The Oval Portrait -By Edgar Allan Poe
People in the story:
- The narrator, a wounded man and painter
- Pedro, the narrator’s man servant
- The young woman in the oval portrait
‘The Oval Portrait’ written by Edgar Allan Poe is the story of an artist who wants to make a painting of his young wife, but becomes so obsessed with it that he doesn’t realize his wife is dying meanwhile. This is short horror 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 Apennines.
“The Oval Portrait” opens with the unnamed narrator and his servant, Pedro, making “forcible entrance” into an abandoned chateau in the Apennine Mountains. For reasons never made clear, the narrator is severely injured, slightly delirious, and therefore incapable of spending the night in the open air. The two men hole up in a remote bed chamber whose decorations are “rich, yet tattered and antique.” It is an oddly-shaped room that is full of nooks due to the chateau’s “bizarre architecture.” The chamber boasts a number of tapestries, “armorial trophies,” and “an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque.” The paintings arouse the narrator’s interest. Wishing to contemplate them, he commands Pedro to light a tall candelabrum that stands at the foot of the bed. He also finds on his pillow a small book that provides an overview of the room’s pictures.
While Pedro sleeps, the narrator scrutinizes the paintings and reads this guide book, completely engrossed, until at length the hour of midnight comes. Dissatisfied with the position of the candelabrum, he moves it so as to shed more light on the book—and suddenly notices a painting that has so far escaped his attention. It’s a portrait of a girl who is “just ripening into womanhood.” The painting exerts an immediately overwhelming yet ambiguous effect on the narrator, forcing him momentarily to close his eyes and to wonder precisely what it is about the image that he finds so startling.
The narrator gives a brief description of the portrait. It is a “vignette” painted “much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully.” It depicts the girl’s head and shoulders, with the rest of her body unseen. The narrator admires the painting’s execution and the beauty of its subject, but is truly astounded by a third factor—its absolute lifelikeness, which “confounds,” “subdues,” and “appalls” him. He gazes at the portrait for an hour, eyes riveted upon it, before returning the candelabrum to its previous position and turning to the relevant description in the guide book.
The guide book contains an account of the portrait’s painter and its subject, who turn out to be husband and wife. The former, a renowned portrait painter, is a brooding, passionate man who’s wholly devoted to his work, to the point that it seems like he already has “a bride in his Art.” The latter is “a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee.” The artist’s wife hates nothing but the vocation of her husband, since she regards his art as a rival for his affections. Vivacious though she is, the girl is also meek and submissive, and bends to the will of her husband, who’s eager to paint her portrait, because she knows how greatly he values his work.
Analysis of the story
The opening sentences of “The Oval Portrait” establish a typically Gothic atmosphere by emphasizing the isolation and gloom of the chateau and the semi-delirium of the narrator. In light of this opening—which functions, among other things, is an indicator of the story’s genre. Readers familiar with the Gothic will entertain certain expectations about the nature of the titular oval portrait even before it’s actually mentioned in the narrative. Namely, these dark, macabre stories tend to bring inanimate objects to life—and the animated portrait is a commonplace of Gothic literature. The story’s central theme of the relationship between art and life is therefore present, if implicit, from the very outset.
The narrator is riveted by the room’s paintings, seemingly deriving pleasure from the very act of looking at them. This speaks to the notion of the male gaze, as the portrait places emphasis on the young girl’s sexuality and invites male viewers (and, indeed, the reader) to objectify her physical beauty without knowing anything else about her. Poe uses the narrator’s overwhelmed reaction to emphasize art’s power to influence those who consume it. The portrait may be a mere “image,” but it exerts an almost visceral effect on the narrator.
The notions of agency and objectification come to the forefront here. It’s significant that the portrait is a vignette—only the girl’s head and shoulders have been depicted, which, in the context of Gothic fiction, may be interpreted as an act of metaphorical dismemberment. The narrator, meanwhile, is left both literally and figuratively paralyzed by the sight of the portrait, which “subdues” him and leaves him unable to do anything other than to keep looking at it.
In the inner story told by the guide book, Poe further develops the themes of agency and objectification while arguably critiquing the patriarchal society of the early nineteenth century. The wife exists to be seen by her artist husband, and all non-physical aspects of her identity and personhood are downplayed to the point of nonexistence. In addition, Poe warns his readers that, if pursued with sufficient intensity, art—and especially personified “Art”—has the power to eclipse reality.
