Symbolism of Life and Death in “The Masque of the Red Death”
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Symbolism of Life and Death in “The Masque of the Red Death” One characteristic of a romantic piece of literature is the use of symbolism the authors use in their works. In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” symbolism is used and seen many times. Some things in the story, when taken at face value, seem peculiar and confusing, such as the different colored rooms in the hallway, the purpose of the giant ebony clock, and the reasoning behind the guests’ way of hiding their faces behind their masques. However, if assessed properly, the true meanings of these seemingly insignificant details are revealed and in reality have a heavy influence on the true meaning of the story.
The seven rooms in this story are one of the details that have a profound symbolic influence on the true meaning of Poe’s story. The colors of the seven rooms, and the order in which the rooms are arranged in the story, have a specific meaning, which adds to the actual interpretation of the story. Each room consists of a different color: blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and black. When the implied meanings of each of these colors are revealed, the true reason for the rooms develops. Blue often reminds people of beginning of life and the purity that comes with that beginning. Next is purple, which is related to learning, youth, and the beginning of age. Following purple is green which we relate to growth, youthfulness, and energy. This is the point of a person’s life when they reach their peak. Orange often reminds people of sunsets, falling leaves, and the beginning of the downfall to winter or the end of the year. Then there is white, which represents faith and the beginning of older age. Violet, which is seen as a darker shade of purple, is next with its reflection of knowledge, old age, and the coming of darkness. Lastly there is black which, as seen by everyone, brings thoughts of death, darkness, grief, and nighttime.
If the meanings of these rooms are looked at in order, it becomes obvious that the rooms have been placed in order from brightest to darkest, or from the beginning to the end. They show a distinct pattern that matches the pattern of a human life. There are also seven distinct stages in a person’s life, which are directly related to the seven rooms used by Poe. Seven is known as the number of completeness and is the symbol of the completeness of a life. It is seen numerous times throughout history in such things as the Seven Wonders of the World, the seven deadly sins, and even in the seven days of the week. The feeling of completeness created by the number seven, when related back to the rooms, produces a symbol of the passing of a complete life.
Another form of symbolism is evident in the giant ebony clock that sits in the seventh and final room. The clock is seen as a symbol of the coming, and the constant reminder of death. Every time the clang of the clock is heard in the story “it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in…meditation.” This same event is seen every time the clock chimes the passing of another hour. Everyone stops at the sound of the clock because it reminds them of the inevitable coming of their own death. Midnight is very often related to death and is thought of as “the final hour.”
In Poe’s story, as the clock chimes and reveals the passing of yet another hour, it frightens the guests because they know that they are closer to midnight and to their deaths. When the clock does strike midnight, everyone freezes yet again, but this time everyone knows death is coming. Everyone is quieted as before “but now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell of the clock; and thus it happened.” At the stroke of midnight a cloaked figure appears and the life of the prince is taken. The clock is accurate throughout the length of the story. It is always there to remind the guests that, at the stroke of midnight, someone’s life will be taken. When midnight arrives the clock is proven to be right and the prince looses his life. It becomes evident that the clock becomes a symbol of the coming of death.
At the stroke of midnight a masked figure appears in the story. Many times throughout the story the figure is described as “tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave.” He is referred to as “resembl[ing] the countenance of a stiffened corpse…and his broad brow, with all the features of the face was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.” These descriptions cause the image to become a symbol of the Grim Reaper. He only appears when he is sent to take someone’s life and then fades out after that life has been taken. The masked figure in the story plays the same role. After the stroke of midnight some guests “became aware of the presence of the masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before.” The figure just appears after the clock strikes midnight. Then he takes the life of the prince by slowly leading him to the seventh room, or the room of death, and stabbing him. After the prince has been executed, like the Grim Reaper, the cloaked figure fades off into the shadow of the ebony clock where his presence will be forgotten and he can disappear once again.
Through the symbolism that is seen in Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death,” people come to a better understanding of what the story is really about. Through Poe’s use of symbolism he is able to tell us two stories at one time. Using this form of writing, Poe creates a more interesting story for many different types of people. He creates a story for those people who will take the story at face value, but he also creates one for those people who are able to open their minds and learn something even more while they read.