Edgar Allan Poe: The Oval Portrait. Full Story, Summary and Analysis

The Oval Portrait, a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, tells the story of a badly injured man who takes refuge in an abandoned castle with his servant. Intrigued by the numerous paintings in the castle, he discovers an oval portrait of a young woman that appears almost lifelike. Reading a book on the history of the paintings, he learns that the painter of the portrait was obsessed with capturing the essence of his young wife, devoting himself wholeheartedly to the task. The painting and the artist’s story reveal a deep connection between art and life, unveiling the painter’s intense dedication and the consequences of his obsession.

Edgar Allan Poe: The Oval Portrait. Full Story, Summary and Analysis

The Oval Portrait

Edgar Allan Poe
(Full story)

The chateau into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. 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. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the chateau rendered necessary—in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that I bade Pedro to close the heavy shutters of the room—since it was already night—to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed—and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.

Long—long I read—and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.

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 bed-posts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in my mind my reason for so shutting them. 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 certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.

That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for the first flashing of the candles upon that canvas had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle me at once into waking life.

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea—must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me. With deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:

“She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to portray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And he was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him. And when many weeks had passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:—She was dead!


Reading Guide: The Oval Portrait, Summary and Analysis

Summary of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Oval Portrait

In “The Oval Portrait,” Edgar Allan Poe takes us on a journey through a gothic and disturbing tale filled with a dense and oppressive atmosphere, characteristic of much of his work. The story begins with a wounded man and his servant, Pedro, seeking refuge in an abandoned castle in the Apennines. The fortress immediately surrounds the reader with an atmosphere of mystery and unease, with its somber grandeur and decadent decorations.

The man, staying in one of the castle’s more modest rooms, becomes captivated by the abundant collection of paintings adorning the walls. His interest peaks when he adjusts the position of a chandelier to read a book about the castle’s paintings and discovers a previously unnoticed work: the portrait of a young woman in an oval frame.

The portrait, painted in a technique reminiscent of a vignette (a compositional style in which the center of the image is sharp and detailed while the edges gradually blur or fade), captures the head and shoulders of a young woman whose arms and hair blend with the shadows in the background. The realism and vibrancy of the painting are so intense that the narrator, initially startled, is forced to close his eyes to comprehend what he has witnessed. The expression of life in the portrait is so powerful that it ultimately confuses and terrifies the narrator, who seeks answers in a book that describes the history of the paintings.

Upon reading the book, the narrator discovers a tragic story behind the painting. The young woman depicted was known for her extraordinary beauty and joy. She had married a painter who was passionate and obsessed with his art. This painter, who devoted body and soul to his work, decides to paint his wife, who agrees to pose for him despite her misgivings about art stealing her beloved’s attention. The process of creating the portrait is long and exhausting, carried out in a dark room where only the light from above illuminates the pale canvas.

As time goes by, the young woman’s health deteriorates, consumed by the strain of posing and the intensity of her husband’s work. However, she continues to smile without complaining while her vitality fades. The painter, absorbed in his work, fails to notice his wife’s exhaustion until he finally completes the job. At the culminating moment, as he adds the last brushstrokes and gazes at the finished portrait, the painter exclaims that the painting is “Life itself,” only to discover, as he turns to his wife, that she has died.

Characters in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Oval Portrait

The narrator (protagonist): The narrator is an anonymous character who is severely injured and in a state of delirium. His role in the story is fundamental, as his perspective and reaction to the oval portrait immerse us in the mystery and unease that emanates from the work. Through his eyes, we discover the intense and terrifying vitality of the portrait, leading us to explore the story behind the painting. The narrator represents the outside observer, someone who, although not directly involved in the creation of the art, is deeply affected by its impact.

The painter: The painter is a complex and passionate character whose obsession with his art drives him to a fatal extreme. His dedication to the portrait of his wife is so intense that he does not perceive the physical and emotional deterioration that his work causes in her. The painter symbolizes the figure of the artist consumed by his own genius, someone who puts his work before everything else, even the life of his beloved. This self-imposed blindness underscores the theme of the destruction caused by the pursuit of artistic perfection.

The Young Wife: The young wife represents a tragic figure who embodies beauty and vitality sacrificed for art. She is described as a woman of exceptional beauty and joy, with a sweet and obedient character that contrasts with her husband’s relentless passion. Her submission and sacrifice reflect the power dynamics in their relationship and the sad reality of being seen more as an artistic object than a person with intrinsic value. Through her silent suffering and eventual death, the young wife exposes the dangers of objectification and excessive sacrifice in the name of art.

Pedro: Pedro is the narrator’s assistant. Although his role in the story is minor, his presence is essential to the plot. Pedro finds and secures shelter in the castle, providing the setting where the story unfolds. His diligent and protective character underscores the narrator’s dependence on him in his vulnerable state. Although he does not actively participate in the exploration of the portrait, his role is crucial to the logistics of the story.

Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Oval Portrait

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” takes place in an oppressive, gothic environment – an abandoned castle in the Apennines that reflects gloom and grandeur. This setting not only establishes the somber tone of the narrative but also serves as a microcosm of the deeper themes of the tale: obsession, sacrifice, and the relationship between life and art.

The story is narrated by an anonymous character who, injured and feverish, seeks refuge in the castle with his faithful servant, Pedro. This first-person narrator provides a subjective view deeply immersed in mystery and delirium, enhancing the sense of unease and fascination as he uncovers the story behind the oval portrait. The narrator’s point of view is crucial, as his fragmented, fever-stricken perspective allows the reader to experience the revelation and horror of the painting in a visceral manner.

