Like many of Poe’s other works, “The Masque of The Red Death” is preoccupied with death, and the psychology of the macabre. The story is centered around prince Prospero, and his court of revelers, who have cloistered themselves away in an august, and plushly decorated cloistered abbey, while a plague known as the Red Death ravages the prince’s dominion. In response to the pervasiveness of death outside the prince’s walls, he decides to hold a seemingly endless masquerade ball. In Prospero’s opinion, it is “folly to grieve over, and think of” the plight outside. The prince’s recommended alternative is to embrace a hedonistic lifestyle complete with dancing, wine, and “Beauty.” To heighten the experience of the ball, the prince constructs a series of themed rooms with a different defining color. The seventh, and last room, is decorated with black drapes and lit by the light shining through a scarlet stained-glass window. The scarlet light throws a ghastly look upon the countenance of the revelers, making them bear a strong resemblance to the growing number of blood-specked corpses littering the countryside outside the abbey’s walls.

         The penultimate moment of the story comes when a masked reveler, in the guise of a plague victim, infiltrates the ball. Despite his own dubious behavior, Prospero labels the guest’s garb a “blasphemous mockery” and makes an attempt to reprimand him. Little does he know that the guest in question is not a derisive mockery of death, but Death itself. Many literary critics focus on the ways in which the “Red Death” is not a metaphor for any specific disease, but a metaphor for the human condition. Many elements of the story point to this. The disease’s association with blood, and the emphasis placed on time in the story, emphasize corporeality. Furthermore, the reveler’s attempts to avoid the “Red Death” can be seen as an act of raging defiance against death and old age, an act of defiance that is ultimately futile. Also symbolic is how the uninvited guest manages to infiltrate a supposedly impregnable fortress. In this case, Prospero’s sense of control over death proves to be nothing more than a comforting illusion. This piece is perfect as part of an introductory lesson on Edgar Allan Poe, and American Romanticism. Because of the heavy use of symbolism, and other literary devices, this piece also works well as part of a lesson on the conventions of writing.

Standards Addressed


Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.


Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.


By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of grades 6-8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.


Before Reading

In general, what kind of associations do you have with the color red? What has it come to represent and symbolize? Make a short list of your associations.


During Reading

Based upon the text, what are the reasons why the prince and his reveler’s decide to throw a masquerade ball at the abbey? In addition to any explicitly stated reasons, draw inferences about any implicit reasons. Make sure to cite your evidence. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.1)

What hourly event disturbs the reveries of the prince and the partygoers? How do they respond to this event, and how do you make sense of their response? (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.1)


After Reading

Based upon the function the cloistered abbey is supposed to serve, what is ironic about the way the story ends? Support your answer with details from the text. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.2)

If this story is viewed as a morality tale, what vice is prince Prospero being punished for? Furthermore, do you think his fate is a fair one? (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.2)


Connections in Text

Compare the ending of “The Masque of The Red Death” with the ending of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of The House of Usher,” also contained in the Books That Grow library. What thematic similarities do these endings share? Support your answer with textual evidence. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.10)


Further Readings

For Teachers:

This link provides teachers with a relatively in depth analysis of the story’s symbols, and their relevance for course goals.