Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"The Oval Portrait" Published 1842

"The Oval Portrait" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe involving the disturbing circumstances surrounding a portrait in a chateau. It is one of his shortest stories, filling only two pages in its initial publication in 1842.

Plot summary

The tale begins with an injured narrator seeking refuge in an abandoned mansion in the Apennines, with no explanation for his wound. He spends his time admiring the works of art decorating the strangely-shaped room and perusing a volume which "purported to criticize and describe" the paintings. He eventually discovers a painting which shocks him with its extreme realism, which he refers to as "absolute life-likeliness of expression." He spends a moment ("for an hour, perhaps," the reader is told) in silent awe of it until he cannot bear to look any more, then consults the book for an explanation.

The remainder of the story is a selection from this book discussing how the painting was created — a story within a story. The book explains that the picture was painted by an eccentric artist depicting his young wife, but that he grew obsessed with his painting to the point that he paid no attention to the woman he was painting. When he finishes the painting he is appalled at his own work, and exclaims, "This is indeed Life itself!" Then he turns to see his bride, and discovers that she has died and her spirit was transferred into the lifelike painting.


The central idea of the story resides in the confusing relationship between art and life. In "The Oval Portrait," art and the addiction to it are ultimately depicted as killers, responsible for the young bride's death. In this context, one can synonymously equate art with death, whereas the relationship between art and life is consequently considered as a rivalry. It takes Poe's theory that poetry as art is the rhythmical creation of beauty, and that the most poetical topic in the world is the death of a beautiful woman (see "The Philosophy of Composition"). "The Oval Portrait" suggests that the woman's beauty condemns her to death.[1]

Poe suggests in the tale that art can reveal the artist's guilt or evil and that the artist feeds on and may even destroy the life he has modeled into art.[2]

Major themes

Monomania – see also "Berenice," "The Man of the Crowd"
The death of a beautiful woman – see also "Ligeia," "Morella"

Publication history

"The Oval Portrait" was first published as a longer version titled "Life in Death" in Graham's Magazine in 1842. "Life in Death" included a few introductory paragraphs explaining how the narrator had been wounded, and that he had eaten opium to relieve the pain. Poe probably excised this introduction because it was not particularly relevant, and it also gave the impression that the story was nothing more than a hallucination. The shorter version, renamed "The Oval Portrait" was published in the April 26, 1845 edition of the Broadway Journal.[3]

Critical reception and impact

The story inspired elements in the 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Five years before the novel's publication, Wilde had praised Poe's rhythmical expression.[3] In Wilde's novel, the portrait gradually reveals the evil of its subject rather than that of its artist.[2]

A similar plot is also used in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1843 tale "The Birth-Mark."[4]

French film-maker Jean-Luc Godard cited passages from the story in his 1962 film Vivre sa vie. Many saw this as Godard acknowledging the complexities of using his then-wife Anna Karina in the leading role for his films.


1.^ Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972: 311 ISBN 0807123218
2.^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992: 290. ISBN 0815410387
3.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001: 178. ISBN 081604161X
4.^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998: 331. ISBN 0801857309

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