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The Creative Destroyer: An analysis of Poe's The Oval Portrait.

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Introduction

The Creative Destroyer: An analysis of Poe's The Oval Portrait By Tolulope Gidado for Karin Littau The "Oval Portrait" by Edgar Allan Poe belies its short length by operating on so many different levels of meaning and understanding. It is a story that consciously seeks to ambush the reader's expectations. The tale is narrated by a weary, injured man who arrives one night in a castle in the Apennines. He occupies his evening by poring over a catalogue describing the paintings in the room he is occupying. By adjusting his bedside candle, his attention is caught by a startlingly life-like portrait of a young lady that is hanging in the corner of the room. He enters into a slumber, awakes, and is intrigued to find out more about this portrait. He reads in the catalogue that the lady's husband was the painter who was so obsessed with painting his wife that he failed to notice her increasingly poor condition. The story ends with the artist proclaiming that his masterpiece is 'indeed life itself' only to turn to his wife and realise that she is dead as a result of his neglect. One of the first noticeable things about "The Oval Portrait" is Poe's writing style. He weaves his tale in a verbose, repetitive manner, which initially takes some getting used to. ...read more.

Middle

The reader is left to decipher and guess at the nature of the depicted images, a feeling akin to one being placed in a dark or poorly lit place. Poe has successfully managed to put us directly in the position of his narrator. We see things the way he wants us to see them. The narrator is so captivated by the picture, that it only adds to the dream-like sequence he already finds himself in. Where he says he first finds the picture "startling" he then admits to being "confounded", "subdued" and "appalled" all at once. We learn early on in this story that the narrator's view is somewhat distorted. It is with this clouded judgement that we approach the 'story within a story' within the last paragraph and it opens itself to various interpretations and ideas. The lady in the picture is certainly depicted as a tragic character and the motives of her husband in creating the masterpiece that kills her are subject to scrutiny. Bearing in mind the quality of the portrait and its life-like appeal, one must ask whether the lady is truly dead. In reproducing his wife's beautiful features on canvas, the artist has immortalised her in a perverse sense. The sheer brilliance of the painting has prolonged her exquisite features. Very much like the artist in Ibsen's When We Dead Awake he has sacrificed his love for the sake of his Art. ...read more.

Conclusion

This inexorable blending of life, death and creation is largely depicted in this tale. In "The Oval Portrait", Poe has successfully managed to place us firmly in the shoes of the weary narrator. He has created a sense of ambiguity and misperception through the sheer power of his description. The dreamlike setting, the tired narrator and the vague final story all add to the reader's uncertainty. Conversely it is these precise elements that open the story to so many different interpretations. "The Oval Portrait" manages to raise far more questions than it actually answers. Was the husband really a villain? Did he really neglect his wife or was he only trying to preserve her beauty? Does beauty have to be preserved or should it be admired for as long as life permits? Was it a moral tale? Poe's storytelling is powerful and it commands our attention from the beginning right through to the end. He ensures that we are never quite sure exactly what to make of this story. Only after reading the story do we realise that not only are we just seeing through the eyes of the narrator, we are also beginning to share the same reaction to the portrait and it it's story. We are at first 'startled' then finally 'confounded', 'subdued' and 'appalled' by the genius and quality of "The Oval portrait". WORKS CONSULTED Twitchell, James. Poe's "The Oval Portrait" and the Vampire Motif, Studies in Short Fiction, 14:4 (1997:Fall) 1 1 ...read more.

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