Biographical Critique of Poe

Based on his story "The Oval Portrait"

By

Sarah Harrington
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In the short story, "The Oval Portrait", the narrator of the story is an injured man who comes across a mansion which he later discovers is abandoned. Inside, the narrator becomes semi-delirious about his wounds, while he gazes at all the decorations within. He discovers a painting, complete with a book beside in on a pillow.

This painting is that of a young girl, on the cusp of becoming a woman. The realism of the painting scares him into wakefulness, thinking at first that the girl was really there.

Beginning to read the story, the narrator connects the dots. The depicted young girl, who was cheery and loving, married the artist. The artist was always focused with painting, and though he loves his wife, cares for his work most of all. She despises his art and the tools of painting, only because she had to compete for the painter's time and affection who is drawn to his art.

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The young girl's dislike for her husband's art eventually comes into conflict when he asks her to pose for him for a painted portrait. She doesn't like the idea, but agrees in compliance as a modest and obedient wife. She sits in a dark tower, where the only light comes from above so that he could paint. Perhaps she was slighted in her decision because she thought that maybe she could finally gain some attention from her husband. She couldn't be more wrong, sadly.

The painter becomes obsessed with new painting, falling in love with every stroke. He does not notice that she begins to fade away into the darkness. Nevertheless, she does not complain.

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The portrait grows more and more life-like, and everyone who gazes upon it marvels and concludes that it is beautiful because of his combination of his skill and his love for his wife. As the portrait nears completion, he shuts out everyone from the tower except him, his wife, and the painting. Meanwhile, his wife grows paler by the day as his painting grows more life-like. Because of his moodiness and dreaminess, he paid no attention to her condition and focused entirely on her within the painting.

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As he finishes the painting, the painter exclaims "This is indeed Life itself!" as he stares at its' beauty, feeling accomplished. His smile fades as he turns to look at his wife, who sits, lifeless, on the chair. The painting stole the life and the spirit out of the young girl, and she died as he painted with the last strokes of his brush. These were the consequences of the sacrifices he made when he became lost in his work.


The girl is only observed, both by her husband, who in the throws of his art sees her only as a model, and by the injured narrator reading her story, who peers at her image in order to while away the night.

Connections with Poe

1.

Critics are convinced that one of Poe's messages in his stories such as this, is that without the death of his young mother and his young wife, Poe could have not produced his artistic creations the way that he did. This could explain in part his major depression and perhaps he feels guilty as if he contributed to their deaths by not spending more time with them. Dying young women appear as a frequent motif in many of Poe's stories. When they died, a part of Poe died as well. Despite the deaths of his loved ones, Poe continued on to create his works. This inescapable fusion of life, death, and creation is what Poe depicts in his tale in "The Oval Portrait."

2.

The girl in the story was very young when she died, and so was Poe's wife when she died at the tender age of 24. Her struggles with illness and eventual death are believed to have affected Poe's poetry and prose.

3.

The young girl in the story is expressed as a "maiden of rarest beauty". Poe's wife Virginia was also said to have been of a youthful and rare beauty as well. Poe once wrote to a friend, "I see no one among the living as beautiful as my little wife." William Gowans, who once lodged with the family, described Virginia as a woman of "matchless beauty and loveliness, her eye could match that of any houri, and her face defy the genius of a Canova to imitate".

4.

Just as the bizarre characters in Poe’s stories have captured the public imagination so too has Poe himself. He is seen as a morbid, mysterious figure lurking in the shadows of moonlit cemeteries or crumbling castles. This is the Poe of legend. But much of what we know about Poe is wrong, the product of a biography written by one of his enemies in an attempt to defame the author’s name. Regardless, this is how the characters and themes of the stories of Poe are usually characterized with, including "The Oval Portrait."

5.

After Poe was orphaned, he was taken in by the wealthy tobacco merchant John Allan and his wife Frances Valentine Allan in Richmond, Virginia, while his siblings went to live with other families. The home was likely a mansion, which is what the injured narrator stumbles across in the story.