Moral Reckoning in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’

In his book, The Denial of Death (1973), Ernest Becker writes: “…the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.” Countless works of literature and film have dealt with the theme of death, trying to probe the depths of our fears. This is especially true of horror stories, and a good horror story is much more than merely a scary tale. It is above all, a moral one. Perhaps no American author understood this better than Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).

Poe was plagued by death, both literally and figuratively, all his life. His mother died when he was just three years old, and the circumstances of his own death are shrouded in mystery. Poe was found semi-conscious in a Baltimore tavern, disheveled and wearing someone else’s clothing. He was taken to the hospital, and a few days later, he died. The medical documents outlining the hospital stay and subsequent death have been lost. We only know his last words: “Lord help my poor soul.”

It seems fitting, then, that Poe stories are likewise shrouded in mystery and explore the horror of death. His most famous story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” is no exception. Published in 1842, it tells a tale of Prince Prospero and his masquerade ball.

A strange plague, known as the Red Death, has swept the world. The narrator informs us that “No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avator and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution.” This is enough excite fear, for who would wish to experience such a violent exit from this world? Since Prospero is wealthy, however, he can afford to be an island unto himself. So he decides to hole up inside his castle and hide from the plague.

But why hide alone? In fact, why be sad at all about the state of the world? Prospero reasons that the world experiencing its death throes is no cause for mourning. He still seeks fun and adventure. And so, he invites “light-hearted friends,” to join him in masquerade revelries. “The abbey was amply provisioned,” the narrator tells us. “The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.” Prospero’s choice was a bit more serious than the proverbial “whistling past the graveyard.” The avoidance of reality and the extreme turn inward was quite deliberate and calculated. It was what drove his entire enterprise.

The grand party continued like this for months. There was plenty of food, wine, and entertainment. Prospero even indulged in the spatial dynamics of the “castellated abbey.” The floorplan of his palace had no rhyme or reason, and the entire experience was designed to disorient the oblivious inhabitants of his home. Prospero had absolute control over everything his guests experienced. Or so he thought.

There was one thing beyond the control of the master of the house that had a great effect on all the revelers, Prospero included. In one the dark rooms, “…there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang … at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily … and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation.”

As each hour chimed, the revelers became aware of the passage of time. As hard as they tried, they could not remain in suspended animation, free of the bondage of time. The dark and imposing clock was just the beginning, however, of the things for which Prospero did not reckon. One day, a masked figure arrived at the castle. Despite being in disguise, it was clear this being or creature was a stranger among the revelers.

The stranger’s presence was arresting. “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.” Neither Prospero nor his guests could discern the figure’s identity, yet they knew that the sense of uneasiness, dread, and fear could spread over the guests like the plague that was raging outside. Suddenly, the “external world” came into the protective zone. There was no exit anywhere, only fear and confusion.

As might be expected, the masked figure brought death not only to Prospero but to the whole company of revelers. Their oblivious narcissism and glowing “barbaric lustre” came to an end. Did they think their studied indifference to reality could continue indefinitely? Even boredom would have set in at some point, and the masked figure provided the break in time. The collective hedonism was destroyed.

Much of Poe’s story can be understood literally. After all, there were many active “plagues” during Poe’s time, from cholera, to tuberculosis, and even pneumonia. There’s no question Poe was uneasily inspired by them. But beyond this literal confrontation with death, it’s clear there is some moral reckoning with the themes of time, death, and memory bubbling to the surface of Poe’s writing.

Prospero and his assorted revelers foolishly thought they could cheat death—abandoning their fellow human beings outside the seemingly impenetrable castle walls. Hedonism (a disguised form of acedia) was just a symptom of their refusal to confront moral nature of reality and what it demanded of them for a meaningful life. Washing their hands of the responsibility to respond to the misery around them and their blatant refusal to acknowledge time leads them directly to the ultimate reckoning. Remembering death is just as important as remembering God. Prospero and his revelers forgot both.

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