Often considered a parabolic meditation on the invincibility of death – a mere prose expansion of “The Conqueror Worm” – “The Masque of the Red Death” suffers from an underappreciation of its brooding class conflicts. While it is a perfection of Poe’s previous odes to “memento mori” (“Worm,” “Shadow,” “Haunted Palace”), it has also been judged as a “revenge fantasy” on the part of a man who resented his exclusion from the aristocracy (his characters’ almost exclusive upper-class origins are not merely an homage to Gothic conventions). “Masque” studies more than the inevitability of human mortality; it also peers under the masks of social rank to exposes the universality of human anxieties. The Danse Macabre was an artistic trope popular during and shortly after the Black Death; it depicted a string of people from all classes – bishops, whores, queens, dukes, knights, milkmaids – holding hands and being lead away by a skeletal Death. While Poe does not provide such a motley crew – his victims are only nobles and their entertainers – he does chafe under the suggestion that nobility is an excuse for security. We all, he preaches, hide skulls beneath our masks.
Prince Prospero is the decadent ruler over a feudal country where the nobles carouse with lavish indulgence while the peasants struggle to survive lives burdened with hunger, poverty, and famine. Recently, however, an even worse specter has shrouded the countryside in horror: the Red Death. A ghastly plague (which combines elements of scarlet fever, the black death, cholera, and tuberculosis), its grisly symptoms start with pain and dizziness, and escalate into the pores of the face weeping blood. Death comes within a half hour, but is marked with brutal pain and terror.
Prospero, who is known to be “happy and dauntless and sagacious” views the pestilence as a mere inconvenience, and defies the horror of the peasantry by inviting the country’s nobles – some 1,000 lords and ladies – to hole up in his eccentric palace, where they enjoy luxurious parties, delicious food, and raucous orgies. Pitiless towards the terrified public, they weld the palace doors shut and intend to wait the plague out.
The revelers demand increasingly indulgent entertainment as the quarantine drags out, and Prospero giddily stages an elaborate masquerade ball to thrill them. He opens up a suite of seven corresponding rooms. Each room is connected to the next by a door, and each one features a tall, peaked, Gothic window made of colored glass. Each room’s decorations, carpets, walls, and window had a uniform color theme, and none of them had any internal light source: the only illumination came from braziers set up on the other side of the windows, ensuring that even the light of each room was consistent with its theme, so that even the partiers inside – regardless of their costumes – were colored in the appropriate hue.
In order, the colored rooms were blue (the innocence of childhood), violet (the regality youth), green (the fertility of adulthood), orange (the autumn of middle age), white (the wisdom of old age), and violet (the twilight of life). The revelers adore the rooms and carouse in each one fairly equally, but the last room is almost universally avoided: its contents are deep black, but its window – the only one which does not match the furnishings – is a vulgar blood-red. The principle object in this room is a massive, ebony grandfather clock, and every time the clock rings out its doleful announcement of the hour, the festivities pause and the partiers glance back in nervous horror. Nonetheless, once the chimes cease vibrating, the orchestra strikes back up, laughter peals out again, and the nobles resume their tumult.
The night of the masquerade waxes on and on, and after the clock tolls out midnight, the revelers begin to whisper of a new arrival in a highly offensive and outrageous costume:
“And thus too, it happened, perhaps, that before the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before. And the rumour of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise—then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.
“In an assembly of phantasms such as I have painted, it may well be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation. In truth the masquerade licence of the night was nearly unlimited; but the figure in question had out-Heroded Herod, and gone beyond the bounds of even the prince's indefinite decorum. There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made. The whole company, indeed, seemed now deeply to feel that in the costume and bearing of the stranger neither wit nor propriety existed.
"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.”
Even the decadent, eccentric Prince Prospero believes that this is a bridge too far, and – upon hearing of the outrage – he storms through the winding suite of rooms – from blue to violet, from green to orange, from white to violet, into the black room awashed in scarlet light, where he demands to know the identity of audacious partier, that he might know his name before he hangs him from the castle walls. Prospero hunts him down with a drawn dagger, but when the shrouded figure turns to greet him, the happy prince shrinks back in terror, and falls to the floor dead. The partiers rush into the macabre room and seize the blood-spattered phantom standing in the shadow of the black clock – but to their abject terror, they find the shroud and mask empty:
“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
Few philosophies were as detestable to Poe as Transcendentalism. The optimism is fostered for the potential of individuals outside of the community of mankind struck him as laughable, but also dangerous. When the experimental commune at Brook Farm – a proto-hippie collective founded near his hometown of Boston – was founded in 1841, he predicted its eventual demise. The year after Brook Farm began amassing Transcendentalists, Poe wrote “Masque,” a story which examines the folly of utopianism and selectivism. To make oneself remote from the wide congress of humanity, he argued, was to invite disaster – not because he believed in the inherent good of human community, but because he viewed peer pressure and social mores as the only deterrents against the self-absorbed individual. To escape from the broader context of humanity was merely to concentrate the vices of a philosophically inbred population. The wealthy who viewed themselves as superior to the lower castes of men (including Poe) also seemed to view themselves as special or distinct and worthy of segregation.
Although the majority of Poe’s tales are populated by aristocrats, the unprecedented elitism and class-consciousness of Prospero’s commune is telling. Like the Transcendentalists, the aristocracy viewed its individual traits as worthy of emulation and distinctively superior. By having his characters participate in a social experiment whereby a community selected for their premium traits are inescapably segregated from the diorama of humanity, Poe poses them to fall more visibly and poignantly than the peasants bleeding in their hovels; the great expectations of philosophical and social elitists anticipate an emotionally disemboweling experience when their lofty pretensions are unmasked and exposed as empty pretenses.