Text: M. Denise Schimp Magnuson, “The Narrative Mask of the Red Death,” Masques, Mysteries and Mastodons: A Poe Miscellany (2006), pp. 31-37 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 31, unnumbered:]


M. Denise Schimp Magnuson

A constant in the study of Poe’s short tales, regardless of the critical perspective employed, is the recognition of the central importance of first-person narrators. These narrators, who usually step forth immediately, do much to provide the mystery and insanity so frequently associated with Poe’s work. Surprisingly, one such narrator has been generally overlooked because of Poe’s cleverness in masking his presence. Careful analysis of Poe’s masterpiece of irony, “The Masque of the Red Death,” reveals that there is indeed a first person narrator in this seemingly third-person tale. That narrator is the Red Death himself. Masking this narrator becomes the means by which Poe develops the full ironic implications in this deceptively simple tale.

That there is a participatory narrator in “The Masque of the Red Death” has not gone unnoticed. Leonard Cassuto has recently identified that narrator as “Death himself,” a marked contrast to Joseph Patrick Roppolo’s argument that the association of the Red Death with blood suggests life even as it “serves as a reminder of death,” making the intruder “man’s creation, his self-aroused and self-developed fear of his own mistaken concept of death.”(1) Cassuto bases his argument on the three occurrences of first-person pronouns in this brief tale. The first is an abrupt break from the ostensible third-person narrative pattern: “It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held” (M 2:671). Then, after a detailed description of the colored rooms, the ebony clock in the black and red room begins to strike midnight. Explaining the effect the haunting toll has on the revelers, the narrator says: “And then the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of the waltzers were quieted; and there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before” (M 2:674). At this point, the narrator himself appears at the masque. Speaking as though he is outside the scene, he says, “In an assembly of phantasms such as I have painted, it may well be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation” (M 2:674).

Cassuto is right in pointing to these three occurrences as suggesting a first-person narrator, but he overlooks some major details; thus he misinterprets the narrator’s identity. The original 1842 title was “The Mask of the Red Death: A Fantasy.” In 1845 Poe made the simple but significant change from “Mask” to “Masque,” and he deleted the subtitle. Many have pointed to this change as giving the word a double [page 32:] meaning, referring to Prospero’s masked ball and to the disguise worn by the uninvited guest. However, the prepositional phrase in the title clearly suggests that it is not really Prospero’s Masque, but the Red Death’s; and the Red Death is not only the host, but also the traditional intruder who ultimately turns the celebration into a dance of death, leading Prospero and his fellow revelers to their demise. The irony involved in Prospero’s actually walling himself up with the Red Death rather than escaping it has often been noted. But that irony is deepened by the title’s implicit identification of the Red Death as the actual host.

Most commentators point out Prospero’s arrogance and vanity, but the greater arrogance and pride in the tale are the Red Death’s. The extent of that pride is revealed in the opening, where the seemingly inanimate is personified: “The ‘Red Death’ 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 the horror of blood” (M 2:670). This is no ordinary plague. Not even the notorious Bubonic Plague comes close to the terror and fatality of the Red Death. With the Black Death there were survivors; no one survives the Red Death. The opening lines, then, reflect the Red Death’s proud hyperbole in describing himself, thus identifying him as the first-person narrator.

The Red Death’s pride is further reflected and his personality more fully revealed in his ironic undercutting of Prospero’s false notion that he controls the situation. Vainly thinking that he commands his own destiny, Prospero places himself in the Red Death’s grasp. Many commentators have pointed out that in converting the abbey into a fortress, Prospero actually creates a tomb; he falls into the Red Death’s hands, instead of escaping them. The Red Death controls, a fact borne out not only by the Red Death’s focus on Prospero’s folly, but also in his masterful narration, which becomes a sly mocking of Prospero.

Poe creates this mockery by enclosing the words “Red Death” within quotation marks in their first two appearances. If the Red Death is the narrator, then the quotation marks indeed suggest an ironic perspective. These innocent marks reveal Prospero’s attitude of smug superiority, suggesting that the Red Death is nothing more than a minor inconvenience that, with a little artistic ingenuity, can be ignored. Because they are provided by a first-person narrator, the quotation marks serve as conventional typographic signifiers of an ironic tone. Thus they create subtle mockery of Prospero’s “superiority.”

