The-Oval-Portrait-Summary-and-Analysis-Grade-11-English-Section-II-Literature-Unit-1-Short-Stories
Grade 11: English_Section II: Literature

Unit 1 Short Stories 

Lesson 2. The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe

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Curriculum of Grade 11-XI | Compulsory English | Subject Code:003 | 2076 | PDF DOWNLOAD. alert-success

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The Oval Portrait_Summary and Analysis.

“The Oval Portrait” opens with the unnamed narrator and his servant, Pedro, making “forcible entrance” into an abandoned chateau in the Apennine Mountains. For reasons never made clear, the narrator is severely injured, slightly delirious, and therefore incapable of spending the night in the open air. The two men hole up in a remote bed chamber whose decorations are “rich, yet tattered and antique.” It is an oddly-shaped room that is full of nooks due to the chateau’s “bizarre architecture.” The chamber boasts a number of tapestries, “armorial trophies,” and “an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque.” The paintings arouse the narrator’s interest. Wishing to contemplate them, he commands Pedro to light a tall candelabrum that stands at the foot of the bed. He also finds on his pillow a small book that provides an overview of the room’s pictures.

(The opening sentences of “The Oval Portrait” establish a typically Gothic atmosphere by emphasizing the isolation and gloom of the chateau and the semi-delirium of the narrator. In light of this opening—which functions, among other things, is an indicator of the story’s genre. Readers familiar with the Gothic will entertain certain expectations about the nature of the titular oval portrait even before it’s actually mentioned in the narrative. Namely, these dark, macabre stories tend to bring inanimate objects to life—and the animated portrait is a commonplace of Gothic literature. The story’s central theme of the relationship between art and life is therefore present, if implicit, from the very outset.)

While Pedro sleeps, the narrator scrutinizes the paintings and reads this guide book, completely engrossed, until at length the hour of midnight comes. Dissatisfied with the position of the candelabrum, he moves it so as to shed more light on the book—and suddenly notices a painting that has so far escaped his attention. It’s a portrait of a girl who is “just ripening into womanhood.” The painting exerts an immediately overwhelming yet ambiguous effect on the narrator, forcing him momentarily to close his eyes and to wonder precisely what it is about the image that he finds so startling.

(The narrator is riveted by the room’s paintings, seemingly deriving pleasure from the very act of looking at them. This speaks to the notion of the male gaze, as the portrait places emphasis on the young girl’s sexuality and invites male viewers (and, indeed, the reader) to objectify her physical beauty without knowing anything else about her. Poe uses the narrator’s overwhelmed reaction to emphasize art’s power to influence those who consume it. The portrait may be a mere “image,” but it exerts an almost visceral effect on the narrator.)

The narrator gives a brief description of the portrait. It is a “vignette” painted “much in the style of the favourite heads of Sully.” It depicts the girl’s head and shoulders, with the rest of her body unseen. The narrator admires the painting’s execution and the beauty of its subject, but is truly astounded by a third factor—its absolute lifelikeness, which “confounds,” “subdues,” and “appalls” him. He gazes at the portrait for an hour, eyes riveted upon it, before returning the candelabrum to its previous position and turning to the relevant description in the guide book.

(The notions of agency and objectification come to the forefront here. It’s significant that the portrait is a vignette—only the girl’s head and shoulders have been depicted, which, in the context of Gothic fiction, may be interpreted as an act of metaphorical dismemberment. The narrator, meanwhile, is left both literally and figuratively paralyzed by the sight of the portrait, which “subdues” him and leaves him unable to do anything other than to keep looking at it.)

The guide book contains an account of the portrait’s painter and its subject, who turn out to be husband and wife. The former, a renowned portrait painter, is a brooding, passionate man who’s wholly devoted to his work, to the point that it seems like he already has “a bride in his Art.” The latter is “a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee.” The artist’s wife hates nothing but the vocation of her husband, since she regards his art as a rival for his affections. Vivacious though she is, the girl is also meek and submissive, and bends to the will of her husband, who’s eager to paint her portrait, because she knows how greatly he values his work.

