“And he would not see that the tints which he spread on the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him. And when many weeks had passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the word which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:–She was dead!” –page 292
“The Oval Portrait” by Edgar Allan Poe, if read only superficially, is a story about an ill man who sees a painting of a beautiful woman and reads the history of that picture. However, the entire short story itself is like a framed portrait. The part of the plot that discusses the sickly man is like the golden frame: although it does play a role in the story, is not the focus of Poe’s work.
The introduction to the real story helps establish the gothic tone and mood of the story. The illness of the narrator is never revealed, creating an air of mystery for the reader. The setting also helps create this environment. The narrator and his valet are spending the night in an abandoned apartment with many old paintings, large shutters, and black velvet curtains surrounding the bed. A setting like this provides a spooky undertone that allows Poe to be able to introduce the storyline about the painter and his wife.
The history that the man in the chateau reads brings about the main themes of the story. For example, as is exemplified in the above quote, the history brings about the themes of art, life, and death and how they are interrelated. As the painter is attempting to portray his wife’s beauty and make it immortal by painting it, by doing so, he also takes the life out of her with every stroke of his brush. However, she loves him so much that she stays obedient and allows him to make “Life itself” out of her beauty while he gradually causes her death.
The feelings and thoughts of the painter in his wife’s final moments are unclear. We as readers know that after admiring his skillful work, he “grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast” (Poe 292). Then he screams that the painting is life itself. It appears that the painter becomes afraid of his own work. Why he does this before he even realizes that his wife has died is unknown. However it seems as though he may be afraid because the painting he has made of his wife is more lifelike than his wife had become before she suffered her death.
The plot and conflict of “The Oval Portrait” can be paralleled with Hawthorne’s “The Birth Mark.” Both the painter and Aylmer have beautiful wives. However, the love that they have for their wives cannot be compared to the love that they possess for their work (science for Aylmer, art for the painter). In addition, the painter and Aylmer are unable to accept and appreciate their wives’ beauty for the way that it is. In “The Birth Mark,” Aylmer uses science to try to get rid of the crimson hand on Georgiana’s cheek. Although she is beautiful, he will not rest until he can remove the crimson hand. It ends up being this very science that leads to Georgiana’s demise. In “The Oval Portrait,” the painter is unsatisfied with his wife’s earthly beauty, and wishes to immortalize it by painting a portrait. However, each day his wife gets weaker and weaker until, when the painting is finally finished and the painter is satisfied, his wife has died.