Man’s inescapable fear of death guides his daily choices and decisions from inception. The inevitability of life’s end is a constantly looming reality whose clock is unknown and fundamentally uncontrollable. This sentiment has percolated into works of art and, specifically, literary works of fiction in a bid to demystify death’s grip on society. Edgar Allan Poe published several stories with gothic inspiration, but none more critically acclaimed than “The Mask of the Red Death.” The characters in Poe’s story practice escapism, under Prince Prospero’s guidance, in response to the fictional red plague. Escapism, avoidance and seclusion are ineffective problem-solving techniques that ultimately result in dire consequences, such as death in Poe’s characters case in “The Mask of the Red Death.”
Escapism, Avoidance and Seclusion in Poe’s “The Mask of the Red Death”
Edgar Allan Poe’s literary work frequently incorporates elements of horror and fear to express the subject matter. In particular, the author uses horror intending to generate a strong emotional reaction from his audience. “The Mask of the Red Death” is no exception as the author details the attempts of Prince Prospero to avoid a fictional plague ravaging the country. Poe writes on its devastation, “No pestilence had ever been so fatal or so hideous” (1). He invites a thousand friends and locks the entire party in his castle with ample provisions intending to wait out the horrific consequences of the red plague. “This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste,” Poe writes (1). However, despite his numerous efforts to avoid death, Prince Prospero and his guest meet a sudden end while attending a masquerade party six months into the seclusion.
Prince Prospero and his guests’ notable attempts to avoid the seventh masquerade room at the party draped in black demonstrate the group’s affinity for escapism. Despite the variety of seven rooms in the imperial suite, the party’s guests stayed away from the most western one with red panes. Poe writes, “…the fire-light…produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all” (2). Indeed, the jarring of the room’s decorations and the red windowpanes produced a chilling effect that aroused the guests’ fear. However, despite limited space within the palace walls and no means of egress, the entire party elected to stay away from the seventh room.
The prince’s propensity for color choice and combination is a notable attribute through which the author evokes the inevitability of death. According to Jiaxin (61), these colors subjectively represent man’s life cycle from birth to death; however, this argument is insufficient when viewed objectively. Prince Prospero uses blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and black combined with a fire brazier for illumination. In the last room, the windowpanes are red, whereas the interior is black, creating a jarring effect. Red represents life and death; more importantly, the plague ravaging the country is associated with blood. Almahameed et al. (87) assert that whereas blood is the source of life in everyday interpretations, in Poe’s story, it symbolizes death. “Blood was its Avator and its seal the redness and the horror of blood” (1). Despite averting their attention from the significance of red and its deathly connotations, the spectacle assaulted the party’s guest sensibilities in a room meant for pleasure.
One aspect demonstrating the people’s escapism is their hourly reaction to the ebony clock chimes. The clock in the seventh room and its ominous sound generated a fearful atmosphere and halted all merriment. However, the crowd’s moods immediately shifted and returned to joyful denial, disregarding the clock’s next chime. The author writes, “…for a moment, all is still, and all is silent save the voice of the clock…but the echoes of the chime die away – they have endured but an instant – and a light, half-subdued laughter floats after them as they depart” (3). Similarly, the next hour elicited a similar reaction without forming a sensible action plan to deal with it or negate its harmful effect on the party. The clock undeniably pulls them into a moment of sobriety that prevents them from an opportunity to act; instead, the guests choose to wait for its conclusion. Eventually, the untampered clock reaches midnight and, with its multiple chimes, accompanies the red-themed masquerader symbolizing death.
Similarly, the prince and his friends demonstrate escapism by avoiding the horror of the plague and surrounding his guests with beauty and sources of pleasure. After six months of seclusion, the prince threw a party wherein the guests wore ghastly and annoying fashion. “There were much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust” (2). The same reactions the party guests avoided from the sickly people outside the walls they purported and actively engaged in at the event. The prince invited beautiful people and lavished the compounds with musicians and dancers in contrast to the death and sadness without his castle. However, his guests’ masks, especially the red-masked intruder, injected these emotions into the compound.
In addition, the excess storage of food and supplies in the prince’s compound reveals an attempt to avoid reality. Despite the large quantities of food, secluding people within the compound ensured no supplies would enter. The author narrates, “There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine” (Poe 1). After inviting a crowd of a thousand friends, the prince’s expenditure would ultimately lead to a lack of food, and without people to farm or operate markets; the guest would starve to death. Moreover, the prince could have utilized his resources in the pursuit of medication or strategies to minimize the spread of the red plague. However, his hoarding practices and escapism guided his company to death six months later.
Nonetheless, there are minor benefits to the seclusion of Prince Prospero and his friends. The disease had a high morbidity rate and a short gestation period. According to Poe, “And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour” (1). The risk of touching an infected person with a scarlet stain reduced significantly within the prince’s walls and gave its occupants six months to live. Indeed, the prince’s preemptive thinking allowed his friends to quarantine themselves and avoid infection. Furthermore, the castle’s occupants were happy and generally comfortable, unlike their experience without the prince’s hospitality. Poe writes, “But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel” (2). Notably, the clock chime did not interrupt their merry crucially because the compound negated the plague’s effects.
Moreover, there was a sense of community and a spirit of defiance in the castle that was lacking in the country. According to Jones (1), “The Mask of the Red Death” highlights how people can confront social prejudices and execute political activism. In response to banning people or shutting them out, the price boldly invites his friends and provides a sense of togetherness, a principle of holistic healing. The plague brought out the worst characteristics in Poe’s story; nonetheless, the prince’s actions represent the best in humanity. Adopting a defiant stance is essential in life and generates the voice for social change when addressing diseases such as AIDS. Individual and collective efforts such as selective quarantining are self-suppression tools that combat the spread of contagious diseases, as seen recently in the Coronavirus epidemic (Mičić & Musil, 2020). Therefore, the emotional and psychological reasoning supporting the seclusion of people within the castle is justified in Prince Prospero’s case.
In conclusion, seclusion and avoidance are ineffective strategies for problem solving. The characters in Poe’s “The Mask of the Red Death” escape the red plague by locking themselves in Prince Prospero’s castle. Indeed, the prince’s company attempts to avoid the seventh room at the masquerade party, the chimes of the ebony clock, and the deadly reality surrounding them. Instead, the party guests chose to dwell on their temporal happiness rather than collectively address the issue. Eventually, the consequences of their decisions materialize in a grotesque red figure that symbolizes the red death and sweeps through the compound’s population instantly. Practicing escapism can provide relief from reality; however, it hampers growth and postpones a grimmer future. Acting to help others through conscious effort is the hallmark of a good community.
Almahameed, Atef Adel, et al. “Death Portrayals in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’: A Transtextual Study in Relation to the Holy Qur’an and Arabic Literary Heritage.” Advances in Language and Literary Studies, vol. 9, no. 5, 2018, pp. 84–91. Web.
Jiaxin, Zhang. “Colors and Sounds in the Masque of the Red Death.” Art and Performance Letters, vol. 3, no. 1, 2022, pp. 60–62., Web.
Jones, Paul Christian. “The Cultural and Political Work of Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ during the AIDS Era.” The Edgar Allan Poe Review, vol. 21, no. 2, 2020, pp. 192–223., Web.
Mičić, Barbara, and Bojan Musil. “Escapism: Suppression of Self or Its Expansion?” Studia Historica Slovenica, 20 (2020), no. 1, 2020, pp. 279–308., Web..
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Mask of the Red Death. Alex Catalogue, 2000.