One of the briefest tales in Poe’s oeuvre, “The Oval Portrait” delves into the costs of art, and – more generally – the relationship between the ideal and the real; the intangible and the tangible. Drastically pruned from its original form, “Life in Death,” (eliminating the backstory of a skirmish with banditti and the narrator’s profound and lustful indulgence in opium), the current rendition has been trimmed to a sparse and economic parable worthy of its cautionary message. To what degree may an artist extol the beauties and ecstasies of his admiration before he misses them entirely? Where is the limit between chasing a dream and seeing it fade from disuse? How far can a lover idolize his beloved before he realizes he has never had a genuine conversation with her? To Poe, who watched the women of his life fade and disappear (and Virginia Clemm looked with notorious disfavor on Poe’s habit of poetry), the pain of his wife’s health was surely on his mind during the composition: in January, three months earlier, Virginia was playing the piano and singing when blood began draining from her mouth. The burst blood vessel in her brain was the first symptom of the tuberculosis that would eventually steal her from what was, by all accounts, a notably chaste and (physically) unaffectionate marriage.
The story begins with a jolting introduction: the narrator and his servant are desperately seeking shelter and medical aid after some vague accident while travelling in the Apennines mountains in Italy (earlier drafts establish that they had been attacked by roving banditti and that the narrator had been shot while escaping their ambush). They break into an abandoned chateau after deciding that he might not be able to survive a night in the elements, and they find one of the smallest, least furnished rooms – in a corner turret – and turn it into a sickroom. It is, in spite of its size, richly decorated with wild, arabesque tapestries, weapons and armor, and many paintings, all of which are described in a book he finds next to the funereal bed, with its black velvet curtains.
As he rests he finds himself deeply drawn to one particularly strange artwork adorning the walls of this strange and gloomy room: it an oval portrait of a young girl’s head and shoulders which strikes him as being absolutely life-like to an uncanny degree – exuding power and vitality. He is so mesmerized by the feeling that he is actually looking at a living person that he stares into her liquid eyes for over an hour. Stunned into hypnotic awe, he consults the concordance on the nightstand and reads about the sad history of the Oval Portrait.
“She was a maiden of rarest beauty,” the book starts, “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 frolicksome 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.” Obsessed with his work, and with art, he forces her to play second fiddle to his passion projects, and when he finally asks her to be involved in one of them – to sit for her own portrait – she agrees obediently, but with a sense of dread.
They move into the turret apartment where the narrator is currently reading, and she silently sits for him for weeks and weeks as he pours his heart and soul into the work.
He drives on relentlessly, oblivious to her fading health as she begins to wane – mystically having her soul absorbed by the art – and she smiles meekly and uncomplainingly while her body slowly shuts down. He kept everyone away from her, isolating her, and not even looking at her as he dives deeper into the painting which is slowly replacing the living woman in his heart. Finally, after months, he applies the last stroke of the brush to the red lips. Thrilled, he steps back and proudly examines his finished work, but is suddenly horrified by what he has done, gasping out loud, “This is indeed Life itself!” Suddenly, he turns to see his wife’s reaction – she is dead.
(A portrait by Thomas Sully, cited by Poe in the story, as mirroring the style of the fictional portrait)
Parallels might be drawn between “The Oval Portrait” and the postmodern myth of the Stepford Wife: a woman stripped of willfulness, flaws and desires, boiled down to the base components which stand to serve, please, affirm, and endorse her male mate. This story seems to have been partially inspired by Washington Irving’s 1824 collection of European adventures, humoresques, and ghost stories, Tales of a Traveller. The anthology includes one section describing the romantic exploits of the Italian banditti, while the ghost story partition contains several anecdotes of men spending the night in strange, Gothic houses with haunted portraits and scandalous histories – “The Adventure of My Uncle” and “The Adventure of the Mysterious Picture” in particular. Haunted portraits feature prominently in traditional ghost tales and literary Gothic fiction – like that of Ann Radcliffe, whom the narrator mentions – but Poe transforms a campy trope into a powerful symbol that is both effective and influential in the history of the literary Gothic. Comparisons may also be seen in similar treatments of art in the horror genre: (especially) Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Edward Randolph’s Portrait,” H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House,” Tom Hood’s “The Shadow of a Shade,” M.R. James’ “The Mezzotint,” and J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” and “The Ghost and the Bone-setter” all owe a debt to “The Oval Portrait” and its depiction of a spectral piece of art endowed, as it were, with life siphoned from reality.