Less is More: The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

I mentioned in the first column of the Less is More series that Edgar Allan Poe is considered by some to be a pretty big deal in the world of horror short stories so it’s probably about time I looked at one of his. (Actually, I mainly quoted Lovecraft’s opinion of the guy, and to save me repeating myself you can remind yourself of it here if so inclined.) He’s produced some classics, of course, and you can find loads of analytical pieces on the likes of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, et al. The one I want to look at is a little less well-known, though: ‘The Oval Portrait’. I’m going to go a bit ‘armchair Freud’ on it too, but before I ruin it with spoilers you may want to read it first. It’s just over a thousand words long and you can find it here. Or you can listen to it below.

Poe’s ‘unity of effect’, the one he talks about in his essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition’, recommends beginning with a striking first sentence and notes how each that follows should build towards a particular mood. This is something we certainly have in ‘The Oval Portrait’. It begins by revealing a first person narrative perspective, which means our experiences will be limited – and controlled – by a single viewpoint, and it notes the narrator’s “desperately wounded condition” which not only intrigues the reader but develops into an “incipient delirium” which may cast doubt on all that follows. We are immediately thrust into the “gloom and grandeur” of a château, at night, with a mention of Mrs Radcliffe to fully establish the appropriate gothic mood. Here, the narrator takes a “deep interest” in the “unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings”, paintings which take up not only all of the obvious wall space but all of the nooks and crannies as well. We know these are going to be important not only because they’re everywhere, and not because of the repetition, but because the title has already prepared us.

Poe, though, in building towards his unity of effect, draws out the tension. The narrator reads a book first rather than tell us much about the paintings (not only a delay tactic but a way of foregrounding a book that will become more useful later) until, at that appropriately liminal hour of midnight, he or she makes a startling discovery. Here, then, is our oval portrait: a “young girl just ripening into womanhood”. It’s an apt metaphor, that ripening, because it foreshadows the girl’s fate as someone to be consumed. Poe develops this with his description of the painting, noting how “the arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground”, and spends a long time explaining how there was something very striking about the image. Indeed, the narrator describes its power as a kind of “spell”. Even when the narrator has realised what it is that so moved them, namely “an absolute life-likeliness of expression”, he or she does not reveal the specifics of that expression, only that it “confounded, subdued, and appalled me”. It is, in fact, the cause of “deep agitation” and promptly the light that had revealed it is repositioned to cast it back into darkness. Poe lets us imagine the expression for ourselves.

Here the narrative shifts, the narrator reading from the book accompanying the paintings. Poe uses repetition to strike home the fact that the woman on the portrait is “a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee” but bearing in mind Poe’s view that the death of a beautiful woman is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world”, things do not look good for this particular model. Her artist husband has already “a bride in his Art” and this metaphor becomes something far more literal as the story progresses, the artist drawing tints of colour for the portrait from the very cheeks of the woman he paints, oblivious of the harm it causes. She merely sits and suffers in silence, the modifiers “obedient” and “meekly” highlighting her passivity in the process, and while it’s possible to read this story with a sharp focus on gender, examining how the husband neglects his wife in favour of his Art and how she “uncomplainingly” allows it, a more rewarding reading – for me, anyway – is to turn to Freud. (Besides, I’ve looked at gender a fair bit with previous articles.)

Okay, alright, we’ve moved on a bit since Freud, but he does offer some effective means by which to dissect literature. I love Freud’s narratives – the guy was a pretty good story-teller himself – and psychoanalytical readings of texts were always my favourites at university, but it’s not only my preference that makes it a suitable approach in this case: as Lovecraft notes in his ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ essay, “Poe studied the human mind rather than the usage of Gothic fiction, and worked with an analytical knowledge of terror’s true sources which doubled the force of his narratives”.

So. The death-drive, then; Freud’s idea that “the aim of all life is death”. That we have a self-destructive compulsion to become inanimate. You can easily apply this to ‘The Oval Portrait’, seeing the bride’s willingness to be destroyed as part of her own desire rather than merely a submissive action to please her husband. With the multiple sittings you have a compulsion to repeat the suffering which contributes to her fulfillment of this death-drive, enough to override the pleasure principle. And there is even, perhaps, some sort of consummation going on here (Poe suggests their marriage is recent by calling her “bride” rather than “wife” early in the story), a consummation in which her destruction is a replacement for sex.

In which case there’s a sadistic element to the sex, the artist’s actions as he draws colour “from the cheeks of her who sat beside him” an example of displaced death-drive where the destructive instinct is directed away from the ego to fulfil a sexual function instead. Note the “fervid and burning pleasure” he takes from his work, and how as the portrait nears its completion his subject passes from being his bride to being his wife. Freud did claim the sexual instincts worked in opposition to the death drive originally, but he later considered the idea that they must in fact be closely related, noting sexual intercourse “is associated with a momentary extinction of a highly intensified excitation”, which is why the orgasm (a release of tension providing temporary oblivion) is sometimes referred to as ‘la petite mort’ or ‘the little death’. (If you want to take it further you can look at how Freud talks about the aggressive element of sadistic sex as a “relic of cannibalistic desires” which, although a bit much for me, to be honest, can be linked to the vampiric nature of the portrait for it only becomes real by consuming the bride.)

In Over Her Dead Body, Elisabeth Bronfen argues that the death-drive here is not only a displaced one but that it exists in the painter’s “turning away from life…and toward the immortality of art”. Furthermore, rather than simply projecting his death-drive onto another in painting his wife to death, the artist is actually reverting to a previous state in focussing on his work, for as the story notes (and as Bronfen points out) he already had “a bride in his art” before marrying.

Arthur Krystal’s comments on Edgar Allan Poe in The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural (edited by Jack Sullivan) claims that “everything in Poe is concerned with death” and “no tale of his is complete, or completely, without it”, yet rarely does death in Poe provide the oblivion Freud would say we desire. Perhaps this is the real source of the horror. Whereas the death drive is about self annihilation, in Poe’s stories death is often a continuation of existence, be it as a ghost, vampire, or, as in this case in this story, even a portrait. His original title for the story, ‘Life in Death’, emphasises this point.

Interestingly, Bronfen applies the death-drive to another aspect of the story, too. She argues that in becoming “lost in reveries” similar to that of the artist, the reader suffers (or enjoys?) a sort of death by proxy in ceasing to exist for the duration of the reading. I rather like that idea, though I’m not sure I agree with it. Plenty is said about the horror genre’s cathartic properties, the way it prepares us for our own deaths, but perhaps the escapism provided by the act of reading is itself a kind of practice run. For me, it’s a compulsion I’m inclined to repeat over and over again…


This is Horror will kindly direct you towards my work in the final comment below, but if you’ll excuse the shameless self-promotion, I’d like to draw your attention to Where Thy Dark Eye Glances, from Lethe Press (recently nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award). If you like Poe you may well like these essays and re-imaginings…


Bronfen, Elisabeth. (1996). Over Her Dead Body. (1992). Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. (1977). On Sexuality. (1953). Ed. Angela Richards. Trans. James Strachey. London: Penguin.

Freud, Sigmund. (2001). Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology and Other Works. (1955). Ed. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press.

Krystal, Arthur. (1986). Poe, Edgar Allan (1809-49). In Jack Sullivan (ed.), The Penguin Encyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural. Middlesex: Viking.

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