.

    Death:
    Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!
    I am a friend, and come not to punish.
    Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
    Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

  5. I agree with Graham Badger, that there are parallels between Prospero in this story and in the characters of Voldemort and Sauron. They all are afraid of death, and act as though they are above it. It’s like they all deceive themselves by thinking that if they take certain measures, then death will pass them by. For Voldemort, it’s creating Horcri. For Prospero, it’s setting himself and his thousand friends aside from the country around them. The sumptiousness of the decor and revelry cry out that “We are different. We cannot be touched by death, so we will have a grand party.”

  6. Good points on Prospero & Voldemort, Fricka. But I don’t think they apply to Sauron since he, as a angelic being turned demon, was already immortal & thus would not die. And if he hadn’t implanted so much of his essence in the One Ring, he wouldn’t have suffered the fate he did when it was destroyed, that is, to be a pitiful remnant of himself, a gibbering powerless ghost in the wilderness.

  7. A disease that kills within 30 minutes of catching it? Isn’t that too lethal to actually become an epidemic?

    But I don’t want to criticize the story, because it’s Poe and Poe is great.

    Masque has such a creepy terrifying atmosphere, it’s really great. What’s interesting is that I start off hating the Prince and his friends. He is a leader who shirks his responsibilities to his people. He is a hedonist who cares nothing for the suffering of others. He is a coarse jester who will not acknowledge the seriousness and gravity of the disease. But when the Red Death appears in all his horror, his terrifying presence is almost too much. Yes, the prince receives the just reward for his hubris and apathy, but it is still a truly miserable reward. Like the great city Babylon, like Sodom and Gomorrah, like the multitudes who lived as Noah boarded his ark, in a single hour their judgment has come.

    On another note, Graham Badger, I remember with dislike being in my high school English class and having to analyze the symbolism in this story. The teacher was extremely tedious in her analysis of each of the room’s colors and ornaments and what it all meant. She maintained (if memory serves) that each room represented a different stage of life from birth to death, though I don’t recall all her various arguments. It was classes like that one that really put me off any sort of appreciation of literary analysis as symbolism always struck me as being arbitrary and laborious, not to mention gutting the actual story of anything interesting. Having now put a rather comfortable number of years between myself and those classes, I’m slowly coming back around to an appreciation of these techniques, and wouldn’t mind hearing people’s takes on what the colors of the rooms might mean.

  8. I agree with everyone who as drawn parallels between the characters in this story and Voldemort. I think that the emphasis on blood in this story also helps us to make this comparison. Although death is clearly personifed as the figure in the mask, the imagery of the disease itself (“profuse bleeding at the pores, [then] dissolution”) reveals how death unavoidable because it comes from within each person. Blood is the symbol for the disease, thus that which gives us life also becomes intertwined with the imagery of death. I think we definately see this in Voldemort. His new body comes, in part, through Harry’s blood but it also brings him that much closer to his eventual defeat and death.

  9. As revgeorge said, Sauron already had the immortality thing beat. What he wanted was earthly power. Usually immortals set up shop amongst mortals because they can’t be king in heaven. I can’t remember whether Sauron was driven by the same motive. Mind you, I’m not sure whether we can knock him for wanting a piece of Middle Earth. Didn’t Galadriel’s folk come on over for the same reason?

    1. Red Rocker,
      I think Galadriel’s folk came over for vengence against Morgoth for stealing the Silmarils. They did that against the will of the Valar and were then banned from Aman. They couldn’t go back so did the best they could in Middle Earth but all their efforts failed.
      Sauron was a deliberate doer of evil. His motive was to mess up the plans of the ordained powers and to be ruler of Middle Earth a la Morgoth.

      1. The title of this always makes me think of the Dr Who spoof Dr Who and the Curse of Fatal Death with Rowan Atkinson as Dr Who.

  10. Ewwww. I probably shouldn’t have read that over lunch.

    Poe appears to be not only the godfather of the Gothic story (hat tip to Fricka), but also of the disaster movie.

    More seriously, Prospero’s attempts to keep Death off him and his friends strike me as being very human. True, his leaving the populace to die without help is monstrous. But he walls himself in with every possible enjoyment and assumes his extreme carefulness can keep disease and death away, and that just seems like–well, like a selfish person with resources, responding to a temptation that hits all of us hard.

