Poe, Edgar Allan - The Oval Portrait
The story can be divided in some events, but specially in two stories: narrator’s coming and the oval portrait’s story. In the former, we have a sudden and mysterious beginning, with the wounded narrator that got into a château thanks to his valet, Pedro. The castle had a lot of strange paintings, that lay everywhere. For these, the narrator took a deep interest, above all for an oval portrait that was in the room where he decided to spend the night. He found also a book describing all the portraits, so he started to read about the oval portrait and reported the whole description. Now, we are in the second story, and the book has immediately a gloom pitch, saying that the girl portrayed was very unlucky in getting married with the painter. He loved very much art, and so he neglected his wife, but at a certain point, he decided to portray her. This was for the girl, the beginning of her end, because she grew weaker and weaker with the time, laying in the darkness of an high-turret. The painter didn’t notice or didn’t care this, and when the portrait was completed, he realized that his wife wad dead.
CHARACTERSIn this strange short story there are mainly four:
The narrator (as protagonist)
Pedro (the valet)
The woman of the oval portrait (the oval portrait)
The narrator is not physical described, like all the character but the young girl. We know that he is wounded, but we don’t know the cause. He has a valet, so he was maybe on a mission. After seeing a lot of those strange paintings, he takes passion for art, and tries to understand the mind of the painter, making use of the book that describes all the paintings. However, we can’t know neither how old he is, nor anything about his family nor about his story (before the facts he tells). In the mystery, is also his end after the reading of the oval portrait. The narrator is also another victim of art, indeed he falls in love like the painter for art and for painting.
Pedro is the valet and the adventure mate of the narrator. He is not very taken in consideration in the story, but he always obeys his master. Very probably there was a good relationship between the narrator and the valet, in so far this latter could escape and abandon his master in loneliness, but he did not. So, he is also the symbol of the respect and the constancy. He never speaks in the story, not even indirectly, and takes care of his master, always trying to satisfy him. Besides, he was very courageous and brave, because he found the château and made accessible the entrance for his master. Pedro is the only one in the story of which we know the name.
The painter is the object of speculation of book’s description. He is described by the book as a passionate, studious and austere man. It is also written that he had already a bride in his own art, and we can understand that he loved art more than anything other. He was also art-wild, moody, and mad. Indeed, taken by the passion of the art, he didn’t notice (or he didn’t want to stop with the portrait) that his wife didn’t feel good, and needed another place where she could lie. The painter is so the symbol of the fanaticism, that in the story takes the face of the art.
The woman depicted in the oval portrait, is the victim of painter’s fanaticism. She is described by the book too. It is written that she was a maiden of rarest beauty, that she always smiled, full of light, full of glee, that loved the painter and everything. There was just a thing that she hated: the Art. She thought, and was right, that the painter loved art more than her, and for his exaggerate spending of time in painting, she was not happy when she realized that his husband wanted to portray her. However she was humble and obedient, and obeyed the painter. She was in a full-blown battle with the art, but she lost the battle, and died. She looks like alive to the protagonist because she is life itself, and right with these words, said by the painter, she died, transferring her life to the portrait.
ANALYSISThe story is a strange short story, full of mysteries. As I said in “Events”, it can be divided in two stories, each one talking of two different matters, but connected by the oval portrait. The story goes on mainly by narrative/descriptive sequences, with the total absence of dialogues. Having two stories, we have also two narrators: the protagonist, and the book. The former, is a 1st person narrator, and he is internal. Unlike “The tell-tale heart” and “The black cat”, the reader is never involved. The latter, is a 3rd person narrator, external and omniscient, who knows everything about the oval portrait and, of course, it is not intrusive. So the reader hasn’t any direct role in this story, but he is free to think about the mysteries and put his personal opinions. The whole story can be considered a tale within the tale, as the reader read the first flashback in the first story, and the second flashback in the second In the mystery, there are: how, when, why the narrator is wounded, what is happened after the reading of the description, who has written the book and about the abandoning of the château. For all these reasons we can give the adjective “strange” to this short story. Thanks to some words, we can locate the place, that should be the occidental Alps, because there are some words like “Chateau, valet, arabesque, Moresque” that are French words and that make us understand it. The time is probably the 18th-19th century, as is quoted Mrs. Radcliffe, an English writer of gothic novels.
THE MESSAGEThis story, as we have already said, let the reader think a lot about the unexplained parts. Maybe this was just a method of Poe not to write a too long story, because if he had written the reasons for which the protagonist was wounded, he would have twisted his own aim. The most emergent problem in this story is the fanaticism, and here is the point where Poe focused. So, it is not a causality if we don’t know anything after the reading of the description of the oval portrait, but, ending the story in the ending of the description, Poe lets the reader think about this latter, and so he can understand better the message. It is interesting that Poe chose the art to send this message, however he warns us right not to take an exaggerate passion for anything, but to control ourselves and to remember of the people around us. When the painter says “This is the Life itself!” seems to congratulate his work and his wife, but for this latter is too late, because his no-limit impulse for art, had already destroyed her life. It is awesome how Poe sends messages using these story, maybe he wants to take to the extreme the deeds, just to make the reader upset and more interested!!
THE READERThis time the reader has not a particular role in this story, and he is never involved by any narrators. Just Poe, like in all the stories, sends to him a strong message. In my personal experience, I have felt a deep amazement for this story, specially for the 2nd mini-story, because I didn’t expect a similar death. I thought for a long while about the story, and I think that maybe this is the story where Poe has sent his message better than ever. I think that who reads this story superficially can not understand the matter. Just reading more times the words and the description of the painter, we can find the alarm to the fanaticism, because the story in reality has a lot of lacks and of points uncompleted. I think that the reader must be attentive on the description, to receive Poe’s message, and then he can find amusement in giving his personal explanations of the parts unexplained. In fact, there are some video-versions of “The Oval Portrait”, with a true final, but Poe lets us think free about.