In “The Oval Portrait,” one of the central themes explored by Poe is artistic obsession and its consequences. The painter, completely absorbed by his art, becomes a symbol of the figure of the creator whose pursuit of perfection can lead to the destruction of what he loves most. The young wife, a victim of this obsession, represents the life sacrificed in the name of art. The story suggests a critique of the dehumanization and personal cost of artistic genius, illustrating how the creative process can consume both the artist and his muse.

Poe’s writing style in “The Oval Portrait” is characteristically Gothic, immersing the reader in a world rich in sensory detail and an atmosphere charged with mystery. The tone is somber and melancholy, fitting for a story that explores the line between life and death. The pace of the story is leisurely, deliberate, allowing for a deep dive into the psychology of the narrator and the oppressive atmosphere of the castle. Poe uses a narrative structure that combines direct observation of the narrator with the inclusion of a story within the story, providing an additional layer of depth and complexity.

The literary techniques employed are notable, particularly the use of meticulous and evocative description, which paints a visual picture of the setting and reflects the narrator’s emotional state. The technique of the “picture in the picture” (ekphrasis) is fundamental in the story, as the portrait of the young woman is not only an object within the narrative but also central to the entire plot and thematic development. The gradual revelation of the mystery of the portrait through reading the book that describes it creates a growing tension, leading to the tragic final revelation.

The historical and cultural context during which Poe wrote “The Oval Portrait” significantly influenced its content. The Romantic obsession with art and creative genius, as well as concerns about mortality and the ephemerality of beauty, are evident in the work. Living in a transition between Romanticism and Gothic, Poe incorporates these cultural concerns into his narrative, creating a reflection on the nature of art and its relationship to life and death.

Finally, in terms of interpretation, “The Oval Portrait” can be seen as an allegory of the sacrifice inherent in artistic creation. The painter consumes his wife’s life in bringing his masterpiece to life, suggesting that pursuing immortality through art comes with a devastating cost. With its haunting vitality, the portrait symbolizes the tension between reality and representation, raising questions about the power of art to capture and ultimately destroy the very essence of the life it seeks to immortalize.

General review of the short story The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe

“The Oval Portrait” by Edgar Allan Poe is a short but powerful piece that encapsulates the themes that have solidified the author’s reputation in the literary canon. The tale serves as a haunting narrative and a meditation on the relationship between life and art. With his ability to weave dense and enveloping atmospheres, Poe immerses us in a world where beauty and death are inextricably linked.

The Gothic setting of the abandoned castle in the Apennines is not merely decorative. This oppressive and historically charged environment creates the perfect backdrop for the revelation of the portrait and the tragic fate of the young wife. The castle, with its shadows and faded decorations, is a physical reflection of the decay and obsession that consumes the characters. Every corner of the building seems to tell stories of past lives, emphasizing the sense of inevitable fate that permeates the narrative.

The choice to tell the story from the perspective of a wounded and delusional observer adds layers of subjectivity and vulnerability to the plot. This narrator is not a mere spectator but a passive participant whose fever-altered perception adds an element of uncertainty and mystery. His discovery of the portrait and the subsequent reading of his story acts as a journey of revelation, not only for him but also for the reader, who becomes engrossed in the same fascination and horror.

The central conflict between the painter and his wife encapsulates a scathing critique of dehumanization in the pursuit of the artistic ideal. The young wife, whose vitality is consumed by her husband’s obsession, embodies the extreme sacrifice art can demand. This dynamic, where the creation of something immortal requires the destruction of the living, raises disturbing questions about the ethical limits of art and the price of genius.

Poe’s writing style, characterized by rich, evocative prose, not only narrates events but also creates a whole sensory experience for the reader. His ability to describe the smallest details with meticulousness and somber beauty allows each storyline to contribute to the overall atmosphere of mystery and melancholy. The structure of the story, with its framed narrative and the story within the story, adds complexity that enriches the reading experience.

Ultimately, “The Oval Portrait” challenges the reader to reflect on the nature of art and its impact on human life. With its tragic outcome and powerful symbolism, the story leaves a lasting impression that goes beyond mere entertainment. It invites us to consider the consequences of artistic obsession and to question the morality of sacrificing the living for the immortal. In this meditation on art and life, Poe offers us a gothic tale and a profound reflection on the cost of creation and the fragility of human existence.

For what audience is the story “The Oval Portrait”, by Edgar Allan Poe, recommended?

“The Oval Portrait” by Edgar Allan Poe is a story that, due to its content and style, is recommended primarily for older teens and adults. The story has a somber atmosphere and explores dark themes such as obsession and death, which may be too intense and complex for younger readers.

For older teens, generally 15 and older, “The Oval Portrait” offers an opportunity to delve into Gothic literature and experience Poe’s psychological depth and narrative style. Young people in this age range can appreciate the sophistication of the language, the subtle metaphors, and the symbolic charge that permeates the narrative. In addition, the story can serve as an introduction to literary criticism, as it invites reflection on the relationship between art and life and the limits of creative obsession.

For adults, the story is a rich and engaging reading that offers multiple levels of interpretation. Adult readers, with greater life experience and understanding of human complexities, can more deeply appreciate the philosophical and ethical implications of the story. The plot, though brief, is loaded with symbolism and details that require thoughtful and reflective reading, making it more suitable for a mature audience seeking entertainment and intellectual and emotional exploration.

Due to the story’s melancholy content and dark tone, it may not be appropriate for children or preteens. The oppressive atmosphere of the castle, the tragic story of the young wife, and the painter’s destructive obsession may be too disturbing for younger readers, who may not have the emotional maturity to process these themes adequately. In addition, Poe’s writing style, with its dense prose and advanced vocabulary, may present significant challenges for less experienced readers.

Edgar Allan Poe: The Oval Portrait. Full Story, Summary and Analysis
  • Author: Edgar Allan Poe
  • Title: The Oval Portrait
  • Published in: Graham’s Magazine, abril de 1842