Teaching the Masque of the Red Death: A Teacher's Guide
Why Teaching "The Masque of the Red Death" Could Save Your Life.
It was the week before Halloween my first year teaching and I had finished all the required observations but one. "I just might survive," I told myself. "I think I'll take it easy today and read a short story." That's when the principal, Mr. Reddeath, came in. He didn't say much, just walked in between the rows, making us all nervous. He pointed his gaunt finger at the board and gargled something about the lesson plans not matching my activities. The class, which was enjoying the short story, attacked him...and died. Mr. Reddeath scurried from the room and left suggestions for teaching "The Masque of the Red Death" with "Masque of the Red Death" activities. I share them with you.
"Masque of the Red Death" Activities: Write a Review
Teaching "The Masque of the Red Death" doesn't have to be done in a vacuum. Use Poe's short story to teach writing and analysis as well. Have each student do the following after reading the story:
- Write a brief summary, 100-200 words.
- Write a brief analysis extolling the story's literary merit, 150-200 words.
- List 3 or 4 "Masque of the Red Death" Activities in a bulleted list.
- Give each section a rating of 1-5 stars.
Summary of "The Masque of the Red Death"
The Red Death has wiped out half the population in Prince Prospero's kingdom. The Prince decides to do something about it: he builds a fortressed castle and invites a thousand friends to hang out there. He barricades the castle and closes all castle entrances and exits. The Prince wants his guests to forget about the Red Death and enjoy themselves, so he hires entertainers and musicians and throws extravagant parties.
He throws a huge masquerade, anything-goes party at which everyone is having a wonderful time, except when the giant ebony clock, located in the pitch black room with blood red windows, chimes each hour, causing the guests to get nervous and forget what they're doing (Why the Prince, who's trying to get people to forget about death, constructs a room of death with a giant clock that reminds everyone of death is beyond my literary intelligence).
The party's going great. The guests are enjoying and freaking out a bit over the Prince's august, yet eccentric, taste in interior design, when an intruder causes their revel to cease. The intruder was "tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave...His vesture was dabbed in blood and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror" (150).
The angry prince tries to kill the intruder and dies...along with everyone else at the party. "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all." (151).
A literary analysis of "The Masque of the Red Death" by Edgar Allan Poe produces the following topics for discussion:
- Symbolism and Allegory - "The Masque of the Red Death" can be read on multiple levels: (1) it can be read literally; (2) it can be read as an allegory of life, with the seven rooms symbolic of the seven ages of man or the seven deadly sins; (3) it can be read as a political allegory on the death of feudalism, with Prospero representing feudalism's ruling class and the peasants being locked out of the castle.
- Imagery - Poe uses fantastic imagery to present the eccentric home of Prince Prospero (for a more in depth look at imagery in "The Masque of the Red Death," follow the link).
- Personification - The intruder at the end of the story is the red death personified.
- Setting and Mood - The broader context of the story establishes an oppressive mood. The castle lends a demonic mood to the festivities.
- Theme - Themes in "The Masque of the Red Death" include the inevitability of death, the illusion of control, and the need for leaders to be responsible.
- The Black Death - Although there is no specific disease with the symptoms described in the story, the fact that half the population has died when the story begins is similar to the Black Death that killed approximately 40% of Europe in the 14th-century.
These lessons will help students think critically about the story:
- Poe's life was filled with tragedy. Motivate students to research Poe's life with this Webhunt activity.
- "The Masque of the Red Death" is an ideal story for teaching symbolism. And this teaching symbolism lesson plan is the ideal lesson plan for teaching symbolism.
- Teach the importance of word choice and denotation/connotation for establishing mood with the following procedures:
- Create a three-column chart. At the top of the left column, write "Specific Detail." At the top of the middle column, write "Dictionary Definition. At the top of the right column, write "Connotation."
- In the left side of the column, write 10-12 words or phrases that establish the story's mood. Here are some suggestions: pestilence, scarlet, seizure, extremity, shrouded, black velvet tapestries, deep blood color, profusion, chambers, gaudy, ebony, stricken, pale, barbaric lustre, stalked, gaunt, blood-bedewed.
- Instruct students to write the dictionary definition of each word in the middle column. You may want to explain the words to them.
- Discuss the connotation of the word and what images it conjures.
- For advanced classes, discuss how Poe uses harsh consonant sounds and alliteration to create a sense of dread.
- Instruct students to write a paragraph, analyzing Poe's word choice and how it affects the story's mood.
- If you look to the right, you'll see a link to high school project ideas, a lesson plan on symbolism and imagery, and an adaptable teaching suspense lesson plan.