Text: Joseph Rosenblum, “ ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ as a Diddle,” Masques, Mysteries and Mastodons: A Poe Miscellany (2006), pp. 24-30 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 24, unnumbered:]


Joseph Rosenblum

Patricia H. Wheat has observed that “most critics of ‘The Masque’ interpret it as an allegory and assume that, as such, it must point to a moral truth.” Here, however, critical agreement ends. Wheat herself sees a moral in the story: the only defense against death is indifference. Joseph Patrick Roppolo believes that “Masque” is a parable “of the human condition, of man’s fate, and of the fate of the universe.” For Mabbott Poe’s tale contains “a clear moral that one cannot run away from responsibility,” while for J. R. Hammond the plague represents “materialistic rationalism so prevalent in Poe’s time.” Hammond believes the message of “Masque” is “that only through the death of a vital part of oneself can the creative artist free himself from earthly considerations.” Charles N. Watson, Jr., too, sees the story as a comment on the artist, showing him “as the creator of a moment of illusory stasis that must soon give way to an apparition of death.” Yet that “momentary pageant of art remains the sole barrier against Darkness and Decay and the Red Death, whose ultimate triumph cannot be stayed.” Robert Regan, acknowledging the story’s parodic elements, maintains that the work offers “a compelling paradigm of the human condition — the danger of withdrawing oneself from the sympathy of others.” Arthur Hobson Quinn agrees that the tale has a moral but concedes: “Poe gives no hint of the great moral the tale tells to those who can think.” Unhappily, neither does Quinn.(1)

If there is disagreement over the nature of the supposed moral, there are equally divergent views on the meaning of specific details within the story. The seven rooms of the suite in the abbey seem to cry out for allegorical interpretation, and those cries have not gone unheeded. Walter Blair sees them as representing the seven ages of man. H. H. Bell and Edward William Pitcher regard the rooms as seven decades. Mabbott states, “There is little doubt that the rooms have poetic meanings” and offers a selection: “the seven days of the week, the seven deadly sins,. . .seven parts of a day.”(2)

Similarly, the significance of the colors of these rooms has been the subject of debate. To Pitcher blue and purple suggest “a closeness to divine truths,” green, orange, and white represent spring, fall, and winter, and violet and black signify “at once the return to ‘facility in belief’ through the association of purple and violet, and the approach of [page 25:] death.”(3) Kermit Vanderbilt intreprets blue as the dawning of life. Purple represents “quickening of life,” green stands for “growth, aspiration, youth,” orange for the “high noon of existence,” white “decline, old age, decomposition, approaching death,” violet prefigures “imminent death,” and black is, of course, death itself.(4) Patrick Cheney notes that the colors correspond to the vestments used in Catholic ritual and to the rainbow.(5)

If Poe intended “Masque” to be a moral allegory, then, he certainly rendered it an opaque one. The difficulties in the story decrease considerably, however, if one views it not as an allegory but rather as a parody of one. Mabbott and James S. Wilson have observed that Poe’s earliest stories were satires and parodies,(6) and Robert Regan argues against the assumption that Poe abandoned his humorous intent in his later works. G. Richard Thompson regards the late story “The Premature Burial” (1844) as humorous. Similarly, Benjamin Fisher argues convincingly that “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” (1845), and, again, “The Premature Burial” are examples of Poe’s intention

to fool the average, horrific-oriented reader of the 1830s and 1840s,. . .a deliberate leading on of a public, most of whom, from 1845 to the present, have not realized just how Poe’s false start leads into an equally false middle and on to just as false and funny an end.

Fisher sees “Masque,” too, as “representing a facet of Poe’s elitist joking,”(7) thus rightly placing it in the tradition of the Folio Club tales as yet another example of Poe’s literary satires. Throughout the story Poe offers clues that the narrator has been beguiled by his love of allegory — and of formula generally — into absurdities that are the antitheses of proper story telling.

Hawthorne may be a particular target. Regan and Watson link “Masque” to him, as, indeed, Poe himself did by including in the same issue of Graham’s Magazine both this story and the second part of his review of Twice-Told Tales. In “Tale Writing — Nathaniel Hawthorne,” which would appear in Godey’s Lady’s Book in November 1847, Poe would criticize Hawthorne for his reliance on allegory, but by then he had been attacking this mode of writing for at least a decade. Whether or not he had a specific author in mind, Poe certainly was parodying theill-made tale here, for “Masque” might be subtitled “How Not to Write [page 26:] a Story,” and the juxtaposition of the review of Hawthorne’s book with “Masque” is intended to make the careful reader reflect on the differences between sound theory and unsound practice.

