Text: James W. Gargano, “The Masquerade Vision in Poe’s Short Stories,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1977


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Professor of English, Washington and Jefferson College,
Washington, Pennsylvania

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The masquerade appears as a recurring symbolic device in the works of Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe. There are masquerades in The Blithedale Romance and “Howe’s Masquerade,” and masquers or masked characters figure in “The Maypole of Merrymount,” “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” and “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Obviously stretching the word to mean “ingenious deception,” Melville calls one of his most “philosophical” novels The Confidence Man: His Masquerades. In Moby Dick, the term has even less reference to a festive occasion at which masks are worn; perhaps voicing his creator’s view of life as an enigmatic masquerade, Ahab cries out: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.”

In three of his best and most popular stories, “William Wilson,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “Hop-Frog,” Poe makes use of actual masquerades to enhance the settings of climactic scenes. Like Hawthorne and Melville, he does not attempt to create spectacular “masques” in the manner of Ben Jonson or Campion (though “The Maypole of Merrymount” refers quite pointedly to Milton’s Comus). All three writers turn the masquerade into an elaborate emblem of human life, suggesting that existence is a vast, tricky, and unsubstantial “appearance” — a sort of masquerade — disguising an ultimate reality which can, at best, be fitfully glimpsed. It seems to follow that man is doomed to a very limited perception and understanding of the complicated cosmic pageant unfolding around him: the nature of things, his own myopia and pride, as well as the knavery of others envelop man, fatally, in error and deception. Convinced, then, that the whole visible creation conceals “some unknown but still reasoning ­[page 2:] thing,” Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe adumbrate, in a variety of symbols and symbolic actions, man’s quest for identity and security among the omnipresent masks. For example, when Captain Delano in Benito Cereno fails to see through the stagy hoax perpetrated by Babo, the masquerade operates as a submerged metaphor. In “Young Goodman Brown,” too, the protagonist yearns for an unambiguous reality only to be appalled by changing faces and inscrutable masks. And Father Hooper, who lives a long life behind a mask, exclaims on his deathbed: “ ‘I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil.’ ”

I believe that, of all American writers, Edgar Allan Poe makes the most insistent and compelling use of the masquerade to convey a complex view of life. First, and on the simplest level, the masquerade enables Poe to indulge his love of heightened effects and atmospheres by introducing bizarre deeds and charged emotions into a familiar world. It enables him to place reality in a distorting ambiance that appears more natural to the province of “unreality”: at any moment mirth may erupt into hysteria, and originality of dress may be exaggerated to wild fantasy and grotesqueness. The prevailing license may be said to authorize events that would be implausible outside the world of Gothic expectations and accessories. Second, by making the masquerade the mise-en-scène for the climactic conflict between a willful protagonist and a strange and sometimes inexplicable antagonist, Poe adds a psychological and “philosophical” significance to his work. Literally and symbolically, the real world is invaded by an agent who serves an alien and higher “power”; two apparently discrete realms clash, turning the masquerade into a play-within-a-play or a suggestive typology. The protagonist represents the individual man’s mania for separateness, identity, and uncircumscribed selfhood; the antagonist, on the other hand, represents man’s manifold limitations and destiny — in short what lies behind the mask. Third, Poe proclaims his ironic vision in the masquerade’s violent denouement: man is seen as a creature whose hope for inviolable identity and personal freedom is thwarted by the universal necessity of death. Omnipresent in time and place, the spirit of mortality belittles its victim and assimilates him and his fevers into the quiet of eternal process. Thus, death is paradoxically a scourge and a consummation, and life is simultaneously a harrowing reality and a delusive dream. ­[page 3:]

I believe that an analysis of “William Wilson,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “Hop-Frog” will demonstrate Poe’s varied and highly imaginative use of masquerades. I hope to show, too, the presence of the masquerade view of life in two stories which, by a slight extension of the term, can be regarded as having masquerade motifs: “King Pest,” an early charade in which Poe treats, with comic exuberance, ideas which later assume a more somber cast for him, and “The Cask of Amontillado,” a narrative with a carnival setting and costumed characters. Finally, I shall relate the masquerade stories to tales of such different tone and quality as “Berenice,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia,” “The Black Cat,” and “Morella.” My survey will not include such comedies as “The Man That Was Used Up” and “Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” or such a satiric inanity as “The Spectacles”: the masks in stories like these have little importance beyond the joke they make and can only deceive narrators with weak eyes or weak minds. In the works I shall examine in detail, however, Poe’s masquerades function as brilliant vehicles for his richest insights into life.

