The Sociological Criticism of “The Masque of the Red Death”

From inside the abbey’s sturdy walls and its maze-like suite of seven rooms specially decorated according to a theme color, come the sounds of laugher and enjoyment. Its iron gate is welded shut, making it impossible for anyone to enter or leave. Clowns, musicians, and dancers amuse the prince and his guests of a thousand knights and ladies selected from his court for six heavy months. But there is one guest not invited. This masquerader, tall and thin, is outfitted as a corpse in a grave. His mask is as stiff and fearsome as a dead man’s face. Deep, red smears on his costume make it clear that he has come in the disguise of the Red Death. Prospero orders the unmasking of the intruder and declares that he will be hanged in the morning from the fortress’s battlements. But no one undertakes the task. The intruder then moves from room to room. Prospero withdraws a dagger and chases him. In the black, final room, the intruder turns and faces Prospero. There is a cry. The dagger falls to the floor. Then Prospero collapses. Finding courage, Prospero’s friends rush to attack the intruder. To their horror, they discover that there is nothing inside the costume or behind the mask. Edgar Allan Poe ends the story by revealing the identity of the intruder:

“And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all” (47).

Edgar Allan Poe, master of horror, writes a chilling tale that can be interpreted using Sociological Criticism. By examining its history and behavior, one can understand society at that time; one can see how society felt and what tragic experiences can do to the people’s views on subjects ranging from decease and disease to its emphasis on the journey of life to death.

John Dewey once wrote that society exists in and through communication. What a group of people share that distinguishes them from others is often labeled their “culture.” A distinctive framework of language and religious, benevolent, cultural, scientific, political, and patriotic categories makes common experiences possible and shareable. Sociological Criticism is criticism directed to understanding or placing literature in its larger social context; it analyzes both how the social functions in literature and how literature works in society. It’s influenced by New Criticism; however, it adds a sociological element and considers literature as an expression of society, one that contains metaphors and references directly applicable to the existing society at that time.

Sociological Criticism was introduced by Kenneth Burke, a 20th century literary and critical theorist, whose article “Literature as Equipment for Living” outlines the details and significance of such a critique. According to Burke, works of art, including literature, “are strategic namings of situations” that allow the reader to better understand, and “gain a sort of control” over shared happenings through the work of art (Adams 942). This completely complicates the basic trend of New Criticism, which simply calls for a close textual reading without considering emotional response or the author’s intentions. It also rejects historical and biographical study as irrelevant to an understanding of the work in its entirety. While Burke also avoids emotional response and the overall intention of the author, he specifically considers literature as logical reflections of society and its behavior (Adams 957).

Austin Harrington outlines in his book, Art and Social Theory, six ways in which art can be approached from a sociological standpoint: 1) humanistic historic approach, 2) Marxist social theory, 3) cultural studies, 4) theory of art in analytical philosophy, 5) anthropological studies of art, and 6) empirical studies of contemporary art institutions (15). The variety of sociological approaches introduced by Harrington confronts traditional approaches to literature. According to Harrington, “sociological approaches generally possess a stronger sense of the material preconditions, historical flux and cultural diversity of discourse, practices and institutions of art,” (31). Harrington argues that literature art can serve as “normative sources of social understanding in their own right,” (207); the ways in which these sources make apparent this social understanding is exactly what is of interest to Kenneth Burke. As Harrington observes, there are several methods of regarding literature from a sociological perspective, and considering the sociological element is essential because literature is inevitably full of references and commentaries on the society. Sociological critics are then to look at exactly how such references and commentaries function within the work of literature.

In Franco Moretti’s article, “The Dialectic of Fear,” he addresses the methods by which Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker highlight the problems and inconsistencies within their societies through their novels, Frankenstein and Dracula. Moretti notes that the fear in Frankenstein lies in the protagonist and not the reader, so as to encourage the reader to “reflect on a number of important problems (the development of science, the ethic of family, respect for tradition) and agree – rationally – that these are threatened by powerful and hidden forces” (12). Shelley does this, notes Moretti, by keeping the novel in the past tense, and not hiding any of the monster’s qualities, but rather informing the readers totally (12). Stoker, by contrast, wants to scare his readers, and so Moretti recognizes the way in which this is done: “the narrative time is always in the present, and the narrative order – always paratactic – never establishes causal connections … the reader has only clues” (12). Kenneth Burke would approach these pieces of literature through their statements on society, and push for sociological critics to use methods, like the ones used by Shelley and Stoker, as a way of regarding literature as a function of, and functioning in, society – a criticism technique that “cut[s] across previously established disciplines” (Adams 952).

“The Red Death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous….There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face…shut out [its victim] from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow men…. [T]he whole seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour” (Poe 41).