The very beginning of “Masque” reveals the contrast between Poe’s literary ideals and the narrator’s technique. In his review Poe stresses the importance of the first sentence in establishing the tone of a story: “If the very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then the writer has failed in his first step.”(8) In “Ligeia,” which Poe regarded as his best story, the opening sentence establishes the confused mental state of the narrator. Even the brief opening of “William Wilson” creates a sense of suspense: “Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson.” (M 2: 426). “Masque” opens rather differently, more lamely: “The ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country” (M 2:670). Here is a flat statement of fact with no sense of mystery. The writer has failed in his first step.

Nor does he do better with his second. “No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous,” the narrator continues. Does he mean no other pestilence? Or is the Red Death not a disease? If it isn’t, what is it? Though the narrator is not establishing a tone for his story, Poe is; the tone is that of carelessness in language that corresponds to sloppiness of detail and structure.

The second paragraph claims that Prince Prospero “was happy and dauntless and sagacious,” but his flight to a secluded abbey reveals concern and fear. Moreover, considering the ending, the retreat hardly suggests sagacity.

Once inside this abbey, the prince and his courtiers weld the bolts “to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within.” Significantly, Poe had first written, “to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair from without or of frenzy from within.” This latter reading appears in Graham’s Magazine for May 1842, but when Poe republished the story three years later he deleted “from without.” Either he was careless in retaining the ingress, or he was offering yet another clue that the narrator is relying on formulae rather than on thoughts.

Inside the abbey prison, the narrator proceeds, Prince Prospero has “provided all the appliances of pleasure.” A list of this “all” follows: “buffoons,..improvisatori,..ballet-dancers,..musicians,..Beauty,..wine” (M 2:671). This enumeration undercuts the “all,” since it is so limited. Again the narrator has unthinkingly employed a formula that his text cannot support. [page 27:]

The suite of rooms offers another example of this failing. There are seven rooms, and the description moves from east to west; both are conventional elements in any allegory. But once the narrator begins supplying details, he becomes lost. He seems to sense that these rooms should be given symbolic colors, but he can’t determine an arrangement. He repeats one — purple and violet are identical — and he fails to make any logical progression from, say, light to dark or red to purple (the arrangement of the spectrum).

Nor does he know how to furnish his rooms. He clutters them with “a profusion of golden ornaments.” Light comes from external tripods that “glaringly” illumine the interiors and create “much glare and glitter” (M 2:672, 673). It is not clear whether the first six rooms are carpeted; if they are, one assumes that, like the seventh, they have a carpet uniform in color.

These details contradict Poe’s ideas of a properly furnished room in the same way that the story offends against his theories of the well-made tale. In “The Philosophy of Furniture,” first published two years before “Masque” and reprinted in the Broadway Journal only two months before the revised version of the story, Poe observed, “Glare is a leading error in the philosophy of American household decoration.” He also objected to displays of wealth and “glitter” that the gold ornaments and the lighting produce in the prince’s suite. Carpets should have a pattern, lighting should be subdued, and a suspended Argand lamp should provide the illumination (M 2: 498, 499).

Even the arrangement of the rooms is wrong. Since they are not all in a straight line, they avoid one architectural solecism, but they exhibit another error of taste. “There was a sharp turn every twenty or thirty yards,” as though, having learned that one should avoid straight lines, the narrator had applied this formula with a vengeance (M 2:671). Poe had, however, also warned against lines “clumsily interrupted at right angles” and against curves “repeated into unpleasant uniformity” (“The Philosophy of Furniture” M 2: 497). The seven repetitions in “The Masque” are excessive and inartistic.(9)

But repetition is one of the narrator’s mainstays. The Red Death kills its victims in half an hour. Prospero flees the plague “when hisdominions were half depopulated” (M 2: 670). He arranges the masquerade at the end of half a year of seclusion, and the Red Death appears at midnight. Similarly, when the clock strikes, the revelers stop dancing and turn pale; when the sound fades, they promise themselves that they will not be so affected next time. But they are — again, and [page 28:] again, and yet again. One is reminded of Poe’s letter to Thomas W. White about “Berenice,” in which he speaks of “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque;. . .the witty exaggerated into the burlesque” (O 57-58). So here repetition and exaggeration diminish terror into parody.

Exaggeration is but one link between “Masque” and burlesque, particularly the burlesque of the Folio Club tales. Prince Prospero, for example, suggests the hero of “The Assignation.” The latter pays little attention “to the decora of what is technically called keeping,” just as Prospero “disregarded the decora of mere fashion” (M 2:157, 673). The plot, too, derives from the Folio Club; as Burton R. Pollin has shown, the story is essentially a retelling of “Shadow,” with its raging plague, characters isolated in a locked room, and the mysterious appearance of a shadowy figure heralding death.(10) Such associations make “The Masque” even harder to read as wholly and absolutely serious.

