What is The Masque of the Red Death about?
This short story is about the hubris of a nobleman named Propsero who, in the midst of a horrible plague, invites a thousand other wealthy guests to a celebration. He hosts his guests in an elaborately designed imperial suite that he has decorated in seven distinct colors, with the final room having a sinister scarlet hue to it and an ominous grandfather clock that silences the party with is chimes. At midnight, a mummer arrives dressed as a corpse struck down by the Red Death, enraging Prospero and frightening his guests.
This story is haunting with some beautiful imagery and writing. Of all of Poe’s short stories, this one has stuck with me the most. I also enjoy the equal nature of the Red Death, refusing to see the lines between wealthy and poor that Prospero so desperately wants to hide behind. This story is surprisingly poignant in 2020, where the wealthy in many nations are refusing to accept that commerce and business needs to take a backseat to the health and lives of others.
For all that can be said for the symbolism in this story, I don’t know that all of it really goes as far as it should. Prospero’s obsession with the bizarre and his wealth to construct an imperial suite to suit that aren’t lingered on. The obvious conclusion to the story is that Prospero is no better than any other person in the face of a plague, but the consequences beyond the night of the Masque are left unsaid and could be completely nonexistent.
For 2020 this story can be a little bit….depressing. It’s very similar in mood to a lot of the feeling that surrounds those of us living in countries where COVID is still a massively underaddressed threat. It’s pretty clear that there’s not much we can do about the wealthy forcing our businesses back open at the risk of our health. So if you’re having trouble taking a break from the doom scrolling and the overwhelming emotions of 2020, don’t read this story.
As I stated above, this story has stuck with me for a long time. I first read it in an illustrated collection of a few of Poe’s stories, and I can still picture the drawing of the mummer. The chase Propsero gives the mummer through the rooms of his own foolish design is a visual that I find particularly haunting. This story draws on themes of wealth and poverty, as well as arguments against apathy. I don’t want to dive too deeply into the story for this review, but I urge anyone who’s interested to read this story! It may be less talked about than some of Poe’s other works, but I think especially with current events its themes will resonate with many readers.