Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death is an elaborate allegory that combines objects in the story with visual descriptions to give focus to the reader’s imagination. In the story, a prince named Properso tries to dodge the Red Death through isolation and seclusion. He hides behind impenetrable walls of his castellated abbey and lets the world take care of its own. But no walls can stop death because it is unavoidable and inevitable. Visual descriptions in the story are used to symbolize death. Poe’s use of language and symbolism is shown in his description of the seventh room in the suite, the ebony clock, and the fire. These objects are used to depict the theme of the story death “held illimitable dominion over all” (363).
The first symbolic mean of death is depicted in the seventh room in the suite. Poe says, “The seventh apartment was 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” (359). He uses the seventh room to symbolize the final stage of life, death. He sees the black velvet tapestries as blood flowing from the ceiling and walls to the floor. The relationship between blood and death is important because he wants the reader to have a visual image of the blood pouring down the walls as a form of death.
The fire lighting the suite of rooms is another object in the story that represented death. He says, “…There stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire that projected its rays through the tinted glass… But in the western or black chamber the effect of the firelight that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered…” (359). The fire was meant to produce a shadowy atmosphere in the west and a favorable one in the east. This is symbolic to the sunrise in the east and sunset in the west because light means life and darkness means death. Poe uses darkness as another visual representation of death.
The gigantic clock of ebony is another symbolic object in the story. “Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute hand made the circuit…it was observed that the giddiest turned pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation” (359). Hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second, the life of the ebony clock slowly dies. Poe uses the clock as a symbolic mean that man can escape death, but at the end it is inescapable. The ebony clock is a reminder to Prince Properso and his guests of their remaining time before death. Poe’s description of the clock’s chimes is successful as a constant reminder of their death.
Prince Properso’s efforts of avoid the epidemic is unsuccessful because death will eventually conquer all who oppose. His ultimate enemy was his refusal to except death as it comes. Poe is successful in showing the importance of language and symbolism to visualize death. Poe’s mastery of language and symbolism helped bring the story to life and bring new meaning to death.
April 2, 1998
English III Honors