    The horrific clock appears to me to symbolize a reminder of mortality. It sounds with appalling regularity, disturbing the revelers in spite of themselves, and after a moment they all try once again to rationalize away their fears.

    As for what the colors mean, Derek D, off the top of my head I have no idea. I’d be interested in hearing what others think too.

    I just finished a re-read of Lord of the Rings, but it sounds like I need to read the appendices and The Silmarillion as well.

    Travis, I’ll look forward to that podcast on Dracula.

  11. Regarding the colors of the rooms. Colors are symbolic world-wide and have multiple meanings in different cultures. For instance, red could mean love, or danger here in America – but in China it’s good luck. But off the top of my I would guess – (both assignations are meant to be somewhat opposite).

    Yellow – Joy or Cowardice
    Green – Wealth or Envy
    Blue – Wisdom or Depression
    Violet – Harmony or Magic
    Purple – Royalty or Arrogance
    Red – Love or Danger
    Black – Power or Death

  12. Alright. I am going to go a step further with the historical and musical aspect of Death as personified. This one always gets my hair standing on end. And it is certainly a song that Poe heard before, because he writes a friend about it in a letter.

    The song is Die Erlkoenig, poem by Goethe, and sung here by the greatest lieder interpreter of America, Jessye Norman.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=althInScZo4

    For death personifed, it scares me like no other. In fact, the last words give me a chill and goosebump scare like no other.

    The Text and translation:
    Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
    It is the father with his child.
    He holds the boy in the crook of his arm
    He holds him safe, he keeps him warm.

    “My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?”
    “Father, do you not see the Elfking?
    The Elfking with crown and tail?”
    “My son, it’s a wisp of fog.”

    “You lovely child, come, go with me!
    Many a beautiful game I’ll play with you;
    Some colourful flowers are on the shore,
    My mother has many golden robes.”

    “My father, my father, can’t you hear,
    What the Elfking quietly promised me?”
    “Be calm, stay calm, my child;
    The wind rustles through dry leaves.”

    “Do you want to come with me, dear boy?
    My daughters shall wait on you fine;
    My daughters lead the nightly dances
    And will rock and dance and sing you to sleep.”

    “My father, my father, can’t you see there,
    The Elfking’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
    “My son, my son, I see it well:
    The old willows they shimmer so grey.”

    “I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
    And if you’re not willing, I shall use force.”
    “My father, my father, he’s grabbing me now!
    The Elfking has done me harm!”

    The father shudders; he rides swiftly,
    He holds the moaning child in his arms.
    He can hardly manage to reach his farm;
    In his arms, the child was dead.

  13. Gee, you know what? I just posted this and I think I might have given you guys too much. It’s the most spooky song there is in classical music, (and was commented about by Poe) but of course you don’t speak German and may not appreciate as I do with regards to Poe. So sorry if I forced it on you who don’t like lieder or classical music. Sometimes, I get overly enthused. It’s great though to share it with whomever might find it as awesome as I do.

  14. I have to second Travis there, Joivre; it’s hard to think of something more Halloween-appropriate than a poem like that. As someone who has sung a handful of lieder myself–though I’m no Jessye Norman–I found it intriguing and poignant, if painful (the death of a child is a difficult and sorrowful thought, though in Goethe’s time, also a particularly common one.) The words are quite moving.

  15. Frika,
    I’ve been thinking that a better Tolkien character to compare Voldemort to would be Saruman or the Witch King or even better Ar-Pharazon, the last king of Numenor. He was a great warrior, mighty sorceror (even Sauron feared him)and furious that as a human he was destined to die. He went about doing what was forbidden to achieve immortality.

  16. I think you are right korg2000bc, at least on the Sauron part. I tend to link Sauron and Voldemort so quickly in my head because of the horcrux/ring connection I made a hasty comparison.

    Also, while better comparisons, I think both Ar-Pharazon and the Witch-King are both slightly off. While driven by the desire for immortality, both of them were being manipulated (both by Sauron, see a pattern, stupid human kings?) by someone outside themselves. Still, both are a lot closer than Sauron.

