Effective, powerful, and "unified" as it is, this familiar story nevertheless reveals Poe's inconsistent social attitudes, his very consistent aesthetic stance, his close ties to American urban society, and his ever-present playfulness. We are somewhat suspicious of Poe's intentions. Since Prince Prospero and his courtiers can do nothing to combat the disease, what is so immoral in their fleeing it? Moreover, what are they doing at the abbey of which we are supposed to disapprove? They have music, ballet, wine, and "Beauty"--all of which have favorable connotations in Poe's work--and don't seem to be misbehaving. We may well ask, as Marie Bonaparte did, where are the naked women? This is supposed to be a moral parable, but the punishment which it dramatizes is for no visible crime. To feel satisfaction in the moral, we must have what is usually called a puritan sensibility--a dislike of beauty for its own sake. And that is a position against which Poe fought all his life. How can we state a "moral" for this tale? Perhaps: "Death catches all, even the mighty, in the end." More likely: "Aristocracy is in itself sinful, and will be punished." Poe, in short, plays on the antiaristocratic biases of his audience, another sign of his immersion in the spirit of his country and time, especially in view of his own predilections for both aristocracy and beauty. Resentment against aristocratic "privilege" of all kinds reached a peak in Jacksonian and post-Jacksonian America, while fascination with royalty and aristocracy, paradoxically, remained extremely strong. For all his fear of "mob" and for all his Southern-aristocratic pretensions, Poe at times revealed the same healthy democratic bias against the prerogatives of aristocrats.
Yet the aristocrat Prospero is also in a sense to be admired, for he shows all the signs of one of Poe's creators of elaborate beauty. "Some . . . would have thought him mad"; he loves the bizarre and the beautiful, and he directs the arrangements of the seven chambers of the masque himself.
Poe succeeded in "The Masque of the Red Death" in so controlling the rhythms of his sentences and the visual patterns of his decor that the story has thrilled readers into goosebumps for a century and more. But what is being said in those sinuous sentences will often not bear close examination. It is sometimes as nonsensical as the gothic absurdities he played with in "Metzengerstein."How, exactly, can we make sure, by touching him, that Prospero is not mad? Why take fifty words to tell us that the sound of the clock is "more emphatic" when you are close to it? We would urge readers to enjoy the thrills, as Poe no doubt did himself, but also to listen closely, in those silent moments when the music stops and the ebony clock speaks in brazen tones in the velvet room, for the sound of Edgar Poe, laughing.
A note of explanation: Poe juxtaposed humor and horror both in the tale and in his responses to real epidemics in his time and in things he read. Poe