A look at “William Wilson” will, perhaps, begin to give concreteness and substance to my thesis. In this classic doppelganger tale published in 1839, the masquerade, which occurs in the last and culminating scene, may appear to be an ingenious fillip. The preceding incidents, however, prepare so logically for the final scene that their meaning is fully clarified in the masquerade. The first episode, in Dr. Bransby’s school for boys, immediately imports unreality and inexplicability into the very real world of Wilson’s youth. The child discovers a “plenitude of mystery” everywhere: the house is a “palace of enchantment,” its subdivisions are “incomprehensible,” and Wilson’s “most exact ideas in regard to the whole mansion were not very far different from those with which he pondered upon infinity.” Even the schoolmaster himself poses a “gigantic paradox, too utterly monstrous for solution!” The masquerade blend of actuality and mystery, so well anticipated in the description of Dr. Bransby’s dwelling, is intensified through Wilson’s encounter with his improbable counterpart whose “imitation of my gait, my voice, my habits, and my manner” foreshadows the appearance of the two men, at the Duke Di Broglio’s masquerade, in identical costumes. Wilson’s inability to prevent the constant entrance of his enigmatic alter ego ­[page 4:] into his daily activities proves that he cannot keep the human arena free from external invasion. The demands of contrary worlds pull him psychologically apart as he is locked in conflict with his namesake; in attempting to escape his double, the young schoolboy begins to rehearse for the ironic tragedy decreed by universal volition. He would like to be disengaged, free, and wholly of this world, but his twin overrules and deflates his desires.

The incidents at both Eton and Oxford repeat with increasing emphasis the intrusion of the unusual into the ordinary world. At climactic junctures, the ghostly Wilson materializes, and discomfits the narrator who is about to break out into unbridled self-expression. In addition, the eerie visitor unfailingly assumes the dress as well as the identity of the young man trying to elude him.

It is not fortuitous that the resolution of “William Wilson” takes place at a masquerade. With his passion for design in the smallest details of his fiction, Poe stages the masquerade at the palazzo of the Duke Di Broglio, whose suggestive Italian name means “intrigue” or “plot.” Although the setting does not have the evocativeness of “The Masque of the Red Death” or “Hop-Frog,” it intensifies the mood and theme of the story. Wilson’s description of himself as suffocated by the atmosphere and as making his way through “mazes” (which correspond to the infinite mazes in Dr. Bransby’s schoolroom) gives the sense that he is approaching his doom. Indeed, Wilson’s last and decisive confrontation with the mysterious stranger at the masquerade encourages the inference that all of Wilson’s flights and tergiversations should be interpreted as a masquerade of self-deception. Whatever it is that lurks behind the mask will, at the masquerade, impose its pattern upon the agitated activity of individual existence.

Of course, Poe’s masquerade view finally prevails: Wilson’s violence against himself betrays man’s inability to construe the riddle of the life he lives so seriously. From Poe’s perspective, man’s fundamental folly is his conception of himself as the center and maker of his own world. It is fitting that the characters who seek to be autonomous and uninhibited are men of will, like Wilson, a prince in “The Masque of the Red Death,” and a king in “Hop-Frog”; paradoxically, however, the ineffectiveness of man’s luckless self-assertion constitutes the comedy and the tragedy, the final meaning, of his dream-drama. In Poe’s melodramatic ­[page 5:] imagination, comedy and tragedy blend into a masquerade of planned merriment on the edge of terror, of disguised identity culminating in the dark revelation of man’s nothingness in the universal scheme.

