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The Oval Portrait
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site..|..Other Poe Study Guides
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Type of Work
Setting
Characters
Point of View
Narrator's Wound
Who Is Mrs. Radcliffe?
Who Is Pedro?
Plot Summary
Climax
Themes
Figures of Speech
Vocabulary
Allusions
Biography
Questions, Essay Topics
Complete Free Text
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Type of Work

.......“The Oval Portrait" is a short story with Gothic overtones. It is a revision of an earlier Poe story, "Life in Death," published in Graham's Magazine in April 1842. Poe improved the story and published the new version, "The Oval Portrait," for the first time in the April 26, 1845, issue of The Broadway Journal

Setting

.......The time is the first half of the nineteenth century. The place is a chateau in the Apennines, a mountain range in central Italy. 

Characters

Narrator: Wounded man who takes refuge with his valet in an abandoned chateau in Italy. As he settles into an apartment, he believes he is beginning to develop symptoms of delirium as a result of his injury.
Pedro: Narrator's valet.
Woman in the Portrait: Young wife who dies when her husband neglects her. 
Painter: Famous artist and husband of the woman in the portrait. He is so obsessed with his work that he ignores his wife. When painting her portrait, he sees her as an object to be captured on canvas, not as a woman who yearns for his love.

Point of View

.......The narrator tells the story in first-person point of view. However, when presenting the history of the oval portrait, he quotes directly from a book that he finds in the apartment of the chateau. The quotation begins with these words: "She was a maiden of rarest beauty. . . ." The rest of the story consists entirely of a continuation of the quotation.

The Narrator's Wound

.......The "Oval Portrait" provides no details about the narrator's wound. However, in the first version of the story, entitled “Life in Death,” Poe wrote in the opening paragraph that the narrator had suffered the wound in a confrontation with bandits. In addition, he wrote that the narrator swallowed opium to alleviate the fever caused by the wound. In the revised final version of the story, he deleted the opening paragraph, apparently believing that the narrator's use of opium would destroy his credibility, rendering his tale as the product of opium-induced intoxication. 

Who Is Mrs. Radcliffe?

.......In the opening of the story, the narrator mentions a Mrs. Radcliffe. Here is the sentence:

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 Apennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. 
.......The narrator is alluding to Mrs. Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), an English author of Gothic romance novels with scenes that often take place in gloomy castles. Among these novels are A Sicilian Romance and The Mysteries of Udolpho, about a young woman whom a villain imprisons in a castle. 

Who Is Pedro?

.......Although the setting of the story is Italy, the narrator's valet has a Spanish name, Pedro, for Peter. (The Italian name for Peter is Pietro.) What gives? According to the first version of the story, the narrator had spent time in Constantinople (present-day, Istanbul), Turkey, where he began smoking opium. Apparently he is traveler. It may be that he hired the valet in Spain and took him along on all his travels. It is also possible that Pedro is a Spaniard who happened to take up residence in Italy. 
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings... 2009
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.......Wounded, the narrator takes refuge at nightfall with his valet, Pedro, in an apartment in the turret of a grand but gloomy chateau in Italy's Apennines Mountains. Pedro had broken into the building, which appears to have been temporarily abandoned, so that his injured employer would have a place to rest. 
.......The furnishings are elegant but old and run-down. On the walls are tapestries, armorial trophies, and modern paintings in frames with intricate golden designs. In his excited state of mind (the delirium that appears to be setting in as a result of his injury), the narrator becomes fascinated with the paintings. So that he may contemplate them while lying down, he directs Pedro to light a candelabrum next to the bed and draw back the bed curtains. A small book he had found on the bed describes the paintings. 
.......Hours pass as he reads the book intently. About midnight, he draws the candelabrum closer for more light. When he does so, he casts light on a painting in a niche, a painting he had not noticed until now. It portrays a young girl "just ripening into womanhood," the narrator says. After looking upon it for a moment, he closes his eyes while he considers whether his vision had deceived him. In a few moments, he looks again. It is a head-and-shoulders vignette in a gilded oval frame. Though the painting is a worthy work of art, it was not the painter's style or the extraordinary beauty of the young lady that had startled the narrator moments before; it was the absolutely lifelike expression on her face. It now appalls him. The narrator returns the candelabra to its former place, casting the painting back into the shadows.  He then looks up the oval portrait in the book.
.......It says the lady was the wife of a painter who loved his art more than he loved her. One day, he expressed a desire to paint her portrait. Meekly and obediently, she agreed to sit for it in the dim light of the turret; however, she did not look forward to the prospect of watching her husband lavish his affections on a canvas rather than on her. 
.......“[H]e . . . took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day,” the narrator says. 
.......So intent was he on his task that he did not notice the “withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him.” But she did not complain, for she did not want to disturb the pleasure that her husband—a well-known artist—took in executing the portrait. Those who saw it marveled at its remarkable likeness to his wife. They regarded it as a testament to his love for her.
.......When the portrait was nearing completion, the painter was so engrossed with his work that he refused admittance to all observers. As his work progressed, he did not realize that the hues he was daubing onto the canvas—the color of the cheeks, for example—came directly from his wife. She was a living palette. 
.......At long last, after the final stroke of his brush, the painter stood back to observe and said, “This is indeed life itself!”
.......In triumph, he turned around to his wife. She was dead.
Climax

