The Understated Narrator of The Masque of the Red Death Essay

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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
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The last sentence ("And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all" [490]) could then be read as the equivalent of Hamlet's "I am dead . . . O, I die, Horatio! . . . The rest is silence" (5.2.338-63). No one finds Hamlet's failure to use the future tense confusing, so why quibble over the past tense in the last sentence of "Red Death"?



But Poe> has precluded this solution. The puzzle of the narrator is ensured by a seemingly offhand comment exactly halfway through the story. In the middle of a description of the costumes Prospero has designed for his masque ball, the narrator tells us that "[t]here were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm--much of what has since been seen in 'Hernani'" (487, emphasis added).



Once we notice this phrase, its effect is startling. The verb tense establishes once and for all the narrator's survival beyond the end of the story. Furthermore, the reference to Victor Hugo's Hernani gives the narrator a surprising contemporaneity with Poe and his initial readership. Hernani was first performed in 1830, and Poewrote "Red Death" in 1842. By contrast, the setting of "Red Death" seems older by at least a century or two, giving the narrator an odd, duplicitous, then-and-now quality. The narrator is simultaneously in Prospero's time, Poe's time, and the reader's time (the latter two were nearly the…