‘The Oval Portrait’ (1842) is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s shortest stories. Through the narrator’s encounter with an oval portrait of a young woman in an Apennine chateau, he tells a powerful story about the relationship between art and life in just a few pages. Because of the way Poe presents his story as a subtle commentary on the relationship between life and art, the story merits close examination.
The wounded and delirious narrator has sought refuge in an old mansion with his valet or manservant, Pedro. He retreats to one of the rooms, where he contemplates the strange paintings adorning the walls and reads a small book he discovered on the bed’s pillow, which contains information about the paintings. Around midnight, he adjusts the candelabrum in the room, and his gaze is drawn to a portrait in an oval-shaped frame, depicting a young girl on the verge of womanhood. The narrator is captivated by this life-like portrait, but he is soon repulsed by it.
He opens the book and reads the entry about the oval portrait’s history. The woman depicted in it was the painter’s young bride, and she was a perfect wife in every way – except that she was jealous of her husband’s art, which distracted him from her. The artist paints a portrait of his wife and becomes increasingly obsessed with capturing her likeness until he spends all of his time staring at the portrait and very little time looking at her. She becomes weaker and weaker, depressed from losing her husband’s love as he stops paying attention to her and Poe-oval-portrait-illustration becomes increasingly preoccupied with the painting. When he has nearly finished the portrait and turns to look at his wife, he discovers that she has died.
What distinguishes Edgar Allan Poe’s stories from other gripping Gothic horror tales or unsettling stories is the way he depicts a central idea that the story explores and analyzes. ‘The Oval Portrait’ is a great example of this: it’s clearly a story about the uneasy relationship between life and art, as embodied by the young bride and the oval portrait her artist-husband paints of her. But it’s harder to pin down exactly what the story is saying about the connection between life and art.
However, given the story’s ending – when the bride dies, ironically just after her husband has finished her portrait, with the cry, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ – it appears possible to posit an analysis of ‘The Oval Portrait’ that sees the story as a warning about the dangers of ignoring reality in the pursuit of great art. When the artist loses sight of reality – embodied in the story by his devoted, but increasingly frail, wife – and becomes engrossed in art itself, he commits a fatal error.
Alternatively, we could view the story as less of a “moralizing” tale and more of a simple exploration of how things are. In this interpretation, the story may be seen not as a cautionary tale about the dangers of prioritizing art over life, but rather as a statement about the nature of creativity – namely, that no great art has ever been created without cost. After all, the oval portrait is an artistic success – it is its lifelike quality, as well as the artist’s triumph in capturing the living essence of his subject, that draws the narrator’s attention to it among all the other paintings.
Furthermore, there is no moral framework for the story’s conclusion, no follow-up paragraph informing us that the story is warning us 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 story’s meaning,’ despite the fact that it is a framed or embedded narrative in the sense of having a text placed wit, However, the story ends without returning to hear the narrator’s thoughts on what he has just learned.