When the Red Death actually reveals himself to the revelers, however, the quotation marks are dropped, suggesting that the Red [page 33:] Death is more than just a plague; he is also a specific, important character within the tale: “But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death” (M 2:675). Poe’s deliberate phrasing is significant. The word “mummer” indicates that the intruder is not a mere presence, but an actual physical being.

Furthermore, because there is a masquerade, the revelers have assumed many forms. So too, then, has the Red Death. But whereas the revelers put on many fantastic disguises that make them other than what they are, the Red Death puts on a human form, masking his supernatural qualities, making himself recognizable to the revelers with devastating effect.

The final and perhaps most important clue that identifies the Red Death as the narrator is found in the justly famous, apocalyptic phrases of the concluding paragraph:

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the bloodbedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all. (M 2:676-677)

The Red Death is the victor. He alone survives the masquerade, and, as the gloating language reveals, he is damn proud of it. Logically, he is the only one who can describe the masque, especially in the fullness of detail provided. Only an actual witness of the events could do so. While it is true, as Cassuto points out (p. 320), that at the conclusion of the tale Death is prevalent in the hall, that Death is given a specific identification by Poe — it is the Red Death who holds “illimitable dominion over all.”

Accepting the Red Death as the story-teller immediately leads to a significant question. Why would Poe strive so diligently to conceal the narrator of this particular tale? Although he frequently manipulates his first-person narrators in terms of their false perceptions of reality, he does not manipulate the reality of their presence. One could argue thatPoe is simply experimenting with a new form, that he is trying to find fresh subtleties within his already established style. But, then, why didn’t he do it again? A far more plausible explanation is that Poe had a very definite purpose in mind. That purpose might well be [page 34:] illuminated in Robert Regan’s demonstration that “The Masque of the Red Death” may be read as an arrant plundering of Hawthorne’s “Legend of the Province House” from Twice-Told Tales.(2)

Poe’s review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales implies that Hawthorne had plagiarized “William Wilson” in writing “Howe’s Masquerade.” Regan notes that Poe’s charge is obviously absurd, not only because “Howe’s Masquerade” appeared one year before “William Wilson,” but also because the parallels Poe points to in making his charge are tenuous at best. Furthermore, Regan painstakingly reveals that if anyone was plagiarizing it was Poe, since so many of the details in “The Masque of the Red Death” are taken from the “Legends of the Province House.” The importance of Regan’s article in the identification of the Red Death as narrator begins to become apparent when we also take into account Dennis W. Eddings’s argument that “the Masque of the Red Death” is Poe’s actual critique of Hawthorne’s work.(3)

Poe’s first treatment of Twice-Told Tales appeared in the April 1842 issue of Graham’s. In that review, Poe lamented the lack of space for an adequate examination of Hawthorne’s work. His phrasing is most telling:

An accident has deprived us, this month, of our customary space for review; and thus nipped in the bud a design long cherished of treating this subject in detail; taking Mr. Hawthorne’s volumes as a text. In May we shall endeavor to carry out our intention. At present we are forced to be brief. (p. 254)

The review in the May issue of Graham’s appears to carry out that endeavor, but much of it is taken up by the unwarranted charge of plagiarism and Poe’s justly famous definition of a good short tale. In terms of the charge of plagiarism, Regan states, “The reviewer who expects his reader to study his review, the work he is reviewing, and his own current short fiction, all with sedulous care, and to see them as essential parts of one enigmatic design, is demanding indeed” (p. 84). We see just how demanding Poe is in his statement that in a truly good short tale “there should be no word written, of which the tendency,direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction” (p. 299). Poe, in other words, demands [page 35:] that the reader take into account the review and its charges and the applicability of his remarks to “Masque.” The reader who does so will be applying that kindred art Poe speaks of, and will see “Masque” for what it truly is — a critique of Hawthorne’s work.

