'The Oval Portrait' Interpretations

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I would be interested to know of anyone's interpretations of 'The Oval Portrait'. What does it mean? Does it contain any symbolism?

-- Anonymous, May 12, 2000



One of the most frequent techniques Poe used in his short stories, and this is definitely a short one, was to provide lavish, detailed and rich illustrations of the settings and moods surrounding the characters. He would then engage the characters in the story, the narrator in this case, in a fashion that has an anticipatory effect on the reader. While he spares no effort in describing the surroundings, setting and tone, Poe withholds all but the essentials in developing an unfolding story-line and forces the reader to use his imagination to fill in those ideas that are missing. Perhaps, this is why different interpretations are not uncommon in his works.

First printed in Grahams Ladys and Gentlemans Magazine in April 1842, it was originally titled Life in Death but was reprinted in the Broadway Journal in April 1845 as The Oval Portrait.

It is an extraordinarily brief narrative of a man, seriously wounded, and needing shelter. His attendant forces open an unoccupied and apparently abandoned chateau for refuge from the night air. They have chosen a secluded and rather isolated apartment that was less furnished than the others but seemed to be filled with rich decorations, heraldic trophies and many richly framed paintings that easily lured his attention away from his wounds. He wishes to continue this distraction from his pain and has his valet light a large group of candles and push aside the black velvet shroud from around the bed so he can see as many of the paintings as possible. Lying on the pillow is a small book that describes the paintings and he lays down to, hopefully, read himself to sleep. As he passes the hours reading, the pain almost forgotten and slumber slowly approaching, he adjusts the candles to throw more light on the book.

Unnoticed before, this realignment of the candelabra to accommodate his reading fully illuminated a vividly life-like portrait of a young girl of astonishing beauty. He is startled by the portrait and he quickly closes his eyes to calm his excited senses and to, subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. He slowly studies the portrait and deliberates at length on the secret of its striking appeal. A sense of awe sweeps over him as he resolves the enigma the secret is in the absolute life-likeness of the young girl. It was her matchless beauty, the enchantment of her loveliness in portrait that appeared so tangibleso alive. No longer drowsy and desperate to know more, he replaces the candelabra to return the portrait to the shadows. The distraction now hidden, he pages through the book to the portraits history and begins to read.

It was the story of a young girl just ripening into womanhood, a girl of the rarest, radiant beauty and happy beyond measure. She had met and fell in love with an artist, a painter of ability and at last they married. She loved and cherished all things and dedicated her life to his comfort and his whims and she lived only to please him. Her only dread, a jealousy, no, a hatred for the art that was her rival, a constant competitor for the affections of her husband. He was a passionate man and his love and his passion was divided for he already had a bride in his art.

One day he told her of his wish to portray her in portrait. A dutiful and obedient wife, she wanted only to please and accommodate his wishes. Submissively, she sat for the portrait. Hour upon hour she sat, the days progressed into weeks and she gleefully submitted until months had passed. His passion wild, he became lost in the portrait and the reverie of his creation. Yet day after day she continued to smile and sit, uncomplaining, because she understood the fires of pleasure he took in his task. At length, her spirit began to wan and she became weaker by the day and still she sits for him. Rarely, now, would he turn from the painting, so enrapt was he with his passion. He refused to see that each glorious stroke of the brush upon the canvas; each perfect tint applied was drawn directly from the loveliness of her cheeks. Still he would not turn from the portrait.

At last, the end of the final hour came and there was but one more brush stroke to the mouth and one last tint to the eye. It was done. He stood before the portrait enthralled with his creation. He cried out, This is indeed life itself., and as he turned to share his accomplishment with his beloved wife, he found She was dead! He at last realized that each stroke of the brush had taken away from her some measure of loveliness; each tint, a small quantity of her spirit until, at last, she had none left to give. Her beauty gone, her spirit empty, her heart broken, she died.

The remarkable thing about this tale is the depth of the story told and the brevity in which it is given. But, this is pure Poe. I guess there is a moral in there somewhere but Ill leave that to you, Joe. Best of luck and.

Best Regards,

-- Anonymous, May 13, 2000

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