  17. Joivre,
    I’ve enjoyed reading both the earlier Lied by Schubert, “The Maiden,
    and the Goethe poem, Die Erlkoenig(The ElfKing). Of the two, if I had to choose, though, as a potential receiver of attention from death, I would prefer the former and not the latter. In “The Maiden,” death is presented as a gentle release, while in “The ElfKing,”
    the King resorts to forcible robbery of the child’s life after trying to entice him. I bet there would have been a lot of sleepless children if their parents read THIS to them before bedtime!
    Getting back to the Masque of the Red Death, I think I remember having a teacher in literature class delving into the meanings of the colors in the rooms.
    Sorry, Derek D,
    that your teacher made that seem arbitrary to you. I’ve found that if a teacher presents ideas with enthusiasm, the class will pick up on that, but if it’s presented in a dry, factual way, it can be boring–just one more thing to have to study for a test! :( (Like Professor Binns in History Class at Hogwarts).
    After reading some of the previous posts, I think I was a bit hasty in adding Sauron’s name onto that of Voldemort and Prospero. Voldemort and Prospero, I think, are both clearly afraid to deal with their own mortality, while Sauron enjoys being in power and wants more of it. Korg is probably right in asserting that Saruman and that guy who was the last king of Numenor(would he have become one of the Nazgul? I can’t remember) would have fit more neatly into the category with Prospero and Voldemort, of seeking immortality in all the wrong ways.

  18. Interesting comparisons betwen Voldemort and Tolkien’s tragic kings. But who is to say that Voldemort himself was not manipulated by a force outside of him? The same force that manipulated Grindelwald fifty years ago, and the same force that will manipulate another ambitious young wizard or witch into becoming the next Dark Wizard? Who’s to say the wizarding world doesn’t have its own version of Sauron, or even Morgoth, lurking somewhere in the depths of the author’s mind?

    Joivre, I too love the poem/song The Elf King and was thrilled to see you post it here. Part of what makes this site so much fun is the freedom we all have to bring in our own bits of the cultural kaleidescope, be it the poems of Goethe, the graphic novels of Alan Moore, or the inanities of Monty Python.

  19. Interesting thoughts there, Red Rocker, although I admit the idea of a force similar to Morgoth lurking in the backdrop of the Wizarding World makes my blood run cold! I have to return to what one of JKR’s major themes is: Choice. It may be true that Tom Riddle, Jr. came from an inbred, psychologically troubled family and was left to fend for himself in an orphanage, and that Prospero was not brought up to respect the humanity of the lower classes. However, in the end, they still had choices to make. They CHOSE to follow an evil path, and continued making evil choices, up until their death. Neither one repented at the end. Harry Potter, in comparison, has the same kind of upbringing that some might think gives him a ticket to make the same kinds of choices that Voldemort did. But Harry does not choose to go down that path. In fact, his first request(or prayer, perhaps?) at Hogwarts is, ” Not Slytherin. Not Slytherin.” Harry might not be the brightest wizard in his class(doubt if he is as mediocre as Snape claims him to be in HBP), but he makes (mostly) good choices. In the Masque of the Red Death, Prospero makes an evil choice when he decides to remove himself and his “friends” beyond the scope(he thinks) of the Red Death that is devastating the countryside, rather than trying to help stem the plague and find some kind of relief for the poor peasants. No, he can’t be bothered with them, and throws himself into blasphemous revelry. I don’t see any kind of malignant entity manipulating him into doing that, at least not without his outright cooperation.

  20. Fricka, I don’t think that the presence of an entity who – for whatever the reason and by whatever ploys – tries to tempt wizards to go over to the dark side is incompatible with the principle of free will – or at least the freedom to choose. Without getting too deep into religious, ethical or existential dilemmas, he or she would be a compelling proponent of the advantages of amorality. And of course, being an amoral sort himself, he would be deceitful and tricky. Manipulative even. It would then be up to the individual to see through the lies and determine how to act. Sort of like how some of us believe things stand now, I guess, but with more special effects.

