The imagery of “The Masque of the Red Death”—which was initially published as “The Mask of the Red Death” in Graham’s Magazine, probably because the periodical’s editor thought the word “masque” was too exotic—has been echoed many times since, in all manner of literary and cinematic works. It is perhaps most familiar to twenty-first century readers from film adaptations of Gaston Leroux’s novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (serial 1909-1910, book 1910; The Phantom of the Opera, 1911) and stage and film versions of the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber also based on that novel. Contemporary audiences may also know Roger Corman’s relatively lavish film version—which also takes in the Edgar Allan Poe story “Hop-Frog: Or, The Eight Chained Ourangoutangs” (1849), the climax of which is similarly set at a decadent masquerade.
Within the story itself, the costumes adopted in the masked ball are likened to those featured in Victor Hugo’s verse drama Hernani (pr., pb. 1830; English translation, 1830), whose sensational premiere at the Comédie-Française in February, 1830, was elevated to legendary status by Théophile Gautier’s Histoire du romantisme (1872; history of Romanticism). Gautier lavishly described and celebrated a pitched battle allegedly fought at the premiere between the playwright’s supporters and outraged defenders of Classicist tradition. The imagery of this description was, however, effectively effaced by Poe’s own description, the gaudiness of which became an ideal of exotic decadence to which all actual masked balls aspired in vain.
The apocalyptic flamboyance of the story constitutes pure Gothic imagery: The Gothic novel, as it was called in England, had long been established as prose fiction’s principal contribution to the Romantic rebellion against Classicist ideals of artistic form and decorum. The story also marked the beginning of a new tendency in nineteenth century literature. The literary method of Victor Hugo, who was thought of as the figurehead of the French Romantic movement, had been described by the Classicist critic Desiré Nisard as “decadent,” and, although Hugo himself rejected that descriptive term vehemently, some of his more disillusioned contemporaries were only too enthusiastic to embrace it and glory in it. Principal among these self-described decadents was Poe’s French translator, Charles Baudelaire.
In Poe, Baudelaire thought he had found a twin soul, one who had given voice in prose to the dark sentiments Baudelaire routinely expressed in his poetry. “The Masque of the Red Death” was one of the works the French poet held up as a central exemplar of a decadent sensibility and a decadent style. When Joris-Karl Huysmans provided the ultimate celebration of decadent ideas and ideals in his lifestyle fantasy novel À rebours (1884; Against the Grain, 1922), its narrator argued that the prose poem was the ideal form for the exercise of decadent style, and “The Masque of the Red Death” then became one of the type specimens to which all decadent prose ought to aspire. Its ornate manner and nihilistic trajectory were widely imitated, but there remained a sense in which they remained unsurpassable, having already sounded the extremes of potential.
The style of “The Masque of the Red Death” is deliberately artificial, its narrative viewpoint is calculatedly distant, and it only contains one item of speech. In all these respects, it runs counter to the dominant trend in the development of nineteenth century prose fiction, which was to import the elements of novelistic narrative realism into the short story, converting its key exemplars into delicate “slices of life.” Perhaps, therefore, Poe’s piece should not be regarded as a “story” at all, but rather as a “tale” akin to and derived from the tradition of oral narration rather than affiliated with the evolution of written texts. Like many folkloristic tales—but not the literary adaptations of such tales for the moral instruction of children—“The Masque of the Red Death” is unremittingly bleak in its outlook. It is also curiously triumphant in its echoing of the grim consolation of the medieval danse macabre, an image often found on church walls and intended to remind rich and poor alike that Death—characteristically personified as a hooded skeletal figure—will, in the end, lead everyone away in an endless procession. Actual quasi-orgiastic masques had long been associated with the carnival (literally “farewell to meat”) of Mardi Gras, the day before the beginning of the forty-day Lenten fast whose climax was the Easter celebration of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Thus, masques had always had the kind of climactic and valetudinarian aspect that Poe exaggerates to its limit in his short story.
