31 pages 1 hour read

Edgar Allan Poe

The Oval Portrait

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1842

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The Relationship Between Art and Life

“The Oval Portrait” draws attention to life’s fleeting nature and to the paradox of trying to preserve life through art. It suggests that no matter how “perfect” an image of life is, the image is still a mere illusion that cannot substitute for actual life. Ultimately, life’s beauty simply cannot be pinned and preserved through art.

In the frame narrator’s report of his thought process after first encountering the painting, he says that his shock is neither due to “the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance” (482). The diction of this comment foreshadows the action of the story-within-the-story that will soon follow, because the artist’s work is, indeed, an “execution” of “immortal beauty.”

The painter’s wife is a woman of “rarest beauty” and “all light” (483). Because of the story’s use of light symbolism, the identification of the painter’s wife with light also identifies her with life, and her radiance can be seen as the beauty of life itself. Light is explicitly identified with the “flame” of her life near the story’s end (483).