The Understated Narrator of The Masque of the Red Death
While the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” never appears in a scene, he is always on the scene. He reveals himself overtly only three times, and even then only as one who tells:
“But first let me tell of the rooms in which [the masquerade] was held.” (485)
“And the music ceased, as I have told . . .” (488)
“In an assembly of phantasms such as I have painted . . . ” (489)
Yet as understated as this narrator is, he presents a cryptic puzzle. The problem is that while he has witnessed the fatal events inside Prince Prospero’s sealed abbey and survives to tell the tale, we learn at the end that everyone within the abbey dies. The narrator’s survival is therefore paradoxical. I shall get to the significance of the paradox presently, but first I would like to show why efforts to dismiss the paradox are unsatisfactory.
One possible reading of the narrator in “Red Death” is that Poe has simply been careless–that his inclusion of three first-person pronouns is casual and meaningless. (We might call this the default reading, implicit in most of the criticism on this story that is concerned with other issues entirely.) This easiest of all solutions to our point-of-view puzzle is also the least satisfying, when one considers Poe’s usual extreme sensitivity to the position of his narrators. In fact, many of Poe’s tales are arguably about their own existence after the death of their narrators.
For instance, “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “Shadow–A Parable” both purport to be written by narrators who are on the brink of death, and who will be dead by the time we read th…
…rupt liquefaction of the dead man at the moment of his hypnotic awakening” (11). Characteristically, Poe gives liquefaction the last word, subverting his own subversion of death.
Barthes, Roland. “Textual Analysis of a Tale By Edgar Poe.” Trans. Donald G. Marshall. Poe Studies 10 (1977): 1-12.
Cassuto, Leonard. “The Coy Reaper: Unmasque-ing the Red Death.” Studies in Short Fiction 25 (1988): 317-20.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. “Permeability and the Grotesque: ‘The Masque of the Red Death.'” On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982. 106-21.
Kennedy, J. Gerald. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Edgar AllanPoe: Poetry and Tales. Ed. Patrick F. Quinn. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984.