Tolleson, DL. “Unmasking The Masque of the Red Death.”
Tolleson, DL. “Unmasking The Masque of the Red Death.”
Nonetheless, conspiracy sorts link the two men by virture of the Pym novel. The story goes that Edgar Allan Poe’s last earthly utterance was allegedly the last name of Jeremiah N. Reynolds, a man who believed the earth might be hollow (otherwise known as the “Symmes theory”) and promoter of the United States Exploring Expedition to the polar region during 1838-1842. Poe’s novel appears to have borrowed from some of Reynolds’ public writings on the matter but there has never been evidence that the two men met. If one digs deep enough the research will spread to a wide range of material that is as strange as anything Poe ever wrote and about which is speculated only at the fringes of reality. In short, then, Poe’s death-bed utterance of Reynolds’ name is a fabrcation of fact and fiction.
As for Poe, interpreting his work is not nearly as elusive as all that. He is on record as having written that everything a reader needs for literary interpretation should be contained within the text of the work under consideration. This is the case in The Masque of the Red Death.
A word of warning for students utilizing this paper: excerpts are permissible if including author attribution but passing off the entire work off as your own runs the risk of a failing grade for plagiarism. I point this out because my server logs reflect a spate of web traffic to this page every semester. I thus suspect a number of instructors have read all or parts of this paper on not just a few occasions.
The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe has interpretations as prolific as the proverbial lilies of the field. Experts range from old and new world critics to degreed individuals in psychology. Those touting theories offer conflicting views and generally fall into categories of the mainstream and the absurd. Proponents of both categories are usually wrong and/or unwilling to comment on the message/moral/lesson they allege is or isn’t inherent to the story. To understand the meaning of The Masque of the Red Death requires a sampling of the various incorrect theories and a re-examination of the story.
Perhaps the most researched and yet totally unfounded theories are those based in psychology. Since Poe’s life is fairly well-documented, it is foolish to apply ingredients of psychological pressures Poe did not experience or was not educated to utilize. Likewise, to suggest that Poe intended something without his having knowledge of it or in contridiction to his stated precepts is, illogical. The adage, “readership interpretation,” cannot and should not be applied here. Nonetheless, at this extreme end of interpretation lies the theories of Marie Bonaparte, who holds The Masque as, “a typical Oedipus story” (513). Bonaparte labels Prince Prospero as Oedipus the son, the masked figure as the father and the seven room abbey as the mother. Bonaparte continues her overreaching theory by symbolizing the dagger as being the penis (she uses “phallus”) which, in being dropped, represents the castrated penis (514). Albert Mordel shares the psychoanalytical approach but fails to even find meaning in the story. Mordel holds that Poe was “so absorbed with his dreams that he never tried to take an interest in reality…we will find no moral note in Poe’s work” (72-73). Mordel even succumbs to name-calling, labeling Poe as a drunkard, sadist and a masochist (72).
Mainstream explanations of The Masque of the Red Death conflict to the point of confusion rather than clarification. David R. Saliba cited The Masque and several other Poe stories, saying that they were, “all examples of how Poe incorporated the cathedral image in his writings” (28). Saliba holds that this contributed to “the first part of Poe’s writing formula; that is, the isolation of the reader-believer, victim” (28). Conversely, Yvor Winters writes, “The Masque of the Red Death is a study in hallucinatory terror. They (Poe’s stories) are all studies in hysteria; they are written for the sake of hysteria” (31). And in a less than assured fashion, William L Howarth believes The Masque is a riddle (18). Despite numerous sources quoting Poe as detesting allegory (one of those hereinabove referenced precepts), Richard Wilbur brazenly writes that The Masque is, “a better-known and even more obvious example of architectural allegory” (68). When the researcher seems lost in a vortex of the ludicrous, Arthur Hobson Quinn’s extensive book appears like a God-sent lifeboat. Sensibly written, Quinn reports that Poe, “escaped the cholera plague which raged in Baltimore in 1831 and it is possible that some of the details of the plague in his stories of King Pest or The Masque of the Red Death may be derived from Poe’s observation in Baltimore…” (187). But alas, as the reader grows comfortable with sensible writing, Quinn insults the reader with, “Poe gives no hint of the great moral the tale tells to those who can think. For others, he had no message” (331). So, if there is an explanation for The Masque of the Red Death where should the researcher look to find an answer?
