Edgar Allan Poe is known for his masterful writing on all aspects of mortality, but his famous short story “The Masque of the Red Death” proves to be more than a simple story about death. While it is about death, Poe’s short story can be read and applied as a cautionary tale whose purpose is to illustrate a worthy way to live and die by portraying the opposite of both. This interpretation comes about when the story is viewed through the lens of New Criticism. This viewpoint shows how the story uses its formal elements converge to create one complex theme. Poe’s short story develops its theme through the use of paradox, tension, irony and ambiguity, all of which come together to identify death as an unavoidable part of the human experience and to illustrate the proper way to cope with this grim understanding.
Paradox finds its place in the story within the character of Prospero and establishes the complexity of the human experience. The host of the party and leader of the revelries is paradoxical in his reasoning. His lavish house is built up as a fortress to withstand the destruction of disease: “But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends… and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys” (Poe 269). This lavish stronghold is Prospero’s own attempt to avoid death. The party occurring within the mansion serves to establish an atmosphere of pure celebration and revelry to contrast the feeling of people facing a deadly plague. “Prince Prospero so alienated himself, and his courtiers, from death that he completely lacke...
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...s why life lived in this way is considered wasted by identifying Death as ruler over a life lived in complete avoidance of it. This is all sealed together under the ambiguity of setting that transforms this story into a parable to pass on and learn from. All four of these formal elements culminate in the story to say something important about death and the human experience. It conveys that death is an unavoidable part of the human experience while life is simply a distraction from one’s own mortality and should be lived with the knowledge of death’s inevitability in order to have a purpose. Without this understanding, death becomes the reigning power and ultimate conqueror. To use the words of Poe, a life lived in constant avoidance of that which is unavoidable finds its end where “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death [hold] illimitable dominion over all” (Poe 273).
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