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Red Death Essay, Research Paper

Summary of the story "The Red Death had long devastated the country. No

pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous… There were sharp pains, and

sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The

scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face…shut out [its

victim] from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow men….[T]he whole

seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an

hour." When Prince Prospero’s "…dominions were half depopulated, he

summoned to his presence a thousand hale and lighthearted friends from among the

knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of

one of his castellated abbeys….A strong and lofty wall girdled it. This wall

had gates of iron." The Prince had the bolts of the gates welded which left

neither means "of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of

frenzy from within." "The abby was amply provisioned….The prince had

provided all the appliances of pleasure …. buffoons … improvisatori …

ballet dancers … musicians … Beauty … wine. All these and security were

within. Without was the ‘Red Death.’ " "It was toward the close of the

fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, … that the Prince Prospero entertained

his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence….[I]t

was his own guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders. Be sure

they were grotesque….There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and

appointments….madman fashions…much of the beautiful, much of the wanton,

much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which

might have excited disgust." The masque was held in an imperial suite

consisting of seven rooms. "The apartments were so irregularly disposed

that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp

turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect. To the

right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window

looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite. These

windows were of stained glass whose color varied in accordance with the

prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at

the eastern extremity was…blue-and vividly blue were its windows. The second

chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were

purple. The third was green throughout….The fourth…orange…the

fifth…white…the sixth…violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded

in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the

walls,…[with] a carpet of the same material and hue. But in this chamber only,

the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes

were scarlet–a deep blood color." "There was no light of any kind

…within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors…opposite to each window,

a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire…projected its rays through the

tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room….But in the…black

chamber…so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered [was

produced], that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its

precincts at all." It was within this same apartment that there stood a

gigantic ebony clock whose pendulum swang "to and fro with a dull, heavy,

monotonous clang." All who were present froze, and all activities ceased

with the sounding of each hour by the clock. Musicians paused; waltzers stopped

their dance; and the giddy grew pale. "But when the echoes had fully

ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly…." The first six

apartments were densely crowded unlike the seventh. The festivities continued

"until at length there commenced the sounding of midnight upon the clock.

And then the music ceased…and the evolutions of the waltzers were quieted; and

there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before….[As] the last echoes of

the last chime…sunk into silence, there were many individuals in the crowd who

had…become aware of the presence of a masked figure [that no one had detected

before]….[T]here arose at length from the whole company…[an expression] of

disapprobation and surprise-then finally, of terror, of horror, and of

disgust….[T]he mummer had gone so far as to assume the type [and appearance]

of the Red Death. "When the eyes of Prince Prospero fell upon this spectral

image…he was seen to be convulsed, in the first moment with a strong shudder

either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage.

‘Who dares?…Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and

unmask him–that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the

battlements!’ [T]here were found none who put forth hand to seize him; so that

unimpeded, [the figure] passed within a yard of the prince’s person…[and] made

his way uninterruptedly, but with the same solemn and measured step…through

[the first six chambers]." Prince Prospero with drawn dagger and maddened

with rage rushed after the intruder. At last they entered the seventh and final

chamber. The Prince had approached within three or four feet of the figure when

the mummer suddenly turned and confronted him. "There was a sharp cry-and

the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly

afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero….[Then] a throng of

the revelers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and seizing the

mummer…gasped in unutterrable horror at finding the grave cerements and

corpselike mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness untenanted by any

tangible form." "And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red

Death. He had come like a thief in the night." One by one the revelers

died; and when the last one had died, "the life of the ebony clock went

out….And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red

Death held illimitable dominion over all." Setting The story covers a

period of approximately six months during the reign of the Red Death. The action

takes place in " [the] deep seclusion of one of [Prince Prospero's]

castellated abbeys." The "masque" takes place in the imperial

suite which consisted of seven, very distinct rooms. (See Style for a more

indepth discussion of the significance of the setting to this particular story.)

