Asides

Neglect Leads to Demise

“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.

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A Mark of Mortality

“…but, seeing her otherwise so perfect, he found this one defect grow more and more intolerable with every moment of their untied lives. It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain. The crimson hand expressed the ineludible gripe in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould… In this manner, selecting it as a symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death. Aylmer’s somber imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.” Pg. 292

I chose this passage because I believe it is a window into not only the surface symbolism it provide through its own explanation, but as well as deeper, more veiled issue occurring within Aylmer. Stylistically, this passage’s connection between Georgiana’s birthmark and the mortality of humanity kick start our understanding of the deeper meaning of the story. I also think that this passage is written so beautifully, as it employs intensely descriptive vocabulary as well as symbolically meaningful text. Individually, I think it its clear, through the narrator’s outright explanation, that this passage connects Georgia’s flaw with the flaw of life; mortality. However as a small part of a larger story, I think that by linking Georgiana’s mark to life’s temporary nature the passage then leads us deeper and encourages us to connect Aylmer’s fear of physical imperfection with his fear of death.

Georgiana’s birthmark not only represents superficial obsession with perfection, but a more symbolic concealment of Aylmer’s intense fear of death. On a surface level of interpretation, it is clear that the theme of perfectionism runs its course through out this story. While Georgiana is woman of great beauty, her single modest, physical flaw becomes the object of Almer’s fixation. He sees her flaw as a “visible mark of earthly imperfection” and feels as though this “defect” ruins her beauty. He fails to appreciate the internal beauty of his wife, and instead focuses purely on the physical attributes of Georgiana, rather than her inner self and her deep love for him. His addiction to seeking perfection for his wife blinds him from all the good she embodies and offers. His obsession with perfection is foolish and ultimately undermines him, as his accomplishment of flawlessness, or the riddance of his wife’s birthmark, ends up killing her. The passage emphasizes the notion that perfection doesn’t exist, and so when Georgiana’s birthmark disappears and his wife is made perfect, so too does her spirit disappear, as we see that when the “sole token of human imperfect faded form her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenly flight.”

However, Aylmer’s concentration on Georgiana’s blemish is deeper than his foolish desire for unachievable perfection. As written in the quote above, Aylmer himself acknowledges that the birthmark was the “fatal flaw of humanity” as well the “gripe of mortality.” Here we see that Aylmer understands that imperfection symbolizes mortality; he spells this out for us. However, if we go deeper, we realize his deep fear of death. Because Aylmer sees mortality in such a visual form, it becomes the object of his attention about his wife. It scares him to see a physical reminder of mortality, especially one on someone he loves so deeply. It is made clear in the story that “he found this one defect grow more and more intolerable with every moment of their united lives.” The more days that passed during their marriage, the more he noticed and feared her mark. The more time he spent falling in love with this wife, the scarier it became for him to realize that one day the love of his life would die. Therefore, his obsession with ridding his wife of the birthmark was deeper than his search for physical perfection, but instead was a search for immortality. We are told that he believed he could make a “potion” that would enable eternal life, but really, we see that his fascination with immortality is reflected in his fascination with his wife’s birthmark. His fear of death manifests itself into the birthmark on his wife’s cheek. Therefore, in Aylmer’s mind, if he can defeat his wife’s flaw, he can defeat death.

I chose this passage because, after reading and analyzing the story, I personally thought the main essence and meaning of the story was to discover that Aylmer is not so much afraid of the birthmark on his wife’s cheek, which he understands symbolizes the temporary nature of life, but instead the deeper reality and inevitability of death.