In The Masque of Red Death, Prince Prospero attempted to isolate himself from the red death, a pestilence that was decimating the population of his country. He enclosed himself and a thousand of his healthy friends in a castellated abbey with a strong and lofty wall and gates of iron. To make sure that no one could enter or leave, the gates were welded shut.
The abbey was well-stocked with provisions, especially wine. To while away the time, Prince Prospero provided entertainment. There were buffoons, improvisatori, ballet-dancers, musicians, and Beauty.
Avoiding contagion is natural. Even a doctor would wear protective clothing if he were called upon to administer to someone with the bubonic plague. However, what would you think if a doctor were to hide instead of treating the patients?
The same principle applied to Prince Prospero. As a ruler, he was supposed to be a father to his people. He should have done what he could to relieve the suffering of his subjects. By hiding himself and indulging in pleasure, he became guilty of a serious dereliction of duty.
At the very least, he could have offered intercessory prayers for his people. In real life, many historical rulers turned to the Lord when their people were faced with impending calamity. King Hezekiah did so when Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem. Even the pagan king of Assyria donned sackcloth when he heard the ominous prophecy that Jonah uttered against Nineveh. In contrast, Prince Prospero showed no concern for his people. He engaged in revelry instead of prayer.
Toward the close of the fifth or sixth month of their seclusion, Prince Prospero entertained his friends with a masked ball. It took place in seven different rooms, each of which had a different atmosphere. The seventh room was fantastic and scary.
One of the sinister features of this seventh room was a large clock of ebony. When it struck the hour, all the dancers in the other six rooms were able to hear its ominous sound. It was an unwelcome interruption to the general gaiety that otherwise prevailed.
When the clock struck twelve, a terrifying figure appeared. It looked like a corpse that had died of the red death. This figure filled the assembled crowd with horror and disgust.
Prince Prospero had allowed his friends to choose their own costumes for the masked ball, but this was outrageous. Prince Prospero commanded that the figure be unmasked so that he would know whom he was going to hang in the morning.
At first, no one dared to approach the sinister figure. The intruder walked through the first six rooms with measured steps, and no one laid a hand on him, not even the prince.
Finally, Prince Prospero became ashamed of his momentary cowardice. He drew a knife and pursued the impudent figure. He caught up to his quarry as he was about to enter the seventh room. Then the figure turned and faced his pursuer. Prince Prospero fell dead.
When the figure entered the seventh room, the friends of the prince rushed at the intruder and unmasked him. There was nothing inside except empty air. Red Death had come to the masked ball. The revelers died one by one.
Did Poe regard the death of Prospero and his friends as a punishment for their heedless revelry? I believe that the dissipation of the maskers had a purpose. Because of it, they forfeited the sympathy of the readers, so that no one would object to their tragic end. Otherwise, I do not think that Poe intended to emphasize moral considerations in this story.
His chief interest was to develop a scary plot. Throughout the tale, he hinted that something dreadful was about to happen. Eerie descriptions caused the reader to anticipate disaster. In the end, Prospero and his friends succumbed to the terrifying disease that they had strenuously endeavored to avoid.
Since I no longer have the works of Edgar Allan Poe at my disposal, I consulted the online version of Project Gutenberg to write these notes.
Project Gutenberg: The Masque of Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe