Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” (1842) is one of his shortest stories, filling only two pages in the Broadway Journal
. A longer version entitled “Life in Death” had previously been published in Graham’s Magazine
. It had included an introduction explaining the backstory of the main character, how he had been wounded and had eaten opium to relieve the pain. Poe probably decided to cut these parts because they are not particularly relevant and gave the story an unwanted realism
, as opposed to simply being a hallucination. The main thematic argument in the story is the confusing relationship between art and life. Throughout “The Oval Portrait,” art and an addiction to it are depicted as killers. Art and humanity’s relationship to art is responsible for the young bride’s death. In that sense, then, art and death can be thought of as synonymous. Contrarily, the relationship between art and life can be considered a rivalry. Poe’s theory is that poetry as art is the rhythmical creation of beauty, and the most poetical topic in the world is the death of a beautiful woman, one that he writes about frequently. In this short story, Poe suggests that it is the woman’s beauty itself that condemned her to death. Poe also seems to feel that art can reveal truths about the artist’s guilt or inherent evil.
Pedro, the valet, brings the injured narrator to an abandoned chateau because he does not want him to have to sleep outside. They decide to force entry, wishing only to stay the night in one of the smallest apartments in a small tower. The room, rich and lavish with tapestries, trophies, and paintings is clearly in decay.
The narrator is at least partially delirious from his wounds. He begins to take an intense interest in the paintings and tells Pedro to close the windows, light a candelabrum, and open the bed curtains. He wants to be able to see the paintings while reading the book he found on the pillow. The book provides information about the paintings in the room. The narrator decides that instead of going to sleep, which his valet has done, he will read and observe the paintings long into the night. Around midnight, he shifts the candelabrum to direct more light on the book, and the light changes the effect on the room around him.
Now the narrator can see a painting that he had not seen before of a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman. The narrator impulsively feels the need to close his eyes. When he opens them, having calmed down, he looks at the painting again. He realizes that his sense had deceived him; he is startled into wakefulness. The portrait is of a girl’s head on the shoulders of Thomas Sully, an American artist. The oval frame is covered in gold filigree, in the Moorish style. For a moment, the narrator mistakes the painting for a living person, but obviously, it is a painting. He wonders how he could have thought the painting was a person, and then decides to move the candelabrum so that he cannot see the painting.
The narrator begins to read about the portrait. It says that the subject is a naturally cheerful maiden of rarest beauty, who marries the painter for love. It also says the painter is passionate but studious and is as much in love with painting as he is with his wife. Because the wife is naturally happy and loves all things, she hates his art, because it means he has less time for her.
Eventually, the wife’s jealous nature comes into conflict with the husband’s career in painting. He asks her to sit as a model for a portrait, which she is not excited about. She is a modest and obedient wife, however, and agrees to it. He sits in a dark tower where the only light comes from a window above. The passionate painter does not realize his wife is wasting away in the darkness. She does not complain and continues to smile.
The portrait is so life-like that everyone who sees it is struck by it. They say it is a combination of his skill and his love for her. When he is nearly done, however, he locks both of them up in the tower, away from visitors, to put all of his concentration into the art. He does not notice that his wife grows paler as the painting grows more life-like. When he finally finishes the painting, he exclaims that this is indeed Life itself! When he turns to his wife, however, he sees that she died the moment the last brush stroke hit the canvas.