Eddings argues that “Masque” itself, which also appeared in the May issue of Graham’s, is where Poe took up “Hawthorne’s volumes as a text” (p. 299). Regan offers somewhat the same idea, concluding that “Masque” is a “superb critical parody” of Hawthorne (p. 85). But the tale is more than just a critical parody. Poe is not simply using Hawthorne material to parody him. Poe uses that material to show readers “How to Write a Hawthorne Tale.” Regan suggests as much in stating that “Masque” is a “convincing demonstration of how much more universal and powerful Hawthorne’s effects would have been if he had left moralizing to preachers and local color to humorous weeklies” (p. 85).

The full extent of this demonstration, however, and its link with the Red Death as narrator, is found in Poe’s one adverse criticism of Hawthorne in the May review. Near the conclusion Poe states:

In the way of objection we have scarcely a word to say of these tales. There is, perhaps, a somewhat too general or prevalent tone — a tone of melancholy and mysticism. The subjects are insufficiently varied. There is not so much of versatility evinced as we might well be warranted in expecting from the high powers of Mr. Hawthorne. (p. 300)

If we can comprehend that “Masque” is Poe’s real critique of Hawthorne, then the tale can be fruitfully studied in the terms set forth in his review.

On the surface, the entire tone in “Masque” is melancholy and mystic. Despite the revelry of the party, it is held in the midst of death and destruction. It becomes even more melancholy when that death and destruction invade the masquerade. The mysticism is evident in the progression and colors of the rooms and in the appearance of a supernatural being. Again, on the surface, Poe’s tale lacks versatility. No character is round or dynamic. Prospero is much like many ofHawthorne’s deluded characters who make erroneous moral decisions and suffer the inevitable consequences. In terms of theme, no one can escape death or, more generally, responsibility. [page 36:]

Poe does not write simple tales, however, and his critique of Hawthorne is found not on the surface of “Masque,” but in its subtle reworking of Hawthorne’s material. If the Red Death as narrator helps to establish the ironic world of the tale, seeing “Masque” as a critique of Hawthorne brings that irony to the full. The melancholy disappears when the story is viewed as the Red Death’s. From the Red Death’s perspective, death and destruction represent his triumph over man. In the same manner mysticism no longer is an issue, for the narrator describes his own realm, a realm mysterious only to the limited visions of frail humans incapable of recognizing and understanding him. Finally, the Red death is an extremely versatile character, playing roles not only of narrator but also of a character within the story, a sly mocker of humanity, and a symbol of doom. This versatility continues within the many levels of the story itself and in Poe’s ability to manipulate his character and his plot through an unHawthornesque complex narrator. When read in this way, “Masque” becomes a compelling revelation of how Poe attempts to make Hawthorne’s material “more universal and powerful.”

The masked narrator enables this deceptively simple tale to work on many levels. The tale itself becomes much more complex and ironic, as has been suggested. But the masked narrator also points the astute reader to the literary masquerade Poe hosts. Regan shows how deviously Poe hides clues to his deceptive intentions. Making the Red Death the narrator of the tale is yet another clue to that intent. When an author noted for his first-person narrations suddenly seems to shift to a third-person point of view, our suspicions should be aroused. When that same author, so well noted for his meticulous style, suddenly seems to get sloppy by using first-person pronouns in a third-person narrative, our suspicions grow. Poe relies (not modestly) on his readers’ familiarity with his own work and their ability to recognize the differences in “Masque.” Thus the hidden narrator is another clue to Poe’s intent, fitting well with those other clues Regan points out.

There is one final reason for masking the narrator. What better way to improve upon Hawthorne than to capitalize on Hawthorne’s trademark: Ambiguity. The ambiguity of the narrative voice in “Masque” is the ultimate clue that leads kindred readers to conclude that Poe has indeed demonstrated “How to Write a Hawthorne Tale.” [page 37:]



1.  “The Coy Reaper: Unmasque-ing the Red Death,” SSF 25 (1988) 319; “Meaning and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’,” TSE 13 (1963) 67.

2.  “Hawthorne’s ‘Plagiary’: Poe’s Duplicity,” NCF 25 (1970) 281-298; rpt. The Naiad Voice: Essays on Poe’s Satiric Hoaxing, ed Eddings (Port Washington, N.Y., 1983) pp. 73-87.

3.  The Infernal Twoness: Poe’s Vision of Duplicity. Diss. University of Oregon, 1973 pp. 229-232.






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