A reading of Poe’s classic short story
‘The Oval Portrait’ (1842) is one of the shortest tales Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote. In just a few pages, he offers a powerful story about the relationship between art and life, through the narrator’s encounter with the oval portrait of a young woman in a chateau in the Appenines. The story repays close analysis because of the way Poe offers his story as a subtle commentary on link between life and art.
First, a brief summary of this briefest of stories. The narrator, wounded and delirious, has sought shelter in an old mansion with his valet or manservant, Pedro. He holes up in one of the rooms, and contemplates the strange paintings adorning the walls of the room, and reads a small book he had found on the pillow of the bed, which contains information about the paintings. At around midnight, he adjusts the candelabrum in the room and his eye catches a portrait he hadn’t previously noticed, in an oval-shaped frame, depicting a young girl on the threshold of womanhood. The narrator is captivated by this portrait, which seems so life-like; but he soon becomes appalled by it. He turns to the book and reads the entry detailing the history behind the oval portrait. The woman depicted in it was the young bride of the painter, and was a perfect wife in every respect – except that she was jealous of her husband’s art that distracted him from her. The artist paints a portrait of his wife, and becomes more and more obsessed with capturing her likeness, until he ends up spending all of his time gazing at the portrait of his wife, and hardly any time looking at her. She becomes weaker and weaker, dispirited from losing her husband’s love as he stops paying her attention and becomes more and more preoccupied with the painting. When he has just about finished the portrait and turns to regard his wife, it is to find that she has died.
What makes Edgar Allan Poe’s best stories more than just gripping Gothic horror tales or unsettling stories is the way he clearly depicts a central idea, which the story explores and analyses. ‘The Oval Portrait’ offers a fine example of this: it can clearly be analysed as a story about the uneasy relationship between life and art, embodied by the young bride and the oval portrait her artist-husband paints of her. But precisely what the story is suggesting about the link between life and art remains less easy to pin down.
Yet, given the conclusion of the story – when the bride dies, ironically just after her husband has perfected her portrait with the cry, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ – it seems possible to posit an analysis of ‘The Oval Portrait’ which sees the story as a warning about the danger of neglecting reality in the rush to pursue great art. As soon as the artist stops looking to reality – embodied in the story by his devoted, but increasingly weaker, wife – and becomes wrapped up in art itself, he makes a grave error.
Alternatively, though, we might posit an analysis of the story that views it as less of a ‘moralising’ tale and more of a simple exploration of the way things are. In this reading, we might see the story not as a cautionary tale about the dangers of privileging art over life, but merely as a statement about the nature of creativity – namely, that no great art was ever created without cost. After all, the oval portrait is an artistic success – it is its lifelike quality, and the artist’s triumph in having managed to capture the living essence of his subject, that first draws the narrator’s attention to it among all the other paintings. What’s more, there is no moral framework for the story’s conclusion, no follow-up paragraph telling us that the story is warning of the dangers of art – the oval portrait may have an oval-shaped frame, but ‘The Oval Portrait’ does not come with a handy framing that directs us to the ‘meaning’ of the story, for all that it is a ‘framed’ or embedded narrative in the sense of having a text placed within another text (i.e. the book’s account of the portrait, which is contained within the wounded narrator’s narrative). But the story breaks off at the end without returning to hear the narrator’s thoughts on what he has just learned.
‘The Oval Portrait’ has the feeling of an archetype, as if Poe had plucked the images and scenes direct from his unconscious (or, to continue the Jungian psychoanalytic flavour, our collective unconscious). In its portrayal of an artist who came to place his art above lived reality, Poe pre-empts the later Aestheticism, or ‘art for art’s sake’, of writers like Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. Indeed, the story’s legacy includes having a hand in inspiring Oscar Wilde’s one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), with its exploration of the way life and art intersect, feed off each other, and end up, in some ways, being incompatible.
Image: Illustration for Poe’s ‘The Oval Portrait’, via Wikimedia Commons.