Text: Christopher Brown, “Poe’s ‘Masque’ and The Portrait of a Lacu,” Poe Studies, June 1981, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 14:6-8


[page 6, column 2:]

Poe’s “Masque” and
The Portrait of a Lacu

University of South Carolina

In the last decade critics have begun to examine the influence of Edgar Allan Poe on Henry James. The subject was long neglected, partly because the more obvious impact of Hawthorne on James commanded attention, partly because Poe’s influence seemed improbable in light of James’ 1876 review of Les Fleurs du Mal which terms a taste for Poe immature. Yet, as Burton R. Pollin demonstrates, that evaluation is the exception to James’ normally favorable statements about his predecessor. For instance, in A Small Boy and Others (1913) James fondly recalls his readings of Poe, and in Hawthorne, published just three years after the Baudelaire review, James has high praise for Poe’s critical acumen.(1) Pollin proceeds to note indisputable allusions to Poe’s works in The Sacred Fount and The Golden Bowl; Adeline R. Tintner perceives the basis of James’ “Glasses” in Poe’s “The Spectacles.“(2) More generally, the increasing awareness of the gothic element in James’ fiction places him closer to Poe than once assumed. Without claiming influence, Joel Salzberg compares the protagonists of “Ligeia” and “The Beast in the Jungle” as modified gothic villains,(3) and, without citing Poe, Elsa Nettels discusses the figurative use of gothic themes in The Portrait of a Lady.(4) “The Masque of the Red Death” may be another source for that novel, sections of which bear considerable resemblance to the tale.

Pollin, in fact, discerns two references to Poe’s “Masque” in The Sacred Fount (pp. 234-235), but earlier and more extensive parallels exist between the story and chapters 37 and 42 of The Portrait, both set in the Osmonds’ Roman mansion, Palazzo Roccanera, and both revealing the blight of Isabel’s marriage with Gilbert Osmond. In chapter 37 the reader receives his first vision of Isabel’s marital state as Ned Rosier joins a social gathering at Roccanera in his doomed quest for Pansy Osmond. Chapter 42 (which James thought the best in the novel) renders Isabel’s solitary, nighttime meditation on her marriage, during which she realizes Osmond’s duplicity. Throughout the chapter James employs the palace as a figure for Osmond’s entrapment of his wife. Marriage with him is a “house of suffocation” for Isabel;(5) his inflexible snobbery, “draped though it was in pictured tapestries,” produces a “sense of darkness and suffocation” in her (p. 199). Like its metaphoric extension, the actual palace seems an abode of culture but represents a prison for Osmond’s wife and daughter, as Rosier senses on his approach to it. It is “a palace by Roman measure, but a dungeon to poor Rosier’s apprehensive mind” (p. 100). Osmond’s residence thus shows a basic resemblance to the castle of Prince Prospero, the pleasure palace revealed as a tomb at the climax of “The Masque of the Red Death.” Each [page 7:] bears the stamp of its master, manifesting his desire for social exclusiveness and for impressing his select acquaintanceship. Poe repeatedly attributes the bizarre appearance of Prospero’s seven-room suite to “the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste” (Works, II, 670). The contrived decor of Palazzo Roccanera mirrors Osmond; the interior reflects “a taste of Osmond’s own — not at all of hers tlsabel’s}” (p. 101). Fundamentally both mansions express the lust of both men to dominare the environment by projecting their egos into it. David Halliburton notes Prospero’s desire “to allow his ego ro expand to the fullest possible degree, so that everyone is living almost literally inside him: within his walls, within his will, within his taste.“(6) Isabel, similarly caught inside Osmond’s walls, will, and taste, dwells in his mind as in his house: “She had not been mistaken about the beauty of this mind; she knew that organ perfectly now. She had lived with it, she had lived in it almost — it appeared to have become her habitation” (p. 194); “he had led her into the mansion of his own habitation, then, then she had seen where she really was” (p. 196).

Evincing Poe’s basic correlation between host and palace, these chapters also share specific fearures with “The Masque.” Osmond’s reception rooms are three to Prospero’s seven; nevertheless, the interior of Palazzo Roccanera evokes that of Prospero’s stronghold. The rooms of the nobleman’s suite, instead of forming “a long and srraight vista” ( Works, II, 671), are set at angles so as to interrupt sight from one to another. Aside from exemplifying Prospero’s queer taste, this arrangement implies closure (it becomes the closure of the grave) and also implies that for the revelers the fact of death — the remote western chamber with its ticking clock — is hidden rather than manifest in life. While the reader cannot be certain that Osmond’s rooms are off-line, they do impede sight in some fashion. Upon entering the first of the three, Rosier misses both Pansy (p. 103) and Madame Merle (p. 104) and can only surmise that the y may be in one of the other two; presumably he cannot see into them. When he takes Pansy into the third room, they stand “well within the room and beyond observation from withour” (p. 111). Here too the suggestion is one of closure and obfuscation, especially given the play on open and closed spaces that runs throughout the novel and indicates Isabel’s progress from freedom to constraint.(7) “Vista,” indeed, is an important word in the book. In chapter 42 Isabel’s disillusionment with married life is described as her finding “the infinite vista of a multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end” (p. 180). Lacking vista, Osmond’s suire also resembles Prospero’s in decor. James does not give the color of the middle room, but the first and third reflect Prospero’s fondness for chromatic effect. The first of Osmond’s chambers, in which he stands by the fireplace, is hung in “red damask” (p. 103). Pausing in its doorway, Isabel is dressed in “black velvet” (p. 105). The tableau evokes Poe’s western room, with the fire in the adjacent corridor shining through the red window onto the black velvet tapestries. The imporr in both cases seems similar; as in Poe’s story the blood color of disease illuminates the blackness of death, so in The Portrait the heroine’s living death is set off by Osmond’s red room and red fire. Other [column 2:] aspects of the western chamber, however, resemble the third in Osmond’s series. Like Poe’s, this innermost room of the suite is furnished with an immense clock. Rosier leads Pansy into this empty room to profess his love. He wishes to embrace her, but the “virginal” setting, done in a “pale yellow” (p. 109), dissuades him from this action. Even the aroused suitor acknowledges the rashness of making love in “a yellow Empire salott‘no” (p. 112). “It’s papa’s taste,” proclaims Pansy of this room; “he has so much.” “Some of it was very bad” (p. 110), Rosier thinks in return. Like the seventh of Prospero’s chambers, this one represerits the extremity of Osmond’s taste, and both rooms comment ironically on their decorators. The black chamber indicates the principle of death implicit in the egotistical mania that created it; Osmond’s yellow chamber, sterile and time-ridden, points to the deathly quality of his palace, his marriage, and himself.

Poe employs the grotesque, unnatural masking of his escapists as another sign of their affinity with death. At Osmond’s party as well everyone is masked, from a dull flirt “in so vain a disguise of rose-colour” (p. 109) to Isabel herself, posing as “the picture of a gracious lady” (p. 105) ro conceal her pain. Within Roccanera all suitably partake of Osmond’s artificial and deceiving nature. In chapter 42, looking back on her courtship, Isabel realizes that “she had seen only half his nature then, as one saw the disk of the moon when it was partly masked by the shadow of the earth” (p. 191). Now, unmasking Osmond too late, she recognizes him for the destructive force he is. James repeats the idea implicit in “Masque” that Prospero contains internally the decay his uninvited guest embodies, but conflates Poe’s two characters into one. If Osmond is Prospero, he is also Death: Isabel thinks that “Osmond deliberately almost malignantly, had put the lights our one by one” (p. 190) — as in “The Masque,” the fires expire with the company. Passages in chapter 42 closely parallel the ending of the short story, in which “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death” (Works, II, 677) triumph. Isabel feels “shut up with an odour of mould and decay” (p 199), and at the conclusion of her night vigil “the lamp had long since gone out and the candles burned down to their sockets” (p. 205 ). James departs from Poe’s trope in one important particular: whereas the ebony clock in “Masque” runs down with the lives of the guests, at the end of Isabel’s vigil the clock in her room continues to tick. Having experienced emotional rather than physical death, Isabel must endure her fate as time goes by.

The similarities between “The Masque” and The Portrait may bespeak influence; they surely reinforce appreciation of the gothic aspect of James’ major fiction, in which the monstrous often lurks beneath the placid surface.



1 - Burton R. Pollin, “Poe and Henry James: A Changing Relationship,” Yearbook of English Studies, 3 (1973), 232-233.

2 - Pollin, pp. 234, 235, et passim; Tintner, “Poe’s ‘The Spectacles’ and James’ ‘Glasses,‘” Poe Studies, 9 (1976), 53-54. [page 8:]

3 - Joel Salzberg, “The Gothic Hero in Transcendental Quest: Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ and James’ ‘The Beast in the Jungle,‘” ESQ, 18 (1972), 108-114.

4 - Nettels, “The Portrait of a Lady and the Gothic Romance,” South Atlantic Bulletin, 39 (1974), 73-82; for parallels between the critical principles of the two writers, see Nettels, “Poe and James on the Art of Fiction,” Poe Studies, 13 (1980), 4-8.

5 - The Novels and Tales of Henry James (New York: Scribner’s, 1908), IV, 196. Subsequent James references are to this edition and are identified in the text by page number in parentheses.

6 - Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), p. 312.

7 - The most extensive treatment of this effect is in the fourth chapter of Charles R. Anderson’s Person, Place, and Thing in Henry James’s Novels (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 80-123.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1981]