Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” is popular in middle school Language Arts classes, and both high school and college level American Literature courses. The following questions, with answers, are modified from my classroom tested lesson plans. They’re suitable for essay or discussion topics, lectures, bell ringers, or testing.
What real life illness is the Red Death based on? Explain its impact on society?
The “Red Death” symbolizes the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Plague. It was called the Black Plague because victims would bleed by mouth and other openings, staining their clothes black with dried blood. Rats and their fleas spread the disease from home to home. The Bubonic Plague killed nearly 25 million people, between 30 and 60 percent of Europe’s population. In Poe’s time, disease was still a major killer, misunderstood, and a common source of fear.
What does the Prince do to avoid the Red Death? What do the Prince’s actions signify?
The Prince gathers his court and friends, the wealthy elite, and retreats to his country estate. The Prince and his guests enjoy lavish parties and comfort, while the working class and poor in more populated areas suffer and die. Instead of using his vast wealth to help the sick, he ignores the suffering of the poor, and spoils himself and his guests with extravagant living. Due to the shrinking middle class and growing income inequality in America, this thematic element is more relevant than ever, and can easily be linked to current social issues.
Who offends and frightens the party guests and the Prince? What is the offensive character’s real identity?
The celebration at the Prince’s estate comes to an abrupt end when a guest or visitor dressed as a victim of the Red Death arrives. The person is dressed as a realistic looking victim of the plague, complete with deathly appearance and streaked with blood. In many of Poe’s stories, it’s debatable and often difficult to tell if an occurrence is supernatural, or something more scientific such as madness or hallucination.
It’s possible the offensive party guest is a real victim of the Red Death, a personification of death itself, or merely a symbolic representation of the actual bacteria which cannot ordinarily be seen. When the partygoers seize the offensively costumed figure, they find he is nothing but blood soiled rags. Again, it is possible to argue the figure is either a group hallucination or a supernatural figure.
What are some possible themes from this story?
This question can be answered briefly as a warm up exercise or discussion topic, or more elaborately as an essay or other project. Several major themes include, but are not limited to:
Death does not discriminate.
Ignoring the plight of others will lead to your downfall
No one can avoid death
Don’t ignore your problems
You can’t escape fate
The wicked get what they deserve
Live it up while you can