In “The Masque of the Red Death,” published in 1842, Poe gives the masquerade the foreground it did not occupy in “William Wilson.” Announced in the tale’s third paragraph, it becomes, as the title indicates, the controlling metaphor. The masquerade creates an oppressive atmosphere of claustrophobia and menace, adds mystery to the otherworldly agent, and dwells in detail on Prospero’s unequal contest with a ubiquitous foe. In addition, the increased emphasis on punishment — from the mere prediction of Wilson’s death to the actual destruction of the prince and his whole court — intensifies the symbolic drama of man’s ultimate doom. The human yearning to live without restriction is also more fully depicted: whereas Wilson asserts his freedom by running from his nemesis, Prospero constructs in his own castle, a self-sufficient universe made up of color, music, and the ingenuities of art. The prince is the architect of an inviolable temple of earthly delights, a Xanadu gaudier than Kubla Khan’s.

In spite of differences, the two masquerade stories have striking similarities. Like “William Wilson,” “The Masque of the Red Death” begins with a situation located in ordinary time and place; Prince Prospero’s retreat, with his retinue, into a formidable castle is a response to a very real threat of a destructive plague. As in “William Wilson,” too, once the masquerade is set in motion, non-human powers dominate the scene. The prince’s authority cannot prevent the intrusion into his stronghold of the red death; the ebony clock measures out the eternal time that will overtake the revelers; the masquers are seen, in all their costumed eccentricity, as both real persons and unsubstantial dreams; the irregularity and colors of the room assert that human arrangement and design unconsciously embody larger meanings; and “the wild music of the orchestra” has the quality of an ominous music of the spheres. The artifice of the masquerade dissolves the hard facts of life into something unreal, oddly comic, and finally phantasmagoric.

The masquerade in “The Masque of the Red Death” is, obviously, a play within a play, enacting, on a human stage and scale, an action that mirrors man’s imminent catastrophe. The ­[page 6:] death of the prince and his entourage is a synecdoche for the collapse of worlds envisioned by Poe in Eureka and other works: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” The fever of individual existence is terminated, and the prince’s proud identity is humbled by an agent from the supernal. Like Wilson, Prospero ridiculously seeks to extend the imperium of his will beyond the limits of his power; the Red Death is, like the second Wilson, a divine messenger and a limiting force defining the incompleteness of the earthling. In spite of the masquerade role in which he cloaks himself, the prince learns the tenuousness of his identity in the dissolution of his separateness into the fathomless universe. Of course, his role is an evasion, a disguise that turns life into a jest, but it would be going too far to say that man or his surrogate is ever merely funny. Those critics who reduce all of Poe’s works to burlesque or parody fail to see that, at his best, he presents a multi-faceted vision made up of such inseparable elements as mystery, horror, heady rationalism, and comedy. And “The Masque of the Red Death” is, with all its luridness and heavy freight of symbolism, Poe at his best.

With its mixture of humor and violence, of the real and the mysterious, “Hop-Frog,” a mature work published in the year of Poe’s death, fits the pattern that gives form and philosophy to Poe’s masquerade tales. It resembles “The Masque of the Red Death” in its elaborate masquerade and its wholesale carnage; as will be seen, however, it differs from the other masquerade tales in having a flesh-and-blood antagonist rather than a spectral one. Perhaps, too, the fatuity of the protagonist and the pervasive animal imagery add an extra dimension of cruelty to Poe’s theme of mankind’s hubris and insignificance.

“Hop-Frog’s” leisurely preamble fixes the action in the real court of a self-centered monarch with a mania for amusement. From the beginning, however, the bizarre and grotesque coexist with and distort the actual: the king and his ministers are described as “large, corpulent, oily men as well as inimitable jokers”; Hop-Frog and Trippetta are freaks who, for all their defencelessness, possess hidden powers. Indeed, as with other of his enigmatic characters, Poe envelops the dwarf’s origins in mystery: ominously, it cannot be said “with precision, from what country Hop-Frog originally came.” The acute reader of Poe quickly perceives that the ordinary relationships of the world have ­[page 7:] been inverted and that the long-suffering fool (the powerful “frog”) will befool his complacent and vicious persecutors (the impotent “orangoutans”) in this masquerade.

The extravagant setting that flaunts “every device which could possibly give eclat to a masquerade” pushes the unusual to the limits of horror. The king and his ministers terrify the guests “who supposed the ferocious-looking creatures to be beasts of some kind in reality, if not specifically orangoutans.” Overwhelmed by his monstrous need for humor, the merry king eerily laughs almost up to the moment he is consumed by the flames. The dwarf carries out his joke with a furious gnashing of teeth. The last of Poe’s masquerade tales, “Hop-Frog” presents the most outrageous mixture of ugliness, abnormality, comedy, and sheer brutality. The world ends with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with a hellish conflagration.

As already noted, the confrontation between the king and his jester differs from, even while it resembles, the other masquerade confrontations. To begin with, the king is a flabby monster without the dynamic evil of Wilson or the arrogance of Prospero. He represents the lowest stage of self-indulgence, the insatiable appetite to be entertained, at all costs, by the least subtle of practical jokes; he is the imperious ape-man who violates the self-respect of the puny creatures around him. The dwarf, too, is an unusual antagonist, for, despite his strangeness, he is more distinctly human than the wraith-like double of Wilson or the bodiless specter of the red death. He reacts angrily against his sovereign’s cruelty, and he himself designs the protagonist’s punishment as a satisfying personal revenge. In contrast, the destructive agents in “William Wilson” and “The Masque of the Red Death” are remarkably passive: relying on a power outside themselves, they seem to invite the suicidal assaults of their foes.

Still, the confrontation in “Hop-Frog” shows basic similarities to that in each of the other masquerade stories. The dwarf is a provisional denizen of the actual world who comes from a remote and unfamiliar country and possesses almost superhuman power; he exacts retribution; his escape from the flaming building through a symbolic skylight suggests, as Richard Wilbur notes, a heavenly ascension; and finally, he disappears into the vagueness from which he came, never to be seen again. Once more the curtain comes down on the familiar cosmic drama with fated cast — the ­[page 8:] ego-centered man who flouts all checks and restraints to his self-gratification, and the punitive agent who lures the egoist to the frontiers where his immunity ceases.

To move from “Hop-Frog” to “King Pest” is to gain a glimpse of Poe’s masquerade technique in the making. Published in 1835, this comic tale is peopled with clownish characters who, as the epigraph apprises the reader, lack the dignity to be principals in a tragedy. Incongruous companions in their contrasting heights (one is six-and-a-half feet tall while the “other’s stature could not have exceeded four feet”), Legs and Hugh Tarpaulin are appealing folk heroes. Caricatures of thirsty sailors on a spree in London alehouses, they flee, without paying their score at the “Jolly Tar,” into the pestilential area of the city. There, in a “tall and ghastly-looking building” from which issue “wild, laughter-like, and fiendish shrieks,” they come upon a “company of six” seated on coffin-tressels. Each individual in this tasteless extravaganza is marked by a monstrous distortion of a single feature: forehead, mouth, nose, cheeks, ears, and eyes. Though mere vulgarians, however, they have more than a little resemblance to the courtly masqueraders in “The Masque of the Red Death” who are described as “arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments” and as “delirious fancies such as the madman fashions.”

“King Pest,” it appears, is a comic anticipation of Poe’s later masquerades. Like “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” published in 1838, it shows that Poe could ridicule the devices of horror he used with seriousness; the satirist of Senora Psyche Zenobia is, after all, the creator of “Ligeia,” published in the same year. Still, though “King Pest” produces more laughter than frissons, it already contains the essential masquerade element — available, apparently, for humorous or serious themes. Predictably, the actual and unreal worlds merge, although in deference to the comic tone of the tale, the merging takes place in the abandoned cellar of Will Wimble the undertaker rather than in Prospero’s castellated abbey. Legs and Hugh go from the solid reality of ships and taverns to an enclosure crammed with the appurtenances of horror. Apparently delighted with his mock-gala ambiance in “King Pest,” Poe expatiates on it as lengthily as he does on the atmosphere of the seven rooms in “The Masque of the Red Death.” Of course, the mystery being factitious, it will be thoroughly exposed, and the drunken sailors will return to firm ­[page 9:] earth unscathed by the gargoylish creatures that threatened them.

