Reader-Response to The Masque of the Red Death

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Reader-Response to The Masque of the Red Death

Some major concepts of reader-response criticism, as discussed by Ross Murfin in The Scarlet Letter: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism, are these: (1) reading is a temporal process in which the reader lives through the experience of the text and (2) the experience that the reader undergoes may mirror the subject of the story. One reader's experience of "The Masque of the Red Death" by Edgar Allan Poe can exemplify these two concepts.

In one sense, the temporal process of experiencing this story is like that experienced in reading any story. There is nothing remarkable about the fact that we are in suspense throughout the story, led through the action, ignorant as the characters are of the outcome. We experience what happens to the revelers in Prince Prospero's palace just as they experience it. We know of the threat of the Red Death--as they know it, from the very beginning; we are led through the palace, gaudy room by fantastic turning, as if we were there; we see the masked figure and are no more cognizant of what is behind the mask than the story's characters are.

Yet the extent to which our temporal process is reflected by the story and that our actions in reading it are related to the subject of the story goes even deeper. Certain oddities and gaps in the text bring our reading process closer to the center of the story. First are some puzzling incongruities, like that Prince Prospero is "sagacious" but abandons his dominions when they were "half-depopulated," hardly sagacious in the ordinary sense of the term as it might be used for a ruler. Another is the strange recurrence of the tolling of the ebony clock--a tolling which we ...

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...he Red Death, was, in fact, in their midst. By identification, as we actively seek our own meaning for what is behind the mask, what we find is guided to some extent by what the characters find--Red Death. Not only does the ebony clock toll for us, but the Red Death disrupts our revelry in the barbaric splendor of the story/palace.

Sources Cited:

Murfin, Ross C. "What is Reader-Response Criticism?" The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Ross C. Murfin. Boston: Bedford, 1991. 252-260.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Masque of the Red Death." The American Tradition in Literature. Ed. George Perkins and Barbara Perkins. 9th ed. vol. 1. New York: McGraw, 1998. 1281--1285. 2 vols.
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