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Symbolism and imagery in The Masque of the Red Death and The Shawl

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The Shawl written by Cynthia Ozick and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death are elaborate allegories that use symbolism and imagery to illustrate the image of death. In both these stories, death is inevitable, the end of a human life. However, in the first short story, The Shawl, Ozick shows us that death is inevitable and it is useless if you attempt to escape it. And in the second story, Poe symbolizes the immortality many of us believe we have, but not any of us really possess.

In Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl the image of death is introduced in the opening paragraph, when the narrator graphically explains that Rosa’s breasts does not have enough milk to feed baby Magda – who sometimes screams because there is nothing for her to suck except air – that Stella is also ravenous, and that Stella has knees that are “tumors on sticks” and elbows that are “chicken bones.” The reader immediately begins to sense that the baby is going to die. Later, twice in quick succession it is stated that Rosa thinks Stella is waiting for Magda to die. The reader is then repeatedly told that Magda is going to die, and her death moves closer as the story progresses. First, Rosa knows Magda us going to die very soon, then today, then now. The inevitable death of Magda is presented in the final scene that comprises more than half the story. The reader is presented with a beautiful image of what lies beyond the electric fence. Immediately after you envision the field of flowers, the death of Magda unfolds as she touches the electric fence.

When we examine the significance of the shawl and its relationship to death it symbolizes the human spirit to thwart death. The shawl saves Magda from starvation. Throughout the story, as Magda remains hidden under her protection -the shawl – she remains alive. It is only when the shawl is taken from her that Magda dies. When Magda is murdered, Rosa stuffs the shawl into her own mouth, stifling her screams. If Rosa had screamed, the guards would have killed her too. From the beginning, Ozick shows us that death is inevitable through her graphic images of a mother and infant in aThe Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allen Poe is a tale where the author uses the technique of symbolism and imagery through a clock, colors of red and black, and seven rooms to help convey the inevitability of death.

In the story, a prince named Prospero tries to escape the Red Death through isolation and seclusion. He hides behind what he believes to be impenetrable walls of his palace. But no walls can stop death because it is inevitable that anything thing that lives, dies. Visual descriptions in the story are used to symbolize the death that came to a dark, unkind ignorant prince.

The image of “Red Death”, a disease that causes the victims to die quickly and very gruesomely, is explained b the author as the most hideous disease ever and it was full of the horror of blood. He goes into deep details explaining the effects of sharp pain, sudden dizziness, and profuse bleeding at the pores. He says “the scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim were the past ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure progress and termination of the disease were the incidents of half an hour.” As the story goes on it tells you about the prince and how he attempts to avoid the Red Death, as the months go by he throws a massive yet fancy masquerade ball.

The manner in which the prince arranged his castle symbolically hints the inevitability of death. “The seventh room was 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.” This dark description of how the castle was decorated shows the image of the Prince being a ruthless, uncaring ruler.

The guests wear masks to portray aspects of their character; all are concentrating on having a good time and ignoring the wrath of The Red Death that has overtaken the Kingdom outside the palace. Each guest, including the Prince, stop when they here the chime of the ebony clock.

The ebony clock symbolizes death. The individuals, who have come to the party, believe that they have escaped the “The Red Death”. The truth is that they have only prolonged their lives for a short period of time. Each time the clock chimes, everyone stops to listen. They do not know when their time will come, but they know its coming.

The reader is given graphic descriptions of the seven rooms from blue to black. One could interpret the rooms as being stages of a human life. The beginning of life is emphasized by the masked figure, never explicitly stated to be the actual Red Death but only a reveler in a costume of the Red Death, making his initial appearance in the easternmost room. This room is colored blue, a color most often associated with birth. The black room, which is the most prominent image in the short story, depicts the end of life, death. In the black room, the narrator describes the ebony clock which would allude to the fact that time has run out and death occurs.

Both authors successfully use the techniques of symbolism and imagery to grasp the attention of the reader. By forcing the reader to use their imagination through creative imagery, the reader becomes part of the story and feels what is going on. The symbolisms used in both short stories convey the inevitability that we all are going to die one day.

Works Cited

Fisher, Benjamin Franklin. “Poe and the Gothic tradition” as collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes. New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0521797276 p. 882.Laurent, Sabrina. “Metaphor and Symbolism in The Masque of the Red Death”, from Boheme: An Online Magazine of the Arts, Literature, and Subversion. July 2003

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