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Allegory is a device that can be presented in literary form, such as a poem or novel, or in visual form, such as in painting or sculpture; it uses a set of recognizable symbols whose meanings combine to convey a message. In Edgar Allen Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" allegory operates on two levels of meaning: the literal elements of the plot, such as conflicts between the aristocracy and peasantry; or the symbolic level where characters are often personifications of abstract ideas. Many believe this story embodies profound symbolism and reveals Edgar Allen Poe to be, through his flourishes of phantasmal imagery, the father of Gothic Horror and a true master of allegory.
Allegory is derived from a compendium of Greek words that convey the idea of speaking indirectly to the public to convey an inferred or implied meaning. The technique of comparing two seemingly dissimilar objects (metaphor) forces the reader to search for a common thread; when a metaphor becomes persistent, it's said to become an extended metaphor (allegory). It is very easy for the audience to make the connection between the Grim Reaper, a phantasm attired in "habiliments of the grave" and the personification of the Read Death.
It may be argued here that an allegory may or may not exist according to ones point of view. Some schools of thought adhere to the rule of objectivity; if the author did not intend it, then no inference should be drawn. Others take a more subjective approach by suggesting that the Lord of the Rings is an allegory for the World Wars, in spite of author's insistence that it is not. Rabelais explicitly stated in his work that no allegorical teaching was intentionally contrived; he simply wanted to entertain the illustrious boozer. Because of this bifurcation, there is much dispute over how to interpret "The Masque of the Red Death".
Edgar Allan Poe, in his essay "The Poetic Principle", called didacticism the worst of form of "heresy" to the art of writing; since didacticism is an artistic philosophy that emphasizes instructional and informative qualities in literature, Poe felt it obstructed the reader's enjoyment in an attempt to be educational. He was more concerned with the artistry to entertain and excite, rather than instruct. So, many maintain, based on Poe's testimony, that there is no esoteric meaning to be found. This work is inclined to adopt the subjective point of view.
"The Masque of the Red Death", seen as biographical allegory, is Poe as Prince Prospero (protagonist), a wealthy man of a distinguished family, who understood that the family (house of cards) is under constant attack from the outside world (breeze). Poe may have felt alone as its sole protector; and realized the futility of escape as he watched relentless external forces bring death and destruction to his bloodline (collapse).
The story, seen as humanistic allegory, is the futility of man's attempt to escape death (fate). On the symbolic level: color signifies joy, hope, faith, loyalty, truth, sorrow and death; blood represents terror, horror and fear of death; the Grim Reaper (antagonist) the personification of death; the Ebony Clock the ordinal control of life over the reveling crowd as they pursue their passions through the seven rooms of life. With each mark of the hour the revelers stop, each pausing to look for whom the bell tolls; and in the silence of its conclusion, give a collective gaggle of exasperation--relieved by the fact that it was not for them-but tragically it was.
Seen as theosophical allegory (Prospero as Lord Maitreya incarnate), the seven races, at the hands of feudalism, suffer genocide. The Prince (amoral prosperity), while mounted on the back of tyranny (totalitarianism), cultivates a matrix of decadency, amorality, greed and avarice to spawn a plague of biblical proportions (eugenics). The aristocrats conspire to deflect their responsibility, deny aid to the afflicted, fan the flames of petulance; institute indifference, amplify fear; and vacate to their secluded bastions while their servants languish in excruciating pain. The symbolism of aristocracy in the blue room signifies the genetic contamination of blue bloods. The Red Death (purification) necessitates the resuscitation of lost knowledge (occult wisdom) and the seventh race precipitates the re-incarnation; and the Atlantians, masters of the previous epoch (Edgar Cayce), herald the Avatars of the New Age (perfected humans).
As metaphysical allegory (school of the Oribindo): the divinity of the self is realized through the struggle of the soul as it wanders through life; searching for a meaning and a purpose; only to get lost in a maze of illusions; only to suffer the death of the ego. The ego is the fortress of vanity, an ivory tower of superficial strength and the false identity of control. Each of the thousand revelers is an aspect of the multi-faceted self, the embodiment of power and madness, the personification of primordial self-preservation. Death courts the aristocracy as they masquerade their sadistic passions, grandiose delusions et des fantasies bizarre; and amuse themselves by entertaining their psychosis in the mirror of the Cirque du Fantasque , Carnival du Grotesque and Théâtre de l'Absurde. At the eleventh hour, in the final scene, all the aspects of the ego are outraged, horrified and repulsed by the offensive appearance of reality (mortality), the homicidal id stalks and attempts to murder fate (cheat death); instead, succumbs to karmic dissipation (failure to realize transcendence).
The allegory is a most difficult literary device to analyze for hidden truth; its interpretation and understanding are dependent upon the view point of the observer. The extrapolation of meaning from layer upon convoluted layer of symbolism seems to be constrained only by the imagination of the reader. The allegory is problematic because of symbolism's essential nature; it lives in a realm where inferences are drawn from the well speculation and hidden things only have meaning to the initiated; a place where the observer and the observed blend into the indistinguishable.