Art and the idea of death-in-life in E. A. Poe's "The Oval Portrait"

Seminar Paper, 2002

12 Pages, Grade: 1,00


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Death as “the Most Poetical Topic of the World

2. The Contents of “The Oval Portrait”

3. Art – Arabesque as a Clue to Deception and Irony

4. The “Life-likeliness” of Art

5. Death in Life – The Rivalry between the Artwork and the Model

6. The Idea of Death in Life in the Framework

7. The Fatalism and the Problems of Translation

8. Conclusion: The Effect of Irritation

9. Bibliography

1. Introduction: Death as “the Most Poetical Topic of the World

In an quasi-autobiographical poem Edgar Allan Poe writes: “I could not love except where Death / Was mingling his with Beauty’s breath”[1] and expresses hereby what may be considered as his artistic credo: “the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic of the world . . .”[2]

Indeed, Poe insistently figures the death of beauty and vice versa the beauty of death in many of his works. His epoch can be considered as “ the Age of the Beautiful Death”[3], a certain period of time in which dying is blown up into an elaborately prepared departure, into a fetishized spectacle. The dead body, particularly the one of a young unmarried woman, becomes an icon, an object of idolatry. This motif develops out of our fear of , and simultaneous fascination with, death. Representations of death in literature are peculiarly pleasing because in this case people can have a more distanced approach to the theme as “death occurs at someone else’s body and as an image.”[4]

“The Oval Portrait” also deals with the death of a young woman. But her husband tends to see the icon not in her body, but in the portrait he has painted. His ambition to create a lifelike painting is at the end – paradoxically – the reason for his wife’s death. However, she refuses to stay dead. The confusing and paradoxical relationships between art, life and death constitute the thematic center of the story.

2. The Contents of “The Oval Portrait”

“The Oval Portrait” begins as a story told by a man seeking shelter in the Apennines. Having been wounded in some unidentified battle or duel, the narrator lodges one night in an abandoned, gothic chateau, one such as found in “the fancy of Mrs Radcliffe”[5]. Together with his valet, he seeks refuge in a small apartment situated in a remote turret of the building where he is much taken by the paintings that adorn the walls. By accidentally changing the position of the candelabrum and altering his perspective, he sees the oval portrait of “a young girl just ripening into womanhood”(Poe 189). As he contemplates the beauty of the painting, he realizes that it’s intensively entrancing effect lies in the “absolute lifelikeness of expression”(Poe 189). Searching for an explanation for his feeling when looking at the portrait, he finds a volume lying at his bedside which explains the paintings and describes their histories.

In the concluding paragraph, the framework concerns itself with the manuscript that the narrator discovers, detailing the story of the making of the amazingly lifelike portrait hanging in his bedroom: A young bride of an obsessed artist, whose first and only love was and still is art, poses for a portrait. But in posing, the young girl grows daily more dispirited and weak so that slowly her very life wanes in proportion to the progress of her portrait until the moment of the final brushstroke when the artist exults, "This is indeed Life itself!" (Poe 191). Having finished his work, he turns to his beloved and finds that she has perished. In the pursuit of artistic perfection, the young woman’s life has been sacrificed.

3. Art – Arabesque as a Clue to Deception and Irony

“The Oval Portrait” is remarkable for its dream-like, romantic setting. Even if Poe excises from the story many of the references to the hallucinatory state of the narrator in the earlier version “Life in Death”, he doesn’t completely reduce the obviousness of the narrator’s imbalance of mind which produces an ironic double effect. He establishes “margin of credibility.”[6] ”The Oval Portrait” might be read as a psychological portrait of a crazed mind suffering from pain. The narrator mentions that his immediate fascination with the richly framed pictures hanging in an eccentric manner in the niches of the weirdly constructed walls of the chateau is likely due to his “incipient delirium”( Poe 188). The confusing and deceptive architecture of the chateau provides one of the major clues to the irony of the tale. Poe associates a dreamlike atmosphere with the environment and he uses the word arabesque in connection with a setting of odd twistings, “with manifold and multiform armorial trophies” (Poe 188), with sleep and dreams, and with the eerie play of light from the candles over the filigree of the portrait frames.[7] To escape the frightening implications of the woman appallingly coming to life, he searches for some rationalisation. He considers the filigreed and arabesque frame of the oval portrait as conclusive evidence that he is not in an hallucinatory state or dreaming, and that it is not his imagination which has caused the illusion:

Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for 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.(Poe 189)

Thus, according to Thompson, Poe provides for the unwary reader a Gothic tale of the occult for once the story of the painter and his wife emerges, the narrator is forgotten, and for the wary a multiform ironic tale with “rather ratiocinative clues to a typical Poe hoax”[8]. The narrator emphasizes the frame and the form, he appeals to the artificiality of art and uses aesthetic form in order to devitalize content, which is ironically the same thing the painter, committed to a creative process that finally robs his wife of all energy and life, does.[9]


[1] Cf. Kennedy, J. Gerald. Poe, Death, and the life of writing. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987, 63

[2] Poe, E. A. “The Philosophy of composition.” Poetry and Tales. Essays and Reviews. New York: The Library of America, 1984, 184

[3] Kennedy, J. Gerald, op. cit. 64

[4] Kot, Paula, Feminist „Re-Visioning“ of Tales of Woman, in: A Companion to Poe Studies, Ed. Eric W. Carlson , Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996, 392

[5] E. A. Poe, Selected Tales, Penguin Books, 1994, 188. All further quotations from this source are marked in brackets right after the quotation.

[6] Levine, Stuart and Susan Livine, eds. The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. An Annotated Edition. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990, 62.

[7] Thompson, G. R. Poe’s Fiction – Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales. University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, 134-135.

[8] Ibid. 136.

[9] Cf. Person, Leland S., Aesthetic Headaches, Women and a Masculine Poetics in Poe, Melville and Hawthorne, Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1988, 43.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Art and the idea of death-in-life in E. A. Poe's "The Oval Portrait"
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt  (Amerikanistik)
The Short Stories of E. A. Poe
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This seminar paper deals with the central idea of E.A. Poe's short story "The Oval Portrait", which resides due to this analysis in the confusing relationship between art, life and death. The paper focuses on the ambiguity of the creativce process and also depicts the effect on both the narrator and the reader.
Oval, Portrait, Short, Stories
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Michael Kratky (Author), 2002, Art and the idea of death-in-life in E. A. Poe's "The Oval Portrait", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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