Death, Despondency, and Deluded Dreams
There is a common expression that most people are familiar with: Write what one knows. No one accomplishes that feat as greatly as Edgar Allan Poe does in his writings. Growing up in harsh conditions emotionally, he manages to trudge through it all, with a little help from certain bad substances.
Throughout his life, he deals with many issues that adults nowadays will never dream of having to cope with. Many people of his time believe him to be a good-for-nothing alcoholic with rich foster parents. Rarely anyone is allowed to take a glimpse at the sad, lonely teenager resting inside of him, which progresses into him becoming an even worse adult that some can even call a madman. Using his passion for English and poetry, he begins writing for publishing companies at first, and then later writing for himself. Not many readers in this modern world fully understand where the dark elements in his poetry and short stories originate from, especially the darker, more disturbing elements.
Edgar Allan Poe’s recurring motif of a madman can presumably be the expressions of his own mind as shown through the insanity in his existence, events in his short story that parallel events from his own life, and the extension of himself as the mad main character in “The Masque of the Red Death.” Edgar Allan Poe experiences an array of horrific factors that leaves his mind in ruins, including experiences such as the lack of love throughout most of his life; numerous deaths; and many vices. Poe is severely deprived of love. After his family passes away, he is taken in by the Allan family. Poe’s relationship with this family is definitely a rocky one: The distraught Poe worked, probably without pay, in Allan’smercantile firm until clash with Allan in March 1827 prompted theyouth to leave home. Poe wrote two angry letters before hisdeparture, accusing his foster father of lacking affection but alsobegging a loan to finance his travels.
Allan rebuked Poe’s lack ofperseverance and industry’ and chided him for reading worthlessbooks (Kennedy). This description of a part of his history exemplifies the struggles Poe faces at home from his own foster father, causing him to grow more temperamental and increasingly sadder, deterioriorating his mind little by little. This relationship manages to fall even more into ruins. After this first fight, they achieve a temporary peace, during which Allan once clearly denies any relation to Poe. He does not receive much love or support from Allan, especially after his foster mother passes away (Kennedy).
Yet another clash is witnessed between the two men, and this one creates a rift between them that is irreversible. The hate between the two continues to grow as well as the insanity: “… worried that Allan’s health was failing, Poe made an unannounced visit to his old home but was rebuffed by his foster father, who brandished a cane and ordered him to leave” (Kennedy). Even though Allan is conscious of that fact that he is very ill, he refuses to speak to Poe, who goes home discouraged at this event.
As fate would have it, Allan dies soon after, and Poe continues to write halfheartedly. This split between Poe and his foster family causes for continuous feelings of loneliness. Poe also experiences unceasing death, which is prevalent throughout all of “The Masque of the Red Death.” The first instance of death happens at an early age. In 1824, the death of a friend’s mother spurs Poe’s curiosity on the dark subject of death. This event affects him so much that people report Poe visiting her grave often.
Soon after, Poe’s foster father John Allan describes him as temperamental and depressed (Kennedy). Both of Poe’s birth parents die of tuberculosis at a very young age, and this left him in the hands of his foster family, who all die as well during his lifetime. A little further into his life, Poe’s wife and cousin Virginia passes away from tuberculosis, and after that, his brother Henry suffers the same fate. Most of his loved ones are claimed by the same deadly disease, which he writes in his famous “The Masque of the Red Death.” Of course, these deaths cause him to become isolated and depressed, and if not confronted, these feelings can only spiral to the point of madness.
Though the hardest death and tragedy for him to face is that of his beloved Virginia. After she passes, Poe searches for a new lover. He is turned down by one woman, but soon becomes engaged to another. The grief from Virginia’s passing, the disappointment of his first failed proposal after Virginia, and the anxiety over his new engagement causes Poe to attempt suicide with an opium overdose (Kennedy), which is a very obvious consequence of a depressed mindset. The amount of times that Poe meets death in his life is outstanding and would cause anyone to slowly lose bits and pieces of their sanity, which is frequently mentioned in his short story “The Masque of the Red Death.
” Poe also struggles with many vices throughout his life. During Poe’s time at the University of Virginia, he participates in many reciprocating activities such as gambling, fighting, and dueling. These all trace back to his extreme alcoholism, resulting in a declining state of mind. Unfortunately, it does not lighten up with time; in fact, his drinking problem becomes worse (Kennedy). Poe’s drinking problem is so severe that many believe it contributes to his mysterious death.
Poe also battles mental illnesses, mostly depression. This traces back to his terrible time in the Allan house and his countless meetings with death. The lack of love and support Poe experiences in his life, the countless passings, and his myriad of vices could very much cause any person to retreat into the darkest and maddest parts of the mind, which indeed happen to Poe. There are a multitude of parallels that can be drawn from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” and his own life, as shown through the illness in the story and Poe’s own obsession with death, that can be evidence to the fact that Poe is a madman himself. The antagonist in “The Masque of the Red Death” is death itself.