(In the inner story told by the guide book, Poe further develops the themes of agency and objectification while arguably critiquing the patriarchal society of the early nineteenth century. The wife exists to be seen by her artist husband, and all non-physical aspects of her identity and personhood are downplayed to the point of nonexistence. In addition, Poe warns his readers that, if pursued with sufficient intensity, art—and especially personified “Art”—has the power to eclipse reality.)

The painter begins work on the portrait—and the physical and psychological state of his wife immediately begins to decline, her health and spirits “withered” by the process. The painter, however, fails to see this—he’s too engrossed in his art, and pays almost no attention to his wife. She, for her part, does not complain. As the painting nears its completion and becomes ever more lifelike, the girl declines further, almost as if her vital energies are being drawn out of her and into the canvas. Just as her image reaches a height of perfection, the painter finally deigns to look up at his wife—only to discover that she has died.

(Poe reveals the painter to be a kind of vampire. Though he does not conform to the stereotypical persona of a vampire in popular culture, he does seem to drain the vital energies of his wife in order to fuel his work—a metaphorical assessment, perhaps, of marriage as a detrimental institution for women. The wife is immortalized on the canvas, just as a vampire immortalizes his victims—but only at the price of her real life. The implicit characterization of the painter and a vampire, and his wife as the victim, highlights the danger of ignoring reality in favour of art, and of objectifying people’s beauty at the cost of their independence and wellbeing.)

Life vs. Art_Theme_Analysis

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” is a frame story (essentially, a story within a story), which centres around life and art. The outer story follows the unnamed narrator as he spends the night in an abandoned chateau in the mountains. While there, he admires the impressive paintings that adorn the walls and becomes particularly taken with a portrait of a beautiful young woman, which is encased in an oval frame. The inner story explores the life of the woman in the portrait and her husband, who was the painter. Even though the portrait is wildly beautiful and moving, the couple’s story wasn’t a happy one: the husband was obsessed with his art, so much so that he didn’t notice that his wife was dying right before his eyes while he was painting her portrait. Through the couple’s tragic story and the narrator’s captivation with the painting, Poe spins a cautionary tale about pursuing art at the expense of real life outside of the canvas, but also suggests that perhaps disconnecting from reality is simply the cost of great art.

Through the character of the painter, the story suggests that being an artist requires an intense—perhaps even fanatical—level of devotion to one’s work that necessarily forces the artist to disengage from reality. In Poe’s words, the painter “grow[s] wild with the ardour of his work, and turn[s] his eyes from the canvas rarely, even to regard the countenance of his wife.” In other words, the painter is so passionate and enthusiastic about art that he lets it absorb his attention completely. Even though he’s painting his wife’s portrait, and is thus studying her face closely, he doesn’t truly see his wife’s “countenance,” or appearance. Despite being in close quarters with her and looking at her face day in and day out, the painter doesn’t notice that she’s growing pale, weak, and sickly—the reality he’s creating on the canvas becomes more real in his eyes than the reality beyond the painting’s confines.

The painter becomes so detached from reality that he begins to mistake his art for reality itself, which proves beneficial for his craft but disastrous for his real life. The painter, “entranced before the work which he [has] wrought,” starts to view his wife exclusively through the lens of the painting. The real object of his “ardor,” or obsession, is not his living, breathing spouse—it’s the arrangement of shapes and colors on the canvas that simulates her presence in an ideal way. As the painter grows more invested in painting the perfect portrait, he fails to see the real-life impact his single-minded devotion is having on his wife: he “would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him.” When he puts the finishing touches on his painting, the artist cries out, “This is indeed Life itself!” Ironically, though, the painter has grown shaky and pale by this point, and his wife has already wasted away and died—the painter’s fanatical dedication to his art has sapped him and his wife of their vitality.

