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Exploring Symbolism and Themes in Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Feb 23, 2023 | 0 comments

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Feb 23, 2023 | Essays | 0 comments


The Masques of the red death is a literacy work by Edgar Poe that presents a very old theme as old as the medieval play of morality by Everyman. The Tell-Tale Heart is another short story by Edgar Poe about the guilt of murder was published in the 19th century. The narrator in the story is a man who is confessing to killing an old man who is under his care. This paper shall give the plot in both stories and discuss the symbolism and themes in both stories.

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The Masque of the Red Death story begins, by describing that a terrible disease called Red Death has struck the country. The disease is incurable and has killed half the population of the kingdom. With all the deaths taking place, the ruler of the kingdom Prince Prospero does not seem to care about the poor people dying. He literally leaves the kingdom to take of itself as he and his subjects shut themselves in the castle away from the disease. Prospero’s is very rich, even in death he still affords to party and dance. The prince welds the doors of his castles, meaning that they are shut. Later after six months, the prince decides to have a masquerade ball, where guests are dressed in masks and costumes. The ball set up is wild just as the prince designed it. The ball is set in a suite of seven rooms with different colors, blue, black, violet, orange, purple, green, and white. The dark room is dark and creepy. The room looks like death, it has dark black walls, blood-red windows, and a big black wall that makes sounds every hour scaring everyone at the party. Most attendees of the party seem very scared to go into the black room. For a few hours, the party goes on and everyone is happily dancing and interacting. The clock strikes midnight and everyone goes quiet as the norm when the clock chimes. A guest no one has seen before arrives and all attention turns to the guest. He is dressed as a corpse that has died from the Red death. The guest is frightening to look at and starts stalking the frightened crowd. The prince notices the guest arrival and behavior. The prince is furious that someone would have the audacity to wear such a frightening costume. He orders the guards to seize the strange guest and unmask him. The guards all frightened do not have the nerve to seize the strange guest. The prince himself looks frightened too.

The guest in the Red death costume passes close to prince and walks towards the black room. The Prince is furious and runs after him full of rage as he drew his dagger ready to strike. As the prince is about to reach him the guest in the red death costume turns around to face him, the Prince falls on the ground and dies. The crowd of guest runs towards the strange guest and discover that there is nothing under the costume. The red death itself had come to the party. The guests one by one fall down and die. All the lights go out and leave darkness, decay of bodies and the red death.

The main symbol is the Masque of the Red Death is that that no one can escape death. The Prince welds the doors of his castle preventing anyone from going out or in. However, death still creeps in kills everyone in the castle despite their wealth and luxurious lives. The black room is also a symbol of death. When the red death arrived, it headed for the dark room (Poe, 1842). The room had black walls and red windows. When light shone through the windows anyone in the room was red, a symbol for the red death disease. Every guest was too afraid to go into the room. The clock in the room frightened everyone as if to warn them that death was drawing close. The ticking of the clock is a symbolism of the ticking away of life, as one grows old. It is also said that after everyone died the clock stopped ticking symbolizing the loss of all lives.

Another symbolism is the seven rooms. The rooms were very different from each other all running from west to east. The rooms are a symbol of the seven deadly sins. The sins of lust, laziness, greed, pride, gluttony, anger and taking what does not belong to you. The Prince was selfish and arrogant. He left the poor subjects to die from the Red Death while he and his subjects locked themselves in the castle and even hold a party. I believe that Prince committed all the seven deadly sins hence his death in the black room.

Prince Prospero is a symbol of wealth and Prosperity. The Prince was very rich and had very many subjects. The death of Prospero symbolized the end of feudalism. His inviting of only the wealth knights and women to his castles at the expense of the poor subjects and commoners dying from the red death signifies the divide between the rich and the poor. There is a socio-economic difference that existed between the landowners and peasants during the feudalistic period. During the time, the Black Death reduced the number of workers leading to the demand of labor and end of feudalism in Europe.

In the Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator explains his relationship with the victim and ascertains that the old man had never done him any wrong but could not stand his filmy blue eyes and his pale. He adds that he was afraid of the eye since it reminded him of the vultures’. The narrator does not try to clean his sanity. His foolishness and desire drove him to killing an innocent old man. Before killing him the narrator is very kind to the victim, and every midnight sneaks into the man’s room and shines a lantern onto his eyes. The eye is close and the narrator feels like getting rid of the eye and not killing the man. During the day, he attends to the old man well to avoid suspicion. One night the narrator visits the old man in his chambers, his lantern falls, and the old man is awake. The old man is too afraid and stays awake for a while. The narrator lightens the lantern and he sees the old man’s blue eye now fully open. The narrator attacks the old man, drags him across the floor, and suffocates him with a mattress. The old man dies. The narrator laughs hysterically as he describes how he cleaned the corpse off the blood (Poe, 1852).

Tell-Tale Heart is a contradictory short story. The story illustrates psychological contradiction that take place in a murderous life. The narrator begins by admitting that he is nervous and at the same time says he is not a lunatic. He is very defensive against being called mad. He says that since he is nervous he is sane. The narrator tells the story in a precise manner by describing all the events that led to the murder and the plea for his sanity. The ways the events are narrated describe the narrator as a lunatic despite his plea for sanity.

The narrator murders an old man and says that he got of his blue eye. To the narrator the eye is different from the old man. He murders him but still says that he loves him. It is the desire to get rid of the eye that motivates the narrator to kill. To him killing the eye cannot end the old man’s life. The story presents another contradiction between the narrators love and hate. Rom the mystery, Poe explains that sometimes people harm those they love and need in their lives. The narrator loves the old man, he not vengeful. He however, reduces the old man to the blue vulture like eyes. To him the eye is evil. The eye is symbolism for the person of the old man and part of his identity and cannot be isolated from it.


Both the Tell-Tale Heart and The Masque of the Red Death carry the theme of death and life. The red death itself and the black room symbolize death in the Masque of Red Death. The Blue eye (Vulture eye) represents the Tell-Tale Heart on the other hand, death. The vulture uses its eye to spot food or prey. It scavenges until the animal dies for a chance to feed on its carcass. Whenever the narrator saw the old man’s blue eye he felt like he was prey and death was waiting him. The eye threatened and watched him; he says whenever the eye looked at him his blood-felt cold. In addition, the narrator is afraid of the eye because it was as if it looked into his thoughts and violent plans.


Poe, E. (1850). The Tell – Tale Heart. NYU School of Medicine. Litmed literature Arts Medicine Database.
Poe, E. (1842). The Masque of the Red Death. Dower Thrift Edition. New York.

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