The Determination of Death: A Reader-Response Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”

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The Red Death takes control of Prince Prospero’s society in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” Prince Prospero’s fear of death leads him to attempt to escape his demise, revealing his cowardly behavior and foolish belief that he and his inner circle death can cheat death. Because the readers of this story know that death is inescapable, they are disturbed by Prospero’s attempt to escape the inevitable.

The reader responds by analyzing the artistic features, the narrator’s viewpoint to be “on the scene but not in the scene” (Dudley 169) as an observer, and how the Red Death is a character.

The title suggests that death is coming for everyone in the story wearing a masque in the form of disguise. The title also indicates that the end is coming, and when it comes, it will be brutal. The words Red Death are in the name of Poe’s story, and when one thinks of those two words together. They think it bloody, gruesome, and even sadistic.

Masque of the Red Death
When reading The Masque of the Red Death, I always assumed that Red Death wears a mask that’s red, but I’m sure Poe’s vision of the Red Death is much more visual and grotesque than the one in this picture.

When reading “The Masque of the Red Death,” one can assume that Poe is using his character as a way to mock the hysteria of mourners. Because Prince Prospero’s people do not want to mourn, “the secluded characters have a party, suggesting their contentment and delight with the situation” (Delli Santi 100).

If those reading “The Masque of the Red Death” were characters in this story, they would act with a clear head; meaning that they would accept their fate and not run from it like Price Prospero and those in seclusion with him. If a character in Poe’s story were to accept his or her fate, the outcome would be less brutal, and their deaths might also be quick and painless compared to the slow and gruesome deaths the people at the prince’s party endured.

“The Masque of the Red Death” can have an interesting impact on its readers for various reasons. One of those reasons is how Death is a character depicted as being grotesque and horrifying, and Death kills Prince Prospero in a bloody and brutal way. Because of the way the main character dies, Dudley argues that “This story is a vanitas tale, a memento mori. More specifically, it is about the failure of art to stave off death. The fact that the narrator overlooks the necessity of his own death mirrors and mocks the cherished illusions of immortality that art gives to both artist and audience” (Dudley 172).

The narrator is an observer since he is watching the Red Death and waiting for people to die. Prince Prospero is having a colorful and lavish party, but as time passes, he becomes frightened as he looks down on everyone and watches his guests die one by one. The Red Death comes to Prince Prospero’s private party with the intent to claim the lives of those who cheated death from the plague that took place outside the walls of Prosper’s castle. The Red Death arrives at the party in a costume to disguise himself to achieve his goal of claiming his victims while being as unnoticed as possible.

The Red Death also carries an artistic feature because the genre depicted is a form of gothic art: each room in the story is a different color to represent the mood of each room. Because staving off death is used as a form of art, the guests at the party put in a lot of work to isolate themselves from the deadly disease, creating a world of their own to escape reality. However, the characters in the story are foolish to think they can escape death because the Red Death held “illimitable dominion over all” (Poe 341).

The end of this story is disturbing because it teaches a lesson that if one cheats death, their demise will be brutal. Poe also clearly distinguishes that the Red Death is a dominating factor in the story because, in the end, it conquers everyone, and there is no winning when it comes to the Red Death. The way Poe set up the ending is unique because the Red Death is personified as a corpse-like figure that Prince Prospero tries to defeat, yet his fight with the Red Death ends in a sadistic way.

The Determination of Death: A Reader-Response Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" 1
Edgar Allan Poe depicts the fate of his characters in gruesome ways, especially in The Masque of the Red Death.

Prince Prospero is the last one to die because instead of accepting his fate, he tries to fight the Red Death and sacrifices the acceptance of his fate for a brutal and bloody demise. Because he believed he was immune to death, Prince Prospero’s demise results in “a sharp cry-and the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet” (Poe 341). When reading the story, the reader responds to the “sharp cry” and “the gleaming dagger” because it gives off a sadistic tone to Prince Prospero’s death when he tries to run from the Red Death, but it claims his life when he least expects it. Therefore, his death alone shows that the Red Death will dominate and conquer Prospero and his subjects who cheated death.

Reading “The Masque of the Red Death” gives readers a frightening viewpoint on how Edgar Allan Poe depicts the horror genre. Death being a character is bizarre because death is something one experiences, not an actual being. This story shows that even though one can run from death, one cannot hide from it because, in the end, death conquers all.

Works Cited

Dudley, David R. “Dead Or Alive: The Booby-Trapped Narrative Of Poe’s “Masque Of The Red Death.” Studies In Short Fiction, vol 30, no. 2, 1993, pp. 169-173.

Delli Santi, Lauren Lynn. “Prince Prospero: The Antithesis Of “The Beautiful Death.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal Of Short Articles, Notes And Reviews, vol 25, no. 2, 2012, pp. 98-102. 

Dobie, Ann B, and Edgar Allan Poe. Theory Into Practice An Introduction To Literary Criticism. 3rd ed., Michael Rosenberg, 2012, p. 341.

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