“The Masque of the Red Death” was only one of a host of groundbreaking works that Poe produced, the sum of which established him as one of the most innovative writers of all time. No other American writer has proved as influential, and there is a tragic irony in the fact that Poe was so completely unappreciated in his own time that he virtually starved to death, leaving behind a highly misleading reputation as a drink-addled maniac. One of Poe’s early twentieth century biographers, J. A. T. Lloyd, titled his outraged account of the poet’s sad fate The Murder of Edgar Allan Poe (1931) and identified the depraved indifference of Poe’s eventual literary executor, Rufus W. Griswold, as the criminal act in question. It is highly probable that the incipient despair of Poe’s actual existence is reflected in his story, although its composition long antedates the death of his child-bride Virginia, not only in its compensatory image of sumptuous existence but also in the refined savagery with which it destroys everything contained in and represented by that image.
Like many of Poe’s works, “The Masque of the Read Death” has been subjected to various processes of speculative psychoanalysis. The Freudian critic Marie Bonaparte argues that the Red Death is symbolic of a father returning to punish a son for his Oedipal desires, while Richard Wilbur suggests that the Red Death symbolizes the disease of rationalism and that Prospero’s attempt to seclude himself from it is a representation of the flight of the poetic imagination from worldly consciousness into dreams. There are, however, numerous critics who insist that no such secondary elaboration is necessary and that the story is exactly what it seems to be on the surface: a calculatedly gaudy but essentially straightforward recognition of the inevitability of death.
The gaudiness of the story’s imagery adds an extra dimension to its reiteration of the moral lesson of the danse macabre; it panders unrepentantly to the universality of resentful envy, as it invites readers to rejoice in the annihilation of Prospero and everything for which he stands. That appeal to meanspiritedness does not, however, reduce the work to the status of a mere revenge fantasy, because the narration maintains a grandeur and magnificence of its own while it recounts the devastation of the grandeur and magnificence it describes. Poe’s prose has an irreducible elegance not merely of style but of content as well. The symbolism of its garishly colored rooms, incarnate dreams, and ebony-cased timepiece had already been echoed and imitated so many times by the time Poe wrote the story as to seem hackneyed, and such apparatus was already standard in the Gothic fiction produced at the end of the eighteenth century. Poe, however, distilled and purified this symbolism with a rare economy and an unprecedented intensity of focus, forging a veritable masterpiece.
The theme of Poe’s allegory quite clearly focuses on the impossibility, regardless of one’s power, wealth, and influence, of escaping mortality. However, the story is somewhat more complex than this easy moral statement would suggest. First, the particular nature of the Red Death itself creates a basic irony. The metaphor of a “Red” death, because it suggests blood, is the conventional image, not of death, but rather of life itself, for the presence of blood on the face of a person suggests the life within it. In this sense, every living person wears a mask of red—the blood visible beneath the skin. However, it is precisely this sign of life that ironically suggests death. For Poe’s point is that it is the very presence of life that inevitably means death. Thus, Prospero does not simply try to escape death; rather, by enclosing himself within the castle and shutting out the outside world, he attempts to escape life into a realm hermetically closed off—in short, into a world very much like Poe’s notion of the art work itself.
In this sense, Prospero is a reflection of William Shakespeare’s character of the same name in The Tempest (1611), similarly an aesthetic magician who creates an alternate world of imaginative reality not susceptible to the contingencies of external reality. Indeed, Poe’s emphasis in “The Masque of the Red Death” is that the abbey within which Prospero retreats is his own “creation,” a result of his “own eccentric yet august taste”—phrases that echo Poe’s own aesthetic theory—a Platonic notion that celebrates the ideal of the artwork as a self-sustained experience of absolute and immutable beauty. In effect, Prospero creates the image of a self-contained artwork within which he tries to live. However, the seven rooms within the abbey seem to reflect the inescapable temporality of human experience.
The sequence of rooms perhaps represents the seven ages of man—from the blue, which suggests the beginning of life and light in the east, to the black, which suggests the darkness of night and death in the west. Consequently, even though Prospero attempts to create the illusion of art as eternally protected from the contingencies of life, the final realization of the reader is that, because all art works inevitably reflect life, one cannot escape, even within the artwork, the inevitable implication of process and thus mortality. The image of the clock in the final room suggests why this is so: Both life and the literary work exist within time, and it is indeed time that makes life end inevitably in death.