The background of the story is that there is a deadly illness called the Red Death running rampant through all of Europe, leaving a trail of bodies in its wake. Poe witnesses the devastations and the wake of death of the deadly illness tuberculosis as well: “With Virginia battling a fatal disease, Poe composed and published ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ a tale of a deadly contagion” (Kennedy). This illustrates how Poe does write stories to express his own person. He desperately wishes to escape death with Virginia, like Prince Prospero, main character of this short story. Also in “The Masque of the Red Death,” Poe describes the symptoms of the Red Death: “There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, and dissolution” (Poe 261). Many of these symptoms in the short story are similar to, if not are, the symptoms of tuberculosis, the thief that steals the lives of Poe’s loved ones.
The illnesses in both the short story in Poe’s personal life share very close similarities, and it is easy to deduce that he is writing of the illness that plagues his life so heavily. Poe’s own obsession with death can be used as a parallelism between “The Masque of the Red Death” and his own life. The ending of Poe’s famous short story is a tragic one. All of the people are killed by death itself, who takes the form of a masked partygoer. The victory of the masked figure over the prince can be considered the victory of death over life and insanity over sanity. This is when the audience can deduce the Poe’s expression of his unhinged mind, because Poe knows the struggle of death over life and the acceptance of that concept all too well (Brent 245).
Also, every person in the story, except for the character of death, dies. As mentioned before, every person that Poe considers to be important in his life are killed. Not only does Poe see death around his loved ones, but he sees it around himself as well. He would often picture his own death: Receiving an appointment to West Point in March 1830, Poe .attended a summer bivouac and in September registered forcourses in mathematics and French. He quickly gained a reputationas a satirist, dashing off doggerel that circulated among thecadets.
Alternately studious and dissipated, jocular and moruse, heone evening conspired with a cadet to simulate his own murder(Kennedy). It is evident through the depth of his curiosity on the matter that Poe does have a tremendous interest in death and the trouble growing in his own mind. His use of illness in his short story and his fixation on dying can be used as parallels between his own life and “The Masque of the Red Death.” The possibility that Edgar Allan Poe uses himself as the model for the madman in “The Masque of the Red Death” is evident through the theme of the inevitability of death, fictitious people, and the first person narrative. In Poe’s story, Prince Prospero is surrounded on all fronts by death.
All of his servants die, probably his family and most of his court as well. In Poe’s own life, everyone he loves perishes. Both of these men attempt to avoid death and does not grasp the fact that death is inevitable. The prince realizes that right when it is too late, and Poe realizes it as soon as Virginia perishes. He brings that realization to life in his short story: “.
.. and while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows…” (Poe 263). This shows how scared the revellers are when the clock struck midnight. They are terrified of death and the fact that their time is quickly approaching, but they cannot stop the pendulum from swinging. He also writes of the need for control over their short lives: “He [the prince] had directed, in great part, the movable embellishments of the seven chambers, upon occasion of this great fete; and it was his own guiding taste which had given character to the masqueraders” (Poe 263).
This excerpt explains the control that the prince exercises while creating the party space, and he feels the need to do so seeing as the prince could not control the death coming to take them all. Poe writes this soon after horrible events in his life take place, and he has no control over any of them. Also, both Poe and the prince experiences imaginary people. There are many clues as to the prince being a madman. Perhaps one of the greatest might be Poe’s words used to describe the prince’s friends. Poe specifically uses words such as “dreams” or “an assembly of fantasms.
” These words hint at the fact that the masqueraders are figments of a mad mind. On Poe’s deathbed, witnesses report him to have moments of madness, where he repeatedly calls out to and spoke nonsense to figments of his own imagination (Brent 244). There is also evidence that Poe writes Prince Prospero in a first person narrative. It is said that “the narrator first mentions that the Prince may be insane by attributing it to the opinion of others, stating that ‘there are some who would have thought him mad.’ But the narrator distances himself from this opinion by then stating that ‘his followers felt that he was not mad'” (Milne 237).
By writing in the first person perspective, most writers find it necessary to put themselves in the character’s shoes. Poe would have used his own mad mind to create a complex mad character like Prince Prospero. Through the theme of the inevitability of death, imaginary people, and a first person perspective, one can conclude that Poe indeed used himself to model Prince Prospero.Through the horrific experiences Edgar Allan Poe underwent; the similarities between his life and “The Masque of the Red Death;” and writing himself as the main character, one can conclude that Poe’s purpose of a recurring motif of a madman is Poe’s own thoughts and feelings on paper. Poe draws upon his vast knowledge of tragic experiences to write this story and many others.
He continuously uses inspiration from his own life and his own background to bring life to these complex characters. Through his honesty in his expression, one can feel every emotion dripping off the page and into his or her own mind. Because of this reason and many others, Poe will forever be one of the most mysterious and disturbing literary creators of American literature. Works Cited Brent, Liz. “Madness.
” Short Stories for Students, edited by Ira Mark Milne, vol. 8, The Gale Group, 2000, pp. 244-245. Kennedy, J. Gerald.
“Edgar Allan Poe.” Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998. Literature Resource Center. Accessed 29 Jan.
2018. Milne, Ira Mark. “Characters: Prince Prospero.” Short Stories for Students, edited by Ira Mark Milne, vol. 8, The Gale Group, 2000, pp.
234-235. Poe, Edgar Allan. The Essential Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York City: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004. Print