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Thoughts on “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe

It had been many years since I read this tale, so reading it again felt fresh and exciting. I had never realized how much of a surreal vibe this story has. The strangeness of the scenes, the bizarre coloring of the various rooms, all instill a dreamlike quality to this story that really places it ahead of its time. Additionally, Poe employs brilliant symbolism and metaphors to create a rich work of art in very few pages.

The first thing that struck me while reading this again was the parallels between the Red Death and Ebola. It is almost like Poe had a prophetic vision of the Ebola outbreak.

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. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.

One of the key symbols in this story is the clock. Amid the partying and the revelry, whenever the clock chimes, the revelers pause and become somber, then resume their festivities when the chiming is done.

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly;

The clock serves as a symbol for mortality. We have a limited amount of time in this life, and we will all eventually die. The clock is a reminder to the revelers that death is imminent. They can hide behind Prince Prospero’s walls and attempt to ignore the reality of death that is rampant outside, but the clock reminds them, regularly, that they too will eventually die, and each chime brings them closer to death.

As the night and the masquerade move on, the clock eventually strikes midnight, symbolizing the threshold between life and death. At this moment, a stranger appears wearing a mask that mimics the effects of the Red Death.

The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood –and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

This brings us to the other key symbol, the mask (or masque). While masque implies the masquerade party, it also refers to the masks that the participants wear. So what Poe is trying to convey here is that the revelers are entertaining themselves to hide, or mask, the fact that they are going to die. They dance and party and float through a bizarre dreamlike fantasy imagining that they are somehow safe from death, trying to mask their fear of death through distraction. Occasionally, the clock chimes and they are reminded, but then the masque resumes and they again mask their mortality, pretending all is well as death takes another step closer.

In the past few years, I have known many people who have died, and this is making me very aware of my own mortality. While I feel healthy and I hope to live a good many more years, I know that with each chime my time is lessened. But there is no need to obsess. Instead, I will put on my masque and proceed with the dance which is life.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings.

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