Many of Edgar Allan Poe's works can be considered allegorical. The most common definition of allegory is when a work has a hidden meaning that is revealed through examining a text. When these various symbols, characters, events, and locations come together to show a singular message, the text can be considered an allegory. "The Masque of the Red Death," in particular, consists of a multitude of symbols that come together to convey a message about death. Using these materials and activity ideas, students will begin by examining one of four symbols in the text followed by coming together to uncover the text's full allegorical meaning.
Before reading the story, the definition of an allegory should be explained. It can be a tough concept for students to grasp due to its abstract nature. Since students should be familiar with symbolism already, it is useful to have students picture the story as a puzzle, with each piece being one of the symbols in the text. When all of the symbols are viewed and analyzed together, a larger common message is unveiled. Students can examine "The Tortoise and the Hare" from Aesop's Fables to be exposed to a rudimentary allegory.
Examining Individual Symbols
The Symbol Exploration Slips sheet contains four sections, one for each of the four major symbols in the text: the clock, the hallway, the rooms, and the stranger. Each slip has questions about these concepts from the story to help students uncover their symbolic meanings, except for the slip regarding the rooms which goes a bit more in-depth. Each student can be given a single slip after reading the text together, and can receive time to answer the questions individually. It should be enforced to students that they should do their best and not be discouraged if a question is difficult since they will be collaborating later in the lesson. Also, slips should be given out in a way that will create heterogenous groups based on ability. After working individually, students should form four groups based on which symbol they were assigned. Once in groups, the members should share their answers and come up with a group interpretation of that particular symbol. Common interpretations (that lend themselves to the most common allegorical reading) include how the clock symbolizes the awareness that death is slowly creeping closer, the hallway symbolizes the journey through life, the rooms (and their colors) embody the various stages of life, and the stranger symbolizes death itself.
Forming the Allegory
Before the four groups present their findings, each student should receive the "The Masque of the Red Death" as an Allegory Worksheet. On this sheet, the stop section contains space for interpretations of the four key symbols to be recorded. Each group should present while the other groups take notes on the current symbol. After each group presents, all students will have an idea of what the four symbols represent, and the allegorical meaning can be uncovered. Have students consider what the four symbols have in common and what deeper meaning makes sense. If the interpretations outlined above are present, the story represents how death is inevitable; despite the precautions of the partygoers, the safe-haven they have constructed only enforces how they cannot escape death. This concept can be discussed as a class or students could work in their already-formed groups to come up with a potential reading.
The final box on the allegory worksheet asks how the story fits within the Romantic period. If this story is examined as part of a larger unit focusing on this period of literature, the story's focus on death combined with poetic elements can be easily placed within the period. Connections can be made to other texts, such as "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats.