31 pages 1 hour read

Edgar Allan Poe

The Oval Portrait

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1842

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Oval Portrait”

Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic horror story “The Oval Portrait” is among his shortest narratives. As it recounts the story of the death of a painter’s young wife, it addresses the themes The Relationship Between Art and Life, The Dangers of Obsession, and The Nature of Romantic Relationships. “The Oval Portrait” is actually the 1845 revision of a longer story, “Life in Death,” which Poe wrote in 1842, shortly after his beloved young wife, Virginia, first fell ill with the tuberculosis that would kill her five years later. Poe was terrified at the prospect of losing Virginia, and the death of beautiful young women was a frequent topic in his work at this time. In his 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” he even called this the most poetic of all subjects.

This study guide refers to the electronic version of the text hosted by the Library of America, excerpted from their 1984 publication Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales (LOA, 1984), pp. 481-84. Note that several nonstandard spellings in Poe’s story are reproduced in quoted material without the notation “[sic],” as these spellings would have been allowed in Poe’s time. Standardized spellings are used for these same words when they are not being directly quoted from “The Oval Portrait.”

The story opens with a brief first-person frame narrative that is essentially a descriptive vignette setting the stage for the short story of the painter’s wife. The unnamed frame narrator and his valet, Pedro, have broken into a recently abandoned chateau in the Apennine Mountains of Italy. The narrator is suffering unspecified injuries from an unstated cause. Because Pedro does not want the narrator to have to spend the night outdoors in this condition, he has made the decision to break into the foreboding chateau.

The narrator and Pedro have chosen to stay in a turret, in one of the chateau’s smaller and less elaborate rooms. Despite the room being one of the humblest available, it is still richly decorated with tapestries, “armorial trophies,” and gold-framed paintings—although everything is somewhat “tattered and antique” (481). The narrator finds himself fascinated by the paintings, although he realizes that he is on the verge of delirium and wonders if his interest is more due to his own mental state than to the actual quality of the paintings.

He asks Pedro to close the shutters, light a candelabrum, and open the curtains surrounding the bed so that, if he is unable to sleep, he can pass the time looking at the paintings and reading about them in the small book he has found laid on the bed’s pillow. For several hours, he alternates between gazing at the paintings and reading about them. Near midnight, he moves the candelabrum slightly, and the shifted light reveals a new picture that the narrator has not yet seen.

The painting is a head-and-shoulders, vignette-style portrait of a young woman. The narrator is seized by a sudden impulse to shut his eyes so he can give himself a moment to think about whether what he has seen is real. After he collects himself, he opens his eyes again and stares at the painting in earnest. As he gazes at the portrait, he feels sure that he is not hallucinating, because “the first flashing of the candles upon that canvas had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over [his] senses, and to startle [him] at once into waking life” (482).

The narrator repeats his description of the portrait, this time with some added details: The woman’s painted likeness seems to gradually fade into the darkness around her, and the painting’s frame is filigreed gold, in a “Moresque” style—a 19th-century way of referring to a decorative style borrowed from the Islamic world, featuring elaborate patterns of vines and leaves. The narrator expresses his admiration for the painter’s skill and the woman’s beauty. He considers what it could have been about the painting that startled him so much when he first saw it. He reflects that it cannot be that he mistook the painting for a living woman, because its vignette style and framing make it instantly clear that it is a painting. Still, he had responded with shock and discomfort, and he doesn’t quite understand why.  

For an hour, the narrator sits admiring the painting and thinking, until he finally realizes with satisfaction that the secret of its effect is in its “absolute life-likeliness of expression” (482). He recounts the succession of emotions the painting has inspired in him: After the first startled moment, he felt perplexed, subdued, and dismayed. Now that he has discovered the painting’s secret, he moves the candelabrum, returning the painting to the shadows. The narrator next takes up the small book that describes the room’s paintings and finds the passage about the oval portrait. This is the end of the frame narrative: From this point until the story’s conclusion, the frame narrator simply recounts, verbatim, the entry in the book describing the oval portrait.

The third-person narrator of this story-within-the-story begins with a description of the unnamed woman in the portrait. She is extraordinarily beautiful, lively, loving, and cheerful. However, when she meets, falls in love with, and marries a painter, “evil [is] the hour,” because the painter’s first love will always be his art (483). The painter does have positive qualities: He is “passionate, studious, austere”; the young woman loves him so deeply that she begins to hate his art, seeing it as her rival for his affection and attention (483).

Despite her jealousy, when the painter asks her to sit for her portrait, she agrees, even though it causes her pain just to hear his request. She agrees because she is “humble and obedient,” and she sits “meekly” week after week in the shadowy turret room while her husband paints her likeness (483). The painter is so focused on his work that he fails to notice as his wife’s spirits decline and her health begins to fail. She continues to face her ordeal with a smile and without complaint because she loves the painter passionately and sees how happy the project makes him.

As the painter works, those who are allowed to see the portrait in progress are awed by its resemblance to its subject. They comment that the power of the work is proof of both the painter’s skill and his love for his wife. Eventually, the painter shuts everyone else out of the turret so that he can complete the final touches on the portrait. He is consumed with finishing the work and hardly ever glances up from it. This, it is suggested, is the reason that he fails to notice “that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him” and that his wife fades even as the portrait grows more and more lifelike (483).

Finally, there is nothing left to finish except a last stroke on the portrait’s mouth and one final dab of tint on the portrait’s eye. The woman’s spirit seems to revive a little when she realizes that they are nearly done. The painter applies the final touch to one of the painted eyes and stands back, enraptured with the result. Suddenly his mood shifts. Pale and trembling, he cries out in dismay, “This is indeed Life itself!” (484). When he turns to look at his wife, he realizes that she is dead.