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The Oval Portrait

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The Oval Portrait, a short story from Edgar Allan Poe, lies in the fact that art and life are deadly linked. The passion for art and painting is described as causing death since the painter’s determination to make a portrait of his wife will cause her death. As in most of Poe’s short stories, the setting takes an important place in the story. We could say that it has even an influence on the characters since the narrator is losing his mind while the action is taking place.

Our study will consist in showing how The Oval Portrait could embody most of Poe’s tales. We will first try to discover how the setting can affect the narrator’s mind and then, the processes that Poe uses to create this effect. Then, our last part will be devoted to the concepts of love and hate (concepts that are classic in Poe’s short stories), in a context where death is omnipresent.

The beginning of the short story is characterized by a Gothic atmosphere since it describes a man (the narrator) with his valet, entering into a deserted Chateau to spend the night in. We can notice that a dark and abandoned house is a typical background for a Gothic story. As in most of Poe’s short stories, we have first a complete and also realistic description of the setting. Concerning the chateau it is said: “Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque” (L.8-13). These decorations which are described as being “rich” and full of tapestry belong to a Gothic setting, which give a dark and gloomy atmosphere.

The dark and gloomy atmosphere of the Gothic also lies in the strange architecture of the chateau: “(…) but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the château rendered necessary” (L.15). So the chateau can be seen, in a way, as a prison or a sort of disturbing maze which contributes to the gothic atmosphere since it appears as a kind of mystery place. We can also notice an opposition between light and dark which emphasizes this feeling of mystery, which even becomes a feeling of fear. The scene takes place at night with the light of “a tall candelabrum” (L.19), a light more than subdued because the surroundings are very dark: “The heavy shutters of the room” (L.18) are closed and the bed is enveloped in “curtains of black velvet” (L.21), which creates a lugubrious atmosphere. So the accurate description of the setting gives an impression of reality. But as in every Poe’s tales, the narrator, himself, slips slowly into the supernatural which have a tendency for the reader to feel lost in the story, because we don’t really know if we are in the reality or not. This is explained by the appearance of some inexplicable events.

For instance, when the narrator leans forward to move the candelabrum to throw more light on the book, it strangely reveals a portrait that had been hidden in the dark: “But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bedposts” (L.31-34). It seems that the action is uncontrollable, but at the same time it is also bound to happen. Besides, the moment of the action emphasizes this sort of fatality: “Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came” (L.27). The “deep midnight” can connote an hour of mystery and fear, a moment when something strange is about to happen. Moreover, the opposition between light and dark does not only contribute to create a dark atmosphere, it also reveals the oval portrait by contrast, because the painting is the only thing which is lit up whereas the rest of the room is dark. But what is more interesting is the effect the oval portrait causes on the narrator.

At first sight the narrator seems to slip into a kind of illusion. And he is so confused that he needs to close his eyes to come round: “I glanced at the painting hurriedly and then closed my eyes (…) It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought – to make sure that my vision had not deceived me – to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more taken gaze” (L. 36-42). So even if there are weird and undisputable signs that destabilize him, he doesn’t want to let himself go. Besides, the “-“ indicates his need to pause because he needs time to think about what is happening. He tries to be more lucid but he is between dream and reality.

In this passage (“But the action produced (…) into walking life” L.31-47), the narrator uses a lot of words which belong to the lexical field of perception : “sow”, “glanced”, “my own perception”, “my vision”, “gaze”, “looked”, “had seem to dissipate”, “my senses”, which show that he tries to come back to the real world. He is disoriented, but in the following paragraph he seems to come round. First, he knows what he has already said which proves his clearness: “The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl” (L.48). Then, he uses a lot of technical terms to describe the portrait: “a vignette” (L.50), “Moresque” (L.54), “in the style of the favourite heads of Sully” (L.51), etc. which shows that his opinion is that of a connoisseur and that he is no longer in a dream (besides, he even quotes Anne Radcliffe, pioneer of the gothic novel, at the beginning of the story).

But at the same time, the woman is so precisely described that it might be misleading for the reader, giving thus the impression that he is not depicting the portrait but a real woman: “a mere head and shoulder” (L.49), “The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the background of the whole” (L.51-53). Many parts of her body are mentioned and described which gives an impression of reality, as if the lady were still alive. Therefore we may wonder whether the narrator is stuck in this dreamlike situation or trying to escape from it.

So the general atmosphere, which is full of mysteries and particularly gloomy, is typical of Poe’s tales. But there are other themes which contribute to create this dark atmosphere in this tale and which are also typical of Poe’s work. In this tale, the opposition between love and hate is everywhere. We can notice an opposition between the power of art and the power of love. First, when the painter and his wife are introduced to us, the description of their love for each other is quite confused and full of opposition. On the one hand the painter is “passionate and studious” (L.77), but he is also “austere” (L.77) and becomes “lost in reveries” (L.90). He loves his “beloved” (L.113) but he has “already a bride in his Art” (L.78). His wife, on the other hand, is described as being a beautiful woman “of rarest beauty” (L.75) but she also seems to be a passive character under the domination of her husband.

Even though she didn’t want to be portrayed she accepted because she loves her husband and understands his passion for his art. Her passivity can be shown in the adjectives used to describe her: “humble” and “obedient” (L.85), she sat “meekly” (L.85), “uncomplainingly” (L.93). Moreover there is a kind of mise en abyme when the narrator observes the portrait (which is here a portrait in a portrait) and also a story embed in a story, which both show the passivity of the lady since she is only observed in the story. She is observed by her husband and by the narrator and, to a certain extent, by the reader. She is not active in the story. And her passivity in addition to the power of art, against which she can’t struggle, will cause the destruction of the couple’s love for each other. The painter’s passion for his art overwhelms his love for his wife. He wanted to immortalize his wife’s image which he has done, but in fact, he has created a kind of double of his wife.

But as in William Wilson, they both cannot exist at the same time. One of them must always disappear. Here the wife, as we said before, has to be seen as a passive character but she can also be seen as a victim too, since she is dying while her husband portrays her and notices nothing. We can also notice that the association of beautiful woman with death is also a recurrent theme in Poe’s work. In Ligeia, the lady becomes more and more beautiful as she approaches death. In the Oval Portrait, we might say, that the soul and the beauty of the painter’s wife, in a way, ended imprisoned in the portrait since the painter says at the end of his work: “This is life itself!” (L.112).

Although the Oval Portrait is one of Poe’s shortest tales, it is full of mysteries and it seems to match with most of his short stories. There is a Romantic Gothic mood which is created by the setting of the story. Moreover, thanks to detailed accounts of emotion and sometimes madness, the reader can enter into the mind of the narrator. And this process of focusing on the mind is recurrent in Poe’s tales. With this kind of “morbid passion” for the art, the reader can explore the strange aspect of psychological processes. He discovers the narrator’s progressive feelings of uncertainty and madness, thanks to this sort of strike between dream and reality which the narrator is involved in.

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