  21. I want to speak up on behalf of Prospero.

    Not sure that evil is the word I’d choose to describe him or his choices. Selfish, perhaps, and in my opinion, weak, but he did not actively try to harm anyone, only to save himself. In fact, he also tried to keep 1,000 of his closest friends from harm. His motives may have been selfish, but he was trying to do a good thing.

    On the other hand, you have to ask yourself what would have been the point of staying to face an illness that was so virulent. It sounds like exposure meant almost instant death. So what would have been the better course for him? The only reason why I’m not willing to acquit him totally of cowardice is because he was the leader. And more is expected of leaders than to save themselves, even if fighting back isn’t going to help anyone and will result in certain death.

    Anyways, I think Prospero’s main sin is thinking that he could defeat death, not abandoning his people in a time of catastrophe. That and poor choice of interior decorators. You think I jest? Poe’s emphasis on the garish and barbaric color scheme leads me to think that he was making a statement about Prospero. Not sure what he’s saying, exactly, but it seems to be something along the lines of his moral turpidute possibly being related to his aesthetic choices.

  22. Red Rocker, I agree with you about the main sin of Prospero. In fact, I always thought the Queen of the Night in the Magic Flute by Mozart got a bum wrap for wanting to rule the world. I mean, let’s be honest – who doesn’t want to rule the world (benevolent or otherwise) or in the case of Prospero, cheat Death.

  23. I always thought that the main sin of the Queen of the Night was being a woman and thus not a Freemason. Wikipedia accuses her of obscurantism – as opposed to the benign paternalistic love of Sarastro. But if kidnapping a girl, exposing her to the threat of sexual assault, then telling her and her suitor that they have to pass three tests to be proven worthy of being happy is benign paternalistic love, then give me obscurantism. In any case, the Queen gets the best arias, so obscurantism does win the musical contest.

  24. Sorry, sorry, sorry: I get carried away sometimes, and nothing triggers it like a spot (or is it a bucketful) of thinly disguised misogyny. Plus, my team lost in OT last night after Briere scored after a very questionable penalty call. Until then it was an awesome game, with Ovie and Semin trading goal for goal with Mike Richards.

    In any case, I do agree with you on both counts: if the Queen is guilty of wanting to dominate the world, then Sarastro’s guilty of the same sin; also, Prospero is trying to cheat death like Voldemort.

  25. And for you hockey fans out there, Semin’s first goal was a thing of beauty. He has so much skill it seems like time slows down for him as he dodges and weaves between the players on the opposite team, who seem to be moving in slow motion.

  26. Ahhh, the Magic Flute! Never in the entire history of opera has such ethereally gorgeous music ever been wasted on such an idiotic plot. And that’s saying a lot. There isn’t a single note out of place: it’s as perfect as only Mozart could conceive. Best to find a recording that omits the dialog, or watch the Bergman film version and turn off the subtitles.

  27. Nice try at being Devil’s Advocate for Prospero, Red Rocker(and your companion in side-along apparation, Joivre) :-)
    However, I am not that willing to let Prospero off the hook. While it may be true that as a leader he was being prudent in gathering people around him, and essentially keeping them all in quarentine for safe-keeping, Poe makes it clear that that was not his motivation. It would be one thing if he and his friends were praying and fasting, for those afflicted with the terrible plague, and for protection from it. They could have been preparing for the time when it would be safe to leave the fortress and establish civilization again. Instead, he led them all in the kind of riotous living that resulted in the “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin” handwriting on the wall that conveyed to the ruler Belshazzar that he had “been weighed in the balance and been found wanting.” In Prospero’s case, of course, no prophet appeared to decipher a message for him; instead, death, in the form of a sober reveler, came for him. I do agree that his worst sin is thinking he could defeat death, but the level of celebration he puts on makes it clear he has no appreciation of the value of the human lives over whom he has ruled. The garishness of the hues of color with which he decorates may indeed be signs of his moral turpitude, but his weakness as a decorator is almost beside the point. It’s his hubris that brings catastrophe down upon him.

  28. Sorry for not making myself clearer, Fricka: I meant to say that as a leader Prospero should have stayed and faced the music with his people, rather than hiding away with his chosen buddies. That would have been the right thing to do – even if ultimately pointless. Running away was the coward’s part.