As the story proceeds, the narrator’s logic grows increasingly tenuous. As I already noted, the hourly chiming of the clock disconcerts the masquers, and the surroundings and costumes offer “not a little of that which might have excited disgust.” Still the narrator insists, “It was a gay and magnificent revel,” a statement belied by the circumstances and indicative once more of the substitution of formula for reflection (M 2:673).

The narrator also claims that Prospero is not mad, though he admits, “It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not” (M 2:673.). That “touch” exposes the narrator’s folly, since no amount of touching can determine sanity. Further, even hearing and seeing are not very effective in this case, because the courtiers who do hear and see Prospero are not sure. The narrator does not heed his own words.

In fact, he cannot remember from one moment to the next what is occurring in the story. In one sentence he claims that none of the masquers ventures into the seventh chamber and also that those who do venture into the room hear “a more solemnly emphatic” peal from theebony clock than do the more distant revelers (M 2: 674). Are there people in the room, then, or not? The narrator doesn’t know.

Another unresolved mystery is the source of the Red Death that assails the abbey. If a diseased person had been walled in, he should have died quickly, not lingered half a year. If the plague came from without, who brought it? There is no reference to an intruder, no hint [page 29:] that anyone might penetrate the welded bolts. Given Poe’s preference for the explained over the unexplained Gothic, one would expect at least a clue as to the source were he presenting a story meant to be taken seriously.(11)

In one sense, though, the source of the contagion is itself a clue. Lacking a “tangible form” (M 2:676), it provides a fitting emblem for the story, with its trappings of terror without the substance. “Masque,” like “The Tales of the Folio Club,” capitalizes on the popular Gothic horror story, while at the same time it mocks the genre. It also employs a seeming allegory that is in fact a parody of that mode. It resembles the tales of ratiocination that Poe was writing at the time, for it challenges the reader to discover clues to the story’s underlying meaning, to penetrate the mask of “Masque.” Such clues are not initially obvious; Poe was too good a hoaxer and writer for that. But they are present in sufficient number to suggest that “Masque” is not meant to be read straight.



1.  Patricia H. Wheat, “The Mask of Indifference in ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’” SSF 19 (1982) 51-56; Joseph Patrick Roppolo, “Meaning and ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’” TSE 13 (1963) 59-69; M. 2:688; Poe Companion (London, 1981) p. 77; Charles N. Watson, Jr., “‘The Mask of the Red Death’ and Poe’s Reading of Hawthorne,” The Library Chronicle [University of Pennsylvania] 45 (nos. 1-2, 1981) 143, 148; Robert Regan, “Hawthorne’s ‘Plagiary’; Poe’s Duplicity,” NCF 25 (1970) 297; Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe (New York, 1941) p. 331.

2.  Walter Blair, “Poe’s Conception of Incident and Tone in the Tale,” MP 41 (1944) 228-240; H. H. Bell, “‘The Masque of the Red Death’ — An Interpretation,” SAB 38 (1977) 101-105; Edward William Pitcher, “Horological and Chronological Time in ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’” ATQ 29 (1976) 71-75.

3.  (Pitcher 73.

4.  “Art and Nature in ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’” NCF 22 (1968) 381-382.

5.  “Poe’s Use of The Tempest and the Bible in ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’” ELN 20 (1983), 31-39. To achieve a correspondence with the vestments, Cheney substitutes gold for orange. A rainbow has, of [page 30:] course, neither black nor white, and it includes yellow. Neither parallel can explain the ordering of the colors in the story.

6.  T. O. Mabbott, “On Poe’s ‘Tales of the Folio Club,’” SR 36 (1928) 171-176; J. S. Wilson, “The Devil Was In It,” AM 24 (1931) 215-220.

7.  Robert Regan, p. 281; G. Richard Thompson, “Perspectives on Poe,” The Naiad Voice: Essays on Poe’s Satiric Hoaxing, ed. Dennis W. Eddings (Port Washington, N.Y., 1983) p. 107; Fisher, “Playful ‘Germanism’ in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: The Storyteller’s Art,” Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe: Critical Essays in Honor of Darrel Abel, ed. G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke (West Lafayette, Ind., 1981) pp. 355-374; Fisher, “Poe’s ‘Tarr and Fether’: Hoaxing in the Blackwood Mode,” The Naiad Voice pp. 136-147.

8.  Graham’s Magazine 20 (1842) 299.

9.  See G. R. Thompson’s discussion of the contradictions between Prospero’s suite and “The Philosophy of Furniture” in Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison, Wis., 1973) p. 123.

10.  “Poe’s ‘Shadow’ As a Source of His ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’” SSF 6 (1968) 104-106.

11.  Leonard Cassuto, “The Coy Reaper: Unmasque-ing the Red Death,” SSF 25 (1988) 317-320, explains this mystery by suggesting that the narrator himself is Death. See also the Schimp Magnuson essay, which follows this one.






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