.......The climax occurs when the account in the book reveals that the lifelike portrait of the young lady is absorbing her vitality. 

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Themes

Obsession

.......The artist becomes so engrossed in his work that he completely ignores his wife.  Pining for his love, she dies. 

Fatal Love

.......Like a moth attracted to a flame, the young lady is attracted to an artist who burns with passion. But his passion is for his work, not for her. Nevertheless, she remains at his side—in the glow of his fire, as it were—and dies. 

Submissiveness

.......The book the narrator reads says the young lady “was humble and obedient, and sat meekly [for the painting] for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber.” Even though her husband regards her as a mere object—like a bowl of fruit or a flower—“she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly.” 
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Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the story:

  • The chateau . . . was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur: Alliteration.
  • manifold and multiform armorial trophies: Alliteration.
  • tongues of a tall candelabrum: Metaphor comparing candle wicks to tongues. 
  • she a maiden of rarest beauty . . . and frolicsome as the young fawn: Simile comparing the young lady to a fawn.
  • 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: Irony, in that observers believe the painting testifies to the artist's love for his wife. 
  • the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp: Simile comparing the lady's spirit to a flame.
Vocabulary and Allusions

arabesque: Symmetrical pattern of intertwining lines in the style of architecture in Arab countries. The pattern may resemble flowers, leaves, animals, or other familiar objects. 
filigreed: Adorned with wire of gold, silver, or another metal that is twisted to form a pattern resembling lace.
gilded: Overlaid with a thin layer of gold. 
Moresque: In the style of the Moors, nomadic Muslims of North Africa. When they occupied Spain, they constructed buildings with complex tracery. 
Mrs. Radcliffe: See Who Is Mrs. Radcliffe?
Sully: Thomas Sully (1783-1872), a London-born American painter of elegant portraits. Among his subjects was England's Queen Victoria (1819-1901), who reigned from 1937 to 1901. 
turret: Small tower built into a wall of a castle or another edifice, such as a mansion. Its roof is cone-shaped.
vignette: Painted portrait or photograph without a border. The outer parts of the image gradually fade into the background. The painting of the young lady in "The Oval Portrait" is a vignette. The narrator says of the portrait, "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." 

Biographical Information

.......Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849. 

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Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Was the culture of centuries ago responsible, in part, for the young lady's subservience? Write a short essay that presents your opinion.
  • In the real world of today, are there many wives with husbands like the painter?
  • The book the narrator reads says the painter refused to allow observers to enter the turret apartment when he was nearing completion of the portrait of his wife. Since his wife died when he completed the portrait, only he was left to describe what happened when he executed his final stroke. Was it he, then, who wrote the book read by the narrator? 
  • Write a short alternate ending that describes the reaction of the artist to the death of his wife.

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