    There are different ways of intepreting the celebration. To me it’s more along the lines of whistling while you go past the graveyard. Also not sure about the hubris – depends on whether he really believed that his power and riches could help him to evade death. If so, then yes, he was well smitten. But you know, he was going to die regardless: full of hubris or penitence, helping others or selfishly trying to save his own skin, fasting or feasting, praying or partying, good or bad, death is the great equalizer and gets us all.

    Which is why I’m puzzled about Poe’s insistence on all the bizarre interior decorating touches: they appear to me to be completely irrrelevant to the theme.

  29. Deacondon – my dear friend, this is for you. Complete with dialogue – I defy you to say Diva Damrau is less effective in her speech.

  30. I saw that some didn’t know what the colors where so I thought I would post this, courtesy of my 9th grade English/Lit. class.

    Blue~Birth
    Purple~Deepening of Experience
    Green~Youth and Growth
    Orange~Maturity and Ripeness
    White~Old Age
    Violet~Darkening of Life
    Black with Red panes~Death itself

  31. Bookworm, I’ve not seen those before – but oh so interesting to me; I love it. Where did you specifically get those observations?

  32. Those particular observations came from my Eng./Lit. teacher. And I believe she got those particular meanings from our 9th grade “Excersions in Literature” textbook from Bob Jones University.
    It also mentioned how the rooms where set up starting from the East and going to the West- like the sun setting, but I saw someone had all ready mentioned that.

  33. Anyway, I’ve finally been able to get back to this post.

    Some thoughts on Prince Prospero. He’s first described as happy, dauntless, and sagacious. Dauntless & sagacious, unless Poe is being very sarcastic, are good qualities. He also doesn’t flee until half his kingdom is depopulated. He also tries to save a fair number of people. He takes a 1000 friends but he also must’ve took plenty of servants. Those revels aren’t going to stage themselves. Sure, he’s a weird bird regarding interior decorating but everyone’s got to have their faults. :)

    Anyway, he does the sensible thing. The Red Death is extremely virulent; it kills people within an half hour of the onset of symptoms. So, theoretically it should run out of victims rather quickly, a victim of its own success. The only reasonable thing to do then is isolate oneself and let the disease kill itself by wiping out any potential hosts. Sounds callous but effective.

    Not to say Prospero’s a great guy but really what else can he do in order to try to save some people? And people faced with end of the world situations do usually one of two things, throw themselves into religious fervor or revelry.

    Poe really makes his disease totally unrealistic. Anyone who catches it dies within a half hour. Prospero doesn’t go into seclusion until half the kingdom is depopulated yet it’s said that he holds his revel in the fifth or sixth month when the disease is raging at its most furious. Half the kingdom was dead to begin with! How much more furious can the stupid disease get?!

  34. I don’t know if anybody here has read World War Z. It’s a rather disturbing zombie novel written like a history book. Basically a virus is sweeping the planet, turning everyone into shambling undead but as the clever reader will observe, the zombies aren’t actually the real threat. Most of the damage in the book is caused by humans panicking in the face of a zombie apocalypse. There’s a rather amusing chapter where all the world’s wealthiest celebrities get together in an impregnable fortress which they ensure is covered in the news all over the planet. They don’t just want to survive the end of the world, they want everyone to know they have survived the end of the world. Anyway, although the fortress is impenatrable to zombies, surfice it to say that it’s not impenetrable to humans looking for a safe place and before you know it, the whole place is destroyed. Reading Masque of the Red Death reminded me of those celebrities getting together in that luxurious palace to survive the end of the world but failing quite miserably. The incredible hubris of these celebrities is also reminiscent of Voldemort. He doesn’t just want to be allpowerful and eternal, he wants everyone to know that he’s allpowerful and eternal. The funny thing is, if he’d kept a low profile, he could indeed have lived forever but no, he just had to strut around killing everyone and trying to conquer the world and as a result, his enemies got together and brought about his downfall, like the hysterical mothers in World War Z breaking into the celebrities high-profile luxury fortress. Likewise, Voldemort couldn’t chose inconspicuous items for his horcruxes, he just had to use glamorous “blingy” objects that stood out like a sore thumb.
    Anyway, that’s my contribution for the day. Hopelessly Voldy-centric as usual.

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