Poe thus seems to suggest that art is not necessarily a mere interpretation of real life that leaves reality itself unaffected. The model, described as a “maiden of the rarest beauty” who is “just ripening into womanhood,” is drained of life over the course of the painting’s creation, growing “daily more dispirited and weak,” and finally dying just as the painting reaches the height of its perfection. Through the wife’s tragic death and the painter’s blind devotion to his art, the story drives home the idea that getting lost in art—mistaking it for reality—is dangerous and has serious costs.

In the outer story of the narrative, the narrator’s obsession with the painting seems to rival the painter’s, suggesting that consuming art can be just as absorbing, forcing the viewer to detach from reality. When he first sees the painting, the narrator immediately snaps his eyes shut, unaware of why he is doing so. Once he thinks about it, he realizes that the painting was so lifelike and startling that he needed to take a moment to compose himself and make sure his eyes aren’t deceiving him. Even though closing his eyes is an attempt to “calm and subdue [his] fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze,” shutting his eyes upon seeing the painting seems to reflect the way that art can make a person shut out the rest of the world. Furthermore, even before he finds the specific portrait for which the story is named, the narrator is entranced by the other paintings in the mansion: “devoutly, devoutly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came.” Here, the narrator becomes out of touch with reality as he loses track of time, highlighting how art can deeply impact the viewer and disconnect them from real life.

In “The Oval Portrait,” Poe crafts a characteristically bleak and chilling tale. Through the narrator and painter’s dual obsession with the painting, Poe emphasizes the dark side of art, suggesting that it can make artists and viewers alike disconnect dangerously from reality. However, it’s important to remember that Poe, too, is an artist, and that his story isn’t a condemnation of art or a protest against creative passion—he’s not even suggesting that the painter shouldn’t have created the titular portrait. Instead, “The Oval Portrait” serves as an unsettling reminder of art’s towering power, and leaves readers to wonder if perhaps all great art comes at a steep human cost.

Gothic Fiction

  • The term Gothic fiction refers to a style of writing that is characterized by elements of fear, horror, death, and gloom, as well as romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion. These emotions can include fear and suspense.
  • Often, a Gothic novel or story revolves around a large, ancient house such as castles or monasteries that conceals a terrible secret or serves as the refuge (shelter) of an especially frightening and threatening character.
  • There were many authors who loved to write in the Gothic genre, such as Edgar Allan Poe. Gothic elements are also found in the story “The Oval portrait”.

Influence on Today's Fictions

  • Nowadays, gothic literature has been replaced by ghost and horror stories, detective fiction, suspense and thriller novels, and other contemporary forms that emphasize mystery, shock, and sensation.
  • While each of these types is (at least loosely) indebted to Gothic fiction, the Gothic genre was also appropriated and reworked by novelists and poets who, on the whole, cannot be strictly classified as Gothic writers.

Frame Narrative or Frame Story

  • Frame narrative is a story in which another story is enclosed or embedded as a ‘tale within the tale’, or which contains several such tales.
  • In other words, Frame narrative is a story set within a story or narrative, told by the main or the supporting character.
  • A character starts telling a story to other characters, or he sits down to write a story, telling the details to the audience.
  • This technique is also called a “frame story” and is a very popular form of literary technique employed in storytelling and narration.
  • Frame story usually is found in short stories, novels, plays, poems, television, films, musicals, and opera.
  • The story “The Oval Portrait” is based on the same technique.

Function of Frame Story

  • This literary technique uses embedded narratives, which provide readers with a context about the main narrative.
  • Frame story leads the readers from the first story to the other one. This is a sort of guidance, which establishes the context for an embedded narrative, helping the writer to create a context for interpreting a narrative.

It also offers multiple perspectives to the readers within a story, as well as about the story. These multiple perspectives give the readers more information about the characters regarding their feelings, thoughts, and motivations.

- ©drg/Indra Bhusal

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