Edgar Allan Poe was surrounded by death most of his life. He lost both his parents before he was two years old and his brother also died at a very young age. He later lost his wife to tuberculosis which she had suffered from for most of the time in their ten-year marriage. It is therefore not surprising that he was fascinated by death and he conspicuously employs it as a symbol in most of his work. In his short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” death is a very prominent symbolic character however it is the color palette that Edgar paints the rooms for the party that is symbolically intriguing. It is death Poe paints for death and for life as well.
In Edgar Poe’s short story, he talks about a Red Death that plagues the fictional town where the short story is set. The plague causes its victim to die rather quickly and horrifically. Even though the plague is spreading quickly, Prince Prospero feels hopeful, and that is when he makes a choice and takes with him a thousand of his courtiers who have not caught the plague. He hides them in his abbey where he believes they are safe and will not catch the fatal disease which is you can identify a victim by the red markings on their faces. They settle well at the abbey and live peacefully and disease-free for a number of months and this culminates into the Prince throwing an elegant masquerade ball. He elegantly furnishes each room and paints each a different color. The easternmost room is painted blue while the windows have blue-stained glass. The next room is painted purple, and the window has the same color stained glass. The rooms follow eastward and have the same design with the following color arrangement except for the last room, green, orange, white and violet(Maul 4). The Prince colors the last room black and its windows red. It also has a black clock which when it chimes every hour, it is too loud that it distracts everyone attending the party and the orchestra has to stop playing. When the ebony clock is not chiming, the rooms have a beautiful and strange feel to them, and they feel like they are filled with dreams whirling among the party goers.
In the middle of the night, a new strange guest arrives. They are dressed more eerily than the other guests. Edgar describes his mask as looking that the face of a corpse and his clothes resemble a funeral garment. His face is full of spots of blood which suggest he might be a victim of the Red Death. The Prince is not happy that such a person with no humor at all and so little levity would dare join his ball. Prince Prospero chases the gaunt figure into the black and red room and proceeds to confront him. Prospero dies, and the gaunt figure soon reveals itself to be death, and when the other ball attendees enter the black and red room to attack him, they realize that there is no one beneath the costume. The gaunt figure is revealed as death, and it is clear the Red Death has crept into the castle.
The most obvious color symbolism that Edgar employs is in the title of his short story, “The Masque of the Red Death.” While his most creative use of color in the short story is his use of both black, which symbolizes death and ruin; and red which to him symbolized dreadfulness, terror and death. The last room, the black room with the red windows faces the west side, and this represents the setting sun which has a finality to it. Poe describes that room and writes, “closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue” (146). This seventh room contains “no light of any kind” and represents the darkness of death. In this room stands the ebony clock. Upon hearing its chimes, the guests were reminded of death: “the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation” (147). The gaunt figure dressed in a mask represents death, and it is dressed in all black. Its dreadful description gives the color a distressing connotation. The clock in that room is black in color and covered in black velvet, and it is forever chiming which symbolizes our fight against time which unavoidably leads to death. The windows in that last black room are painted red and often symbolizes blood, and therefore the combination of a room painted completely black plus a window that transforms all the light streaming into it into a red glow carries with it a sense of death, sadness, fear, evil, anger, and unhappiness while the illness that brings death to the characters in the story paint their faces red.
An important element in the short story’s plot is that the gaunt red creature which represents death makes its way through all the rooms in the abbey and infects all the party goers in each room. It them ends his terror in the all black room with the red window which is its symbolic home as the room itself echoes the deadly effects of the disease. There is no other room that the creature would have logically chosen to end his visit to the Prince’s castle.
There are several other theories that exist that explain the meaning behind the color painted in the other six rooms. There are a total of seven rooms in the imperial suite of the abbey, and they span from the east to the west just like the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The rest of the six rooms are painted blue, purple, green, orange, white and violet. One theory explains that each room color symbolizes a stage in the life of a man. Blue symbolizes birth, purple symbolizes a transition to royalty, green signifies the progression into youth, orange symbolizes strength and adulthood while white represents purity and violet symbolizes the last stages before terror and death (represented by black and red) and they represent the intelligence and knowledge that come with old age.
Another theory suggests that the other colors in Edgar’s short story might symbolize the seven deadly sins that Prospero indulged in. The first one is envy, and although it is not clear who Prince Prospero is envious of, it is clear that there is someone he is trying to impress. The second sin is pride or vanity, and these are defined as the extreme conviction in one’s abilities while vanity is setting one’s mind and heart on things and matter that hold little value. These two sins are evident in the Prince’s conviction that he is more powerful than death. The third sin is gluttony which is consuming more than one is supposed to. Prince Prospero instead of using his resources to protect more people, which is something he is required to do as a Prince, he instead showers his guest with “ample provisions” and “the appliances of pleasure.” The fourth one is anger, and it is evident when the prince is angered by the uninvited guest and attack it. The fifth one is lust, and this is described as the extreme craving for the pleasure of the body, and this is linked to sex. The times in which Edgar wrote this short story, explicit and implicit description of sex was not allowed, but it is evident that this might be what was happening at the ball. The other sin is greed, and although it is evident the Prince shares his wealth and home with a lot of guests, his help is offered to those who needed it the least and denies his hospitality to those in dire need. The last sin is sloth which means the absence of work. Although Prince Prospero seems like a hardworking man, his type of work is on the physical realm and not the spiritual one. Poe goes ahead and mentions something in the story regarding the absence of the seven virtues that go hand in hand with the seven sins.
There are also other arguments that believe that the other colors are less meaningful to the overall theme of the story and their only importance is to add to the overall gothic effect of the story. Blue is often linked to life as it is the color of water, purple symbolizes royalty and wisdom, green not only represents youth but jealousy as well, orange is enthusiasm and energy while white is purity and spirituality and violet symbolizes passion and beauty.
Maul, Kristina. About Edgar Allan Poe’s – “The Masque of Red Death.” München: GRIN Verlag GmbH, 2007. Internet resource.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Masque of the Red Death.” The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales. New York: Penguin, 1998. 145-51.