“King Pest” also contains a conflict, albeit a comic one, between the “dark” forces and protagonists in search of unrestricted freedom of action. The conflict stems from Tarpaulin’s charge that the pretensions of Pest and his court are fraudulent; the canny Hugh declares the otherworldly monarch to be nobody “but Tim Hurlygurly the stage player!” He also identifies the premises, decorated with drinking cups made of skulls and a skeleton hanging from the ceiling, as the home of an absent undertaker. In a flatulent counter-argument, Pest allies himself with the supernatural, asserting that his “deep research” among the “wines, ales, and liqueurs of this goodly metropolis” serves to “advance . . . the true welfare of that unearthly sovereign whose reign is over us all, whose dominions are unlimited, and whose name is ‘Death.’ ” Hugh’s irreverence earns him and his shipmate the comic sentence of being “duly drowned as rebels in yon hogshead of October beer.”

As in the masquerade stories, violence ensues, but in this case the “higher” forces are routed in mock-epic fashion. King Pest is pushed down a trapdoor, and Legs seizes the suspended skeleton and swings it about him “with so much energy and good-will” that he brains one of the impostors; he also overturns the hogshead, causing a deluge in which “Piles of death-furniture floundered about.” All this mumbo-jumbo belies Poe’s customary, saturnine vision as Legs and Tarpaulin enter a forbidden domain ruled over by masquerading freaks and, unintimidated, lay waste death’s kingdom, expose the monarch’s identity, and escape as gallant and tipsy conquerors. For a brief interval, at least, death has no dominion and man has a rude revenge against the tyrants who manage the universe.

“The Cask of Amontillado,” a masterpiece of mordant irony published eleven years after “King Pest,” is closer to the spirit of the three masquerade tales. Its action takes place “during the supreme madness of the carnival season,” and Montresor, like the second Wilson, wears a mask of black silk, while his victim, Fortunato, is dressed in the motley of a fool. Moreover, the journey of the costumed enemies in the catacombs in quest of the amontillado has the suggestiveness of a miniature play within a larger drama. As in the masquerade tales, also, strangeness invests the ordinary world of human relations so insistently that ­[page 10:] persons and words take on a hallucinatory quality. Although no figure comes from an unseen realm or barbarous country, Montresor’s mad disguise of motive turns reality into an impenetrable mystery. Actually a shrewd man who is normally respected and feared, Fortunato has been reduced by the carnival into a drunken jester without common prudence. His enemy, Montresor, is also transformed: a fallen nobleman conscious of having been victimized and insulted, he now becomes the master of the situation. In this masquerade of inverted identities, words too are shifting, sinister, comic, and double-edged: the wine vault becomes a burial vault; Montresor effusively greets his susceptible foe as a friend; Fortunato is encouraged to abandon his subterranean trip in a manner calculated to lure him on; and both men are, in a grimly contrasting way, masons. The everyday world dissolves into an emotionally charged carnival whose “unreality” reaches its climax in the underworld of the catacombs.

At first glance, the characters in “The Cask of Amontillado” seem to differ radically from those in the pure masquerade tales. In “William Wilson,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “Hop Frog,” the victims deserve their fates: Wilson, Prospero, and the king act from a sense of self-sufficiency that is utterly irresponsible. In the three stories, too, the punitive agents are shrouded in enough mystery to suggest affiliation with the nonhuman. The motives and deserts of Montresor, on the contrary, are difficult to explain. What wicked thing, after all, has Fortunato done to earn his awful entombment, and isn’t Montresor a psychotic rather than a messenger from heaven?

