College of Liberal Arts

Department of English


William Freedman

"Poe's Oval Portrait of 'The Oval Potrait'"

On the face of it, "The Oval Portrait" is a moral, even a cautionary, fable about the tragic and dehumanizing effects of artistic obsession. Greatness in art, the tale suggests—the appalling yet awesome lifelikeness of the painting—comes at mortal cost to the human subjects the artist reduces to the disposable raw materials of an alchemical art. But woman in this tale, and in Poe's fictions generally, is both herself and the fleshly world of sexuality,mortality, and decay that art nervously escapes through transformation, transcendence, and exclusion. The function of art, then, the transformation of the carnal woman of decay into the beautiful woman synonymous with the work of art,is a form of murder. But as "The Oval Portrait," functioning as an emblem of all Poe's fiction, demonstrates, the real unavoidably presses its way inside, and it is this struggle—the entangled relationship between carnal reality and the art that rejects, transcends, yet unavoidably includes it—that becomes the covert subject of the tale.

As the woman's radiant hair dissolves into the dark background of the painting, the immortal beauty and eerie lifelikeness of art melt imperceptibly into the shadowy background of the carnal life it both destroys and, like the artist of the portrait, incorporatively depends on. Art, the tale implies, cannot "live" without the blood it strives to spiritualize and aestheticize out of existence, yet the incorporation or invasion must occur without the appearance of authorial complicity. Art is the antithesis of life, an immortalizing flight from its transience and decay, yet it achieves, in Poe, its complexity and special nature not from the simple transcendence of the real but from the tension between evasion and immersion, between the flight from dying life and its insistent entry. The lesson of "The Oval Portrait," then, is the implicit "message" of Poe's art: Woman-as-body must force her way into the rising craft of fiction against the pilot's will. The power, beauty, and "lifelike" strangeness of the tales is the product of the felicitously failed effort of exclusion, the turning away that, like all deliberate refusal, acknowledges what it ostensibly





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