Understanding the text
a) Where did the narrator and his servant make forcible entrance?
The narrator and his servant made forcible entrance into the chateau-a large French country house.
b) Which special picture did the narrator notice in the room?
He noticed the oval portrait of a young girl in the room
c) Describe the portrait that the narrator saw in the room.
The portrait was in an oval-shaped frame. It revealed the head and shoulders of the young woman. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair dissolved untraceably into the unclear yet deep shadow which formed the background of the whole.
d) What is the relationship between the portrait painter and its subject?
They are husband and wife.
Reference to the context
What is the central theme of the story? Who is the woman depicted in the oval portrait?
The story “The Oval Portrait” deals with the theme of relationship between art and life. Art and obsession to it are showed as killers and responsible for the young bride’s death. In this context, art is equivalent to death. The association between art and life is considered as rivalry. In the story it is suggested that art can reveal the artist’s guilt or evil and may even destroy the life.
The woman depicted in the oval portrait is the wife of the painter and the victim of the painter’s passion for the portrait.
“The Oval Portrait” is a short story of horror story by Edgar Allan Poe involving the disturbing circumstances surrounding the portrait in a chateau. Elaborate.
The story “The Oval Portrait” is a short horror story with its dark setting and mood of the narration. It is set in a gloomy abandoned mansion. Although the mansion is deserted, it contains objects of a dark and mysterious past – such as the oval portrait itself. The image of the remote abandoned chateau is given a hint of mystery and gloom. The interior where its walls are decorated with tapestry and manifold and multiform armorial trophies, and a great number of spirited modern paintings is tattered and antique. The dark setting and shadowy circumstances of the prior events provide the impression that the story has a bizarre twist. The reader’s anticipation of mystery is sustained by the appearance of a lifelike portrait of a woman in one of the darker nooks of the mysterious room.
“The Oval Portrait” suggests that the woman’s beauty condemns to her death. Discuss.
The references of the painting state that the young lady in the portrait is very beautiful. She loses her life because her husband compels her to sit for many weeks in an attempt to make the most beautiful portrait of her. Though the lady sits next to her husband, he is so immersed in his painting to create a beautiful portrait of his wife. But he doesn’t realize his wife’s life withdrawing from her body slowly. It reveals the sad reality of the husband’s failure to witness the beauty of his wife. As he was an artist, he wants to treasure it in the form of a portrait. In this way, her beauty condemns her to own death.
Discuss the story as a frame narrative (a story within a story).
The Oval Portrait is a frame narrative, or a story that contains another story. In the first part of the story, we encounter the unnamed narrator, who is injured and stranded at night for unknown reasons. He along with his companion and servant, Pedro, take shelter in an abandoned mansion. The narrator stays awake while his servant sleeps. He is captivated by the paintings on the bedroom wall and studies a book containing their history. Noticing a lifelike painting of a young woman, he reads about it in the book.
In the second section, the narrator tells how a beautiful woman marries a painter who is completely absorbed in his work. Although she doesn’t love this, she agrees to sit for a portrait, a process that takes many weeks. As the portrait neares completion, the lady grows increasingly weak. In placing the final touches of his masterpiece on the canvas, he suddenly realizes that she is dead.
The story is told in a descriptive style, with plenty of imagery and symbolism. Which images and symbols do you find in the story?
The mansion is abandoned and worn-out. The turret room is in a remote section of the mansion. The room is rich in decorations, but they are tattered and antique. The walls are full of tapestries, trophies, and spirited modern paintings. This vivid description of the mansion provides the gothic image. Likewise, the descriptions of the portrait describe how real and beautiful it is. Although she is dead, she is painted so life-like in the portrait.
The dark gloominess of the abandoned house is a classic background for a gothic story. The painter is the symbol of the fanaticism. The woman in the oval portrait is the victim of painter’s passion for art. The oval portrait symbolizes the immortality of art. The frame is the symbol of the general objectification she faced as a physically attractive woman.
What does the expression “she was dead mean”?
The expression ‘She was dead!’ means the painter’s realization of the death of his beloved because of his devotion to the portrait. His wife remains in an obedient pose for many weeks. As the work continues her health becomes increasingly poor. However, the painter does not notice the worsening condition of his wife, continuing to paint desperately, without taking his eyes off the canvas. Given the last brush stroke, the painter is delighted with the liveliness of his creation, but turning to his wife, he realizes that she is dead.