Examining The Masque of the Red Death using Poe as the authority will yield the story’s meaning. All critics, save one, have applied their qualifications, periods of time, elements of style and pompous attitudes in attempting to give meaning to a story Poe made quite clear. The failure of so many is owing to their not having followed Poe’s guidelines. In Joseph Patrick Roppolo’s essay, “Meaning and The Masque of the Red Death,” Roppolo says that Poe’s guidelines are clearly defined. Quoting Poe, Roppolo writes, “In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which tendency, direct or indirect, is not to be the one pre-established design… Every work of art should contain within itself all that is requisite for its own comprehension” (138-139). Bearing that in mind, Roppolo explains that the avatar mentioned in the third sentence of the story meant a godlike continuing entity at the time when Poe wrote it. Roppolo notes that Poe’s first sentence introduces a pestilence which had devastated the country and yet in the second sentence said that no pestilence had ever been so fatal. This apparent error is, “neither ungrammatical nor even carefully ambiguous, but daringly clear. The Red Death is not a pestilence in the usual sense.” The Red Death, Roppolo explains, with its avatar and seal, its ever-presence of blood (that it requires) is the one, “‘affliction’ shared by all mankind—it is life itself” (140). Roppolo notes that the Prince attempted to create a world (atmosphere) in which death was shut out (ignored). But, as Roppolo wisely observes, “if there is a mutual bond (between people) it is the shared horror of death” (140). And so it is that the Prince’s guest represent all of humanity, and the clock a reminder of time (141)—a reminder that even while death may come at any time, “like a thief in the night,” men continually draw nearer to death even while ignoring it. The rooms represent, if anything, a progression through life. The seventh chamber is not death, but merely the strongest reminder (140-141). Reiterating that the Red Death was never a title bestowed upon the masked figure in the story, Roppolo notes that the figure was found empty of any, “tangible form.” This, according to Roppolo, is the Mask (Roppolo’s emphasis) of the Red Death, and not the plague itself—or as many believe, death itself (141). The figure is man’s fear of death. It is mankind’s, “self-aroused and self-developed fear of his own mistaken concept of death” (142). The Red Death, holding dominion over all, is life which leads to death in the passage of time.
In retrospect, The Masque of the Red Death is a microscopic view of an inevitable fear of death and not necessarily death itself. Hardly a consideration during youth, death is largely ignored until the progression of age brings each person face-to-face with an intangible reality of fear. In western civilization it is the marking of time and the loathing of death that is a more deeply felt experience than perhaps even death itself. Thus it can be said that in The Masque of the Red Death Edgar Allan Poe holds up a mirror in which mankind perceives fear but sees death.
Bonaparte, Marie. The life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A psychoanalytic Approach. London: Imago Publishing Co., 1949. pp. 513-515.
Howarth, L. William. “The Meaning of Poe’s Tales,” Introduction. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe’s Tales. Ed. William L. Howarth. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971. p. 18.
Mordel, Albert. The Erotic Motive of Literature. New York: Collier Books, 1962. pp. 173-175.
Quinn, Authur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe, A Critical Biography. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1941. pp. 187 & 331.
Roppolo, Joseph Patrick. “Meaning and The Masque of The Red Death.” Poe, A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Regan. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967. pp 135-144.
Saliba, David. A Pyschology of Fear. London: University Press of America, Inc., 1980. p. 28.
Wilbur, Richard. “The House of Poe.” Modern Critical Views, Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. 1985. p. 62.
Winters, Yvor. “Edgar Allan Poe: A Crisis in the History of American Obscurantism.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe’s Tales. Ed. William L. Howarth. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971. p. 31.