I believe that “The Cask of Amontillado” represents a new departure in which Poe subtilized and refined his masquerade pattern by eliminating the heavily symbolic avenger from the narrative. Instead of dealing with a conflict between an unearthly personification and a consciousness infatuated with its own freedom and sense of identity, the drama in “The Cask of Amontillado” involves two human beings who have created the mystery of their own dilemma. In other words, Poe devises a plot in which two blind wills, two inflated egos manufacture their own imbroglio and disaster. Montresor’s cold passion and Fortunato’s drunken obsession provide impetus enough for the unfolding of a plot full of festiveness and anguish. With such inflammable material on hand. One might ask, what need is there for supernatural interference? ­[page 11:] Human nature has sufficient resources to generate its own annihilation. “The Cask of Amontillado” is clearly a tale of fate or fortune, as the name of Montresor’s victim confirms. There is little doubt that Fortunato represents all that his killer once was and thinks he still should be: “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved: you are happy, as once I was.” Montresor attributes his decline in “fortune” to the man whom he circuitously characterizes as “a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in my heels.” The risen Fortunato has, in his enemy’s imagination, stolen his birthright: he thus becomes a surrogate for the harshness of fate, a subconscious symbol of Montresor’s deprivations. Like William Wilson, the narrator feels himself bereft of his “rights of self-agency” and imagines that he will recover his estate only in the death of his foe. Thus, the two characters are linked in the same kind of inextricability common to the masquerade protagonist and antagonist, and both characters are unwitting puppets in a drama beyond their own perception.

“The Cask of Amontillado” illustrates once again that the masquerade stories form a group with striking similarities and ingenious variations. Yet, this group is not to be regarded as distinct from and unrelated to Poe’s other fiction. Indeed, the masquerade tales appear to bring together in the perfect fusion of a dominant metaphor elements found separately in many other stories. Quite possibly, closer attention to Poe’s view of life as a masquerade may help to unravel such puzzles as “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Black Cat,” “Morella,” and “Berenice.”

In a number of the nonmasquerade stories, for example, Poe creates a “real” world that well nigh dissolves into mystery and unreality. Time and place take on the poetic vagueness they may have in dreams or hallucinations. Certainly, “Ligeia” is full of dream imagery or resonances; the narrator himself cannot decide whether to locate a specific deed or sight in actuality or in his own fancy. He cannot tell with certainty where he met Ligeia, and he confesses that “I have never known the paternal name of her who was my friend and my betrothed.” Attributing his perplexity in the actual world to the elusive presence of the spiritual, he declares that he cannot describe the ethereal beauty of his wife: “Ah, word of no meaning! behind whose vast latitude of mere sound we intrenched our ignorance of so much of the spiritial.” Ligeia comes ­[page 12:] and goes like a shadow, a celestial spirit who haunts and mocks the imagination.

The first paragraph of “The Fall of the House of Usher” turns the “mere house and the simple landscape features of the domain” into unreality. Traveling deeper and deeper into a weirdly inexplicable “tract of land,” the narrator convinces himself, half against his will, that “about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity.” Soon he reaches to the very heart of the mystery lying in wait for him: the symbiotic relationship between Usher and his sister defies the logic of the commonsense world, and superstition and primitive apprehensions serve as truer guides than the balanced mind. Indeed, the whole tale can be interpreted as the overturning of rational order. In tale after tale, the same impeachment of reason and reality occurs, and human events, unable to stand on simple human foundations, are subverted by divine powers with a touch of the demonic. The narrator of “The Black Cat,” for instance, tells a tale at once “homely” and “wild”: the “mere household events” he narrates are so extraordinary that he refuses to hazard an explanation of them. A strange instrument of justice, the black cat acts as part of a celestial-infernal plot against a mankind — in this tale as in many others — reduced to anonymity. The anonymous young man in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the protagonists in “Morella” and “Berenice” superimpose upon commonplace reality exciting and destructive visions in which they, like Prospero and the visionary Wilson, trap themselves. In all these tales, the human arena is a masquerade of disguised identities vulnerable to mysterious threats from behind the mask of things.

