The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe: Summary & Analysis

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

In this lesson, we'll briefly introduce Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Oval Portrait' as a frame narrative. We'll summarize its plot, which begins with a misdemeanor and ends with a harrowing discovery. Finally, we'll analyze some key ideas raised in this short story.

Background and Summary of the Story

Edgar Allan Poe, famous American Gothic short story writer and poet, published 'The Oval Portrait' in 1842. It's one of his shortest short stories, but it raises intriguing questions about art and the roles of those involved in its making and appreciation. It is also a frame narrative, or a story that contains another story. However, 'The Oval Portrait' is more literal than most. The story describes the style of the painting and its frame in considerable detail, and its title focuses more on the presentation of the portrait than on its subject.

In the outermost story, we meet the unnamed narrator, who is seriously injured and stranded at night for unknown reasons. His companion and servant, Pedro, breaks into an abandoned chateau, where the two men take shelter. Despite his self-proclaimed delirious state, the narrator stays awake while his valet sleeps. He is fascinated by the paintings on the bedroom wall and studies a book containing their history. Noticing a startlingly lifelike portrait of a young woman, he reads about it in the book. Here we encounter another story from the perspective of the art book's author.

The author tells how the beautiful, vivacious subject married a painter who was completely absorbed in his work. Although she hated this, she agreed to sit for a portrait, a process that took several weeks. As the portrait approached completion, the artist's bride grew increasingly weak and listless. In placing the final touches of his masterpiece on the canvas, he suddenly realized that she had died right in front of him. In bringing the painting to life, he brought about her death.

Analysis of 'The Oval Portrait'

Characters as Participants in the Creation and Reception of Art

Let's first look at the characters as participants in the creation and reception of art. Poe is neither subtle nor circuitous in placing art at the center of his story. In 'The Oval Portrait,' paintings represent art, but other creative forms apply as well. His wounded narrator is so entranced by the chateau's paintings that he denies himself medically critical rest in order to study them. The art book's author informs others about them. The painter has 'already a bride in his Art' and has eyes only for it. His wife, of course, is literally destroyed by his work. We can read the narrator as an informed observer of art, the author as an art historian and critic, the painter as the artist, and the woman as a muse. Each of them participates in the creation and reception of art. According to the story, one or more of those roles must involve sacrifices in order to make masterpieces possible.

As scholar Robert N. Mollinger has pointed out, the story includes both active and passive roles. Pedro performs effectively insofar as he breaks into the chateau to obtain shelter, even if his relationship to art is somewhat unclear. The wounded narrator lies passively in bed, studying paintings and reading books. However, the reverse is also true: Pedro sleeps while the narrator actively and attentively seeks out the history of the bedroom's paintings.

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