44 pages 1 hour read

Edgar Allan Poe

The Masque of the Red Death

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1842

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Masque of the Red Death”

“The Masque of the Red Death,” originally published as “The Mask of the Red Death: A Fantasy,” is a short story in the Gothic horror genre by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1842. The story is set in an unidentified country infested with a plague known as the “Red Death.” Amid this plague the prince of the land, Prospero, holds a masquerade ball for his courtiers in a secluded abbey. The Red Death attends the party, bringing doom for all present. The story is often taken as an allegory for the inevitability of death.

This study guide uses “The Masque of the Red Death” as it is printed in the 1983 edition of The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe, published by Running Press. A detailed summary follows.

A plague known as “Red Death” has devastated the country-side. The Red Death causes horrific symptoms, with bloody stains appearing on the body and face of the victim, a sign of sickness which for every victim “shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men” (739). Once infected, the victims die quickly, the whole progress of sickness “the incidents of half an hour” (739).

Prince Prospero, his kingdom half depopulated, summons a thousand knights and dames of his court. They all seclude themselves in one of the prince’s castellated abbeys (an abbey with the architectural fortifications of a castle). Once inside, and provisioned for a long stay, the party seals the abbey’s iron gates shut so that no one can enter or leave, thereby avoiding the plague.

Toward the end of the fifth or sixth month of their seclusion, the prince holds a masked ball “of the most unusual magnificence” (740) for his guests. Possessed of a “love of the bizarre” (740), the prince decorates the ball very strangely. He holds the ball in a sequence of seven differently colored rooms. Between each room there is a hallway with a sharp turn, so only one room may be viewed or accessed at a time. Candles and fire-lit tripods illuminate the rooms from these hallways, shining through “a tall and narrow Gothic window” (740) in each room set with stained glass to match the color of the décor within. The first of the rooms is blue, the second purple, the third green, the fourth orange, the fifth white, the sixth violet. The seventh room is decorated all in black, but the panes that light it are red, making the room dark and “ghastly in the extreme” (741). In this room stands a gigantic clock with a heavy pendulum. Each time it strikes the hour, its peculiar note can be heard so well throughout the party it forces the musicians to cease. At these moments even “the giddiest grew pale” (741), and the whole room is filled with nervous laughter as the sound passes, before the partiers their dance.

Designing the party in every aspect, Prospero also dresses his guests in grotesque costumes. The text describes them as “dreams” (743) who flit throughout the rooms, who pause by the striking of the clock only to continue again. Few, however, set foot in the final room, and when they do the clock releases a terrifying, “muffled peal” (742).

As the hour strikes 12, with the customary shiver of fear through the party, all suddenly notice “the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before” (742). The figure wears a funeral shroud and a mask made “so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat” (743). The figure fills the other guests with horror not only because of his countenance but because they assume the blood dabbled on the mask signals infection with the Red Death.

Enraged that someone would trespass, Prince Prospero—standing in the first of the seven rooms—demands the figure be apprehended, but his guests shrink from the figure’s touch. The figure progresses to the violet room, sixth of the seven. With his dagger drawn, Prospero pursues. The figure turns to face Prospero in the doorway of the seventh room, and at this threshold Prospero falls to the floor dead. A group of guests throw themselves on the figure, who has retreated into the shadow of the clock, and are terrified to find that there is nothing beneath his robes and mask.

At this moment, everyone realizes that the figure is the Red Death itself. One by one, each of the revelers falls dead, with the “life of the ebony clock” (744) going out with the last of the revelers. With the flames of the tripods expired, “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all” (744).

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