In writing a story of this nature, Poe would have considered such historical examples in society as the Black Death or the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages, as well as the cholera epidemics that ravaged Philadelphia in the 1790’s and Baltimore in his own lifetime. In this story, the plague takes the unusual form of a red death rather than a black one so that blood, the very substance of life, now becomes the mark of death. Poe’s fictional Red Death resembles a real disease that occurred in Medieval and Renaissance Europe– septicaemic plague. A victim of septicaemic plague sometimes got up in the morning strong and healthy, without an ache or a pain, and went to bed in a grave. The disease manifested itself in three forms: bubonic plague, which caused painful swellings (buboes) in the lymph nodes of the armpits and groin; pneumonic plague, which filled the lungs with fluid; and septicaemic plague, which poisoned the bloodstream (Bubonic Plague and Cholera 230). Septicaemic plague was far less common than the other two forms of the disease. Sometimes one form of the disease killed by itself; at other times, it progressed into another form before claiming a victim. Together, these three manifestations of plague were known as the Black Death because of the purple hue of corpses caused by hemorrhaging underneath the skin (Bubonic Plague and Cholera 234).

Cholera’s physical symptoms closely relate to the description of the Red Death’s. The diarrhea associated with cholera is acute and so severe that it could result in severe dehydration, or even death. Writer Susan Sontag wrote that cholera was more feared than some other deadly diseases because it dehumanized the victim. Diarrhea and dehydration were so severe that the victim could literally shrink into a shriveled distortion of his or her former self before death (Briggs and Mantini-Briggs 114-119). Other symptoms include nosebleed, rapid pulse, dry skin, tiredness, abdominal cramps, nausea, leg cramps, and vomiting (Bubonic Plague and Cholera 299). Examining the first paragraph in the story, the reader can see the close resemblance between the Red Death and the real septicaemic plague, or Black Death, and Cholera disease. This demonstrates that society not only feared the plagues that were killing thousands of people, but were terrified of it. It haunted and clouded the dreams of the people at night, cursing them to fear death and mortality, wondering if the next day will be their last.

Society’s emphasis on the journey of life to death is reflected in Poe’s story, which takes place in seven connected but carefully separated rooms. This reminds the reader of the past significance of the number seven. For example, the history of the world was thought to consist of seven ages, just as an individual’s life had seven stages. The ancient world had seven wonders; universities divided learning into seven subjects; there were seven deadly sins with seven corresponding cardinal virtues. Therefore, a reading of this story suggests that the seven rooms reflects the seven stages of one’s life, from birth to death, through which the prince pursues a figure masked as a victim of the Red Death, only to die himself in the final chamber of eternal night. The seven rooms are laid out from east to west, reminding the reader of the course of the sun which measures our earthly time. This progression is symbolically significant because it represents the life cycle of a day: the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, with night symbolizing death. What transforms this set of symbols into an allegory, however, is the further symbolic treatment of the twenty-four hour life cycle: it translates to the realm of human beings. This progression from east to west, performed by both Prospero and the mysterious guest, symbolizes the human journey from birth to death. Poe crafts the last, black room as the menacing endpoint, the room the guests fear just as they fear death. In creating this room, this is how Poe links the color black with death. The significance of time of life to death in this story is seen in the symbol of the “gigantic clock of ebony,” which is draped in black velvet and located in the final room. It adds to the threatening atmosphere as it tolls the hour with a deep chime that echoes through the winding hallways and unnerves all the guests. The masqueraders are reluctant to enter. Instead, everyone congregates in the other rooms. The overwhelming darkness of the seventh room, the importance of time, with the clock and the layout of the rooms from east to west, and the masquerader’s attitude towards the final room describes to the reader how society felt about the journey to death; it’s not celebrated like in other populations, but feared with anxiety and apprehension.

Using history and the behavior of society at that period in time, Sociological Criticism can interpret the short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” by Edgar Allan Poe. The commoner’s fear of death and mortality is seen by the ultimate resemblance of the plague that killed every person in Prince Prospero’s abbey and the plagues and diseases that afflicted society in the past and at the time of Poe’s life. However, the story also indicates that not only can the Red Death kill those of common status, but also those wealthy or noble enough to be in the Prince’s presence for six months. This shows how society felt; that no one is safe from disease or death. Society’s emphasis on the journey of life to death can be grasped through the seven rooms, which reflect the seven stages of life; each one located east to west to signify the sun’s movements and count of our earthly time. Although Sociological Criticism examines how literature reflects society, it has limitations that might not represent the story as a whole. For example, a main part of Sociological Criticism is to not examine the author’s background, the author’s intent, or any emotional response; any of which could alter the views reflected upon by the reader.

“[S]carlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim” indicate the presence of the Red Death (Poe 41). Blood, the very substance of life, becomes the mark of death as it bursts through the pores. Death, then, is not an outside antagonist, to be feared and walled out as Prince Prospero attempts to do; but instead it is a part of each of us and consequently, society as a whole. Its presence is felt in our imaginations as we become aware of the control that time has over our lives. We hear the echoes of the “ebony clocks” that we carry within. Prince Prospero tries to escape death by walling it out, and by so doing, creates a prison out of his sanctuary. However, the Prince learns that no one can escape death. Death holds “illimitable dominion over all.”