The conflicts and violent denouements in the nonmasquerade stories end by affirming a cosmic order inimical to personal survival. Ligeia may cry out that man does not submit to death “save only through the weakness of his feeble will,” but she does so in response to her own hopeless poem proclaiming human life to be a tragedy witnessed by angels who cannot interfere with supernatural intentions and save man from the conqueror worm. The fatal drama, decreed by inscrutable destiny, unfolds in “The Fall of the House of Usher” as well as in “Ligeia”; in his utter dependence upon his sister, Usher has no rights of self-agency, and his struggle to assert himself against cosmic mastery must meet ­[page 13:] with failure. The old man with the eye of a vulture in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the sinister Pluto in “The Black Cat,” Ligeia, Morella, and Berenice, all act, as if at the instigation of outside commands, to lure men into agony, madness, or self-destruction. Feeling themselves under the control of foreign powers even when they wish to express themselves most willfully, their victims often voice incredulity in recounting the events that overtake them. The narrator in “The Black Cat” confesses that he neither solicits nor expects belief from his readers because of the very improbability of his tale; and Berenice’s ravisher commits his assault while he is in a dreamlike trance. No matter what role its agents may assume — the dark radiance of a woman or the vulturous eye of an old man — the ineffable forces compel reënactment of the tragedy beheld by the appalled angels in “The Conqueror Worm.”

Although the protagonists and antagonists in Poe’s tales “confront” one another in curiously different ways, one character in each confrontation discovers the limits of his seemingly inexhaustible resources. Man’s best-wrought schemes, ceaseless intellection, and aggression prove that the self cannot attain the infinite freedom and gratification it craves. It cannot flee far enough to escape the limits that increasingly pen it in; nor can all its concentrated ingenuity devise successful stratagems against ultimate necessity. Morella, Pluto, and the old man in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and Madeline Usher reiterate “nevermore” to man’s aspiration. The simple irony is that the noblest quest and the most self-centered ambition lead alike to the same tragic climax. A king, a prince, the last scion of a family of grandees, nameless intellectuals, and lost dreamers cannot keep their identities intact in the absurd masquerade of what the dead poet in “For Annie” refers to as the “crisis” and the “fever called ‘Living.’ ”

Perhaps it is in a poem, first published in 1843 and later included in “Ligeia” in 1845, that Poe expresses most explicitly the message so well distilled into the masquerade stories. Although the scene of “The Conqueror Worm” has the remoteness of heaven, the occasion is described, in terms appropriate to a masquerade on earth as a “gala night.” The angelic audience witnesses a “motley drama” acted out, to an orchestral accompaniment, by “mimes” or a “mimic rout”; the human actors might very well fit into the pattern of “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” or “Hop-Frog.” The presence of ­[page 14:] supernatural interpreters obviously enables Poe to present a masquerade explained and moralized through a convenient authorial-angelic point of view. “The Conqueror Worm,” then, provides a celestial model, a vision of human existence sub specie aeternitatis. It exposes the terrestrial mummery as a play within a cosmic play directed, not by the will of the puppet-performer, but by the “bidding of vast formless things / That move the scenery to and fro.” From the authority of his angelic role, Poe further declares that man pursues a “Phantom” (perhaps his perfect freedom and autonomy) through a never-ending circle, that the plot of mortal existence is essentially made up of madness, sin, and horror, and that the “mimes, in the form of God on high,” fall pathetic victims to a “blood-red thing that writhes / From out the scenic solitude.” He also implies that the celestial melodrama cannot be assigned a definitive cosmic meaning because its prime movers — seemingly independent of the angels, if not of God — are themselves formless. The play, however, can be experienced if not explained; it is a tragedy that reduces man below the level of the hero-worm.

Though never so explicitly didactic, all of Poe’s masquerade tales except “King Pest” convey the same dark message as “The Conqueror Worm.” What the angels behold in generalized vision, individual men experience, without total understanding, in the minutiae of their lives. No matter how crooked or complex a route men travel, the exigencies of the actual inevitably conform to the celestial pattern. With its hectic movement and self-important roles, the masquerade goes on, while the seraphs weep and men of angelic imagination record their glimpse of what goes on behind the mask.



This lecture was delivered by Dr. Gargano, Professor of English at Washington and Jefferson College, in Washington, Pennsylvania, at the Fifty-fourth Annual Commemorative Program of the Poe Society, October 10, 1976.

© 1976 and 2010, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.

There are no page numbers printed in the original. Page numbers have been added for sake of convenience, following the page breaks from the printed version.


[S:1 - MVPSS, 1976] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - The Masquerade Vision in Poe's Short Stories (J. W. Gargano, 1976)