Characters This story has no characters in the usual sense which lends

credibility to an allegorical interpretation. Only Prince Prospero speaks. His

name suggests happiness and good fortune; however, ironically this is not the

case. Within the Prince’s abbey, he has created a world of his imagination with

masked figures that reflect "his own guiding taste." These dancers are

so much a product of the Prince’s imagination that Poe refers to them as "a

multitude of dreams." Even when the "Red Death" enters, the

author refers to this character as a "figure" or a "mummer"

who "was tall and guant, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments

of the grave. The mask…was made…to resemble the countenance of a stiffened

corpse….But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death.

His vesture was dabbled in blood-and his broad brow, with all the features of

the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror." When the mummer is

seized toward the end of the story, all "gasped in unutterable horror at

finding the grave cerements and corpselike mask…untenanted by any tangible

form." Point of View Poe expressed his dislike for allegory – "a tale

in prose or verse in which characters, actions or settings represent abstract

ideas or moral qualities." Poe argued that allegory was an inferior

literary form because it is designed to evoke interest in both the narrative and

the abstract ideas for which the narrative stands, which distracts the reader

from the singleness of effect that Poe most valued in literature. "Under

the best circumstances, it must always interfere with that unity of effect

which, to the artist, is worth all the allegory in the world." Yet Poe

himself openly used allegory, as in "The Haunted Palace" verses which

he inserted into his story, "The Fall of the House of Usher," as well

as in "The Masque of the Red Death." (See Style for allegorical

interpretation.) Style and Interpretation Poe’s story takes place in seven

connected but carefully separated rooms. This reminds the reader of the past

significance of the number seven. (The history of the world was thought to

consist of seven ages, just as an individual’s life had seven stages. The

ancient world had seven wonders; universities divided learning into seven

subjects; there were seven deadly sins with seven corresponding cardinal

virtues, and the number seven is important in mysticism.) Therefore, an

allegorical reading of this story suggests that the seven rooms represent the

seven stages of one’s life, from birth to death, through which the prince

pursues a figure masked as a victim of the Red Death, only to die himself in the

final chamber of eternal night. The prince’s name suggests happiness and good

fortune, and the prince, just like all beings uses happiness to wall out the

threat of death. Prince Prospero’s masked ball or dance reminds us of the

"dance of death" portrayed in old paintings as a skeleton leading a

throng of people to the grave, just as the prince leads his guests to the Red

Death. The significance of time in this story is seen in the symbol of the

"gigantic clock of ebony" which is draped in black velvet and located

in the final room. Although the clock is an object, it quickly takes on human

aspects as the author describes it as having a face and lungs from which comes a

sound that is "exceedingly musical" but "so peculiar" that

the "dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand," in a momentary rigor

mortis that anticipates the final one. The relationship between the Red Death

and time is a key to understanding the symbolic meaning of the story. The seven

rooms are laid out from east to west, reminding us of the course of the sun

which measures our earthly time. These rooms are lighted from without, and it is

only in the seventh room where the color of the windows does not correspond with

the color of the room, but instead is "a deep blood color" through

which light illuminates the westernmost chamber of black, with an ebony clock on

its western wall. In creating this room, Poe links the colors red and black with

death and time. "[S]carlet stains upon the body and especially upon the

face of the victim" indicate the presence of the Red Death. Blood, the very

substance of life, becomes the mark of death as it bursts through the pores.

Death, then, is not an outside antagonist, to be feared and walled out as Prince

Prospero attempts to do; but instead it is a part of each of us. Its presence is

felt in our imaginations as we become aware of the control that time has over

our lives. We hear the echoes of the "ebony clocks" that we carry

within. Prince Prospero tries to escape death by walling it out, and by so

doing, creates a prison out of his sanctuary. However, the Prince learns that no

one can escape death. Death holds "illimitable dominion over all."

Theme No one escapes death. Human happiness (as represented by Prince Prospero)

seeks to wall out the threat of death; however, the Biblical reference (I

Thessalonians 5:2-3) at the end of the story reminds us that death comes

"like a thief in the night," and even those who seek "peace and

safety…shall not escape."


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