Edgar Allan Poe who was considered as a major figure in Romanticism in the United States engaged in writing in Gothic style which was quite appealing to the readers of that time. In his short story “The Oval Portrait”, he captures a variety of eerie themes like monomania, death, obsession, submission along with contrasts between life and death, life and art, man and woman, love and ignorance.
“The Oval Portrait” is about a wounded man (here, narrator) who seeks refuge in a mansion. There he lives in a room which is full of paintings which decorate the room. He notices a portrait of a young girl which is very life-like. As he is intrigued by it, he decides to consult a small book which talks about the story behind the portrait which is appalling and dreadful.
This piece of writing interested me a lot since I am a fan of horror stories. What struck me in the story was the ending. The painter or the husband makes his painting so life-like but he forgets about his own wife who is right in front of him. He neglects the reality and is crazy about his art work. The portrait seems to have taken away the soul of his wife, killing the wife in reality as she gets neglected by his husband.
As the title of my essay suggests, I will be looking at this piece through liberal humanism which is a form of literary analysis. It focuses on ‘close reading’ where the text is studied at its face value similar to what I. A. Richard believes that one should put close attention to the precise details of the text. This means that the text is studied in isolation without any background information or context but just studying the words and what it means. I believe it is important to use this theory as firstly, it sometimes good to just enjoy any piece of writing for what it is and not digging deep to know the life story or the political-social context of a particular period.
The ten tenets of liberal humanism is something that is applicable to this text. Firstly, this story is timeless. This story was published in 1842. The fact that is still read in 21st century shows the value and the significance of the text.
Secondly, the continuum of ‘human nature’ is in question. According to liberal humanism, the text “transcends the limitations and peculiarities of the age it was written in, and thereby speaks to what is constant in human nature. Such writing is ‘not for an age, but for all time.” The story shows us the emotion of the characters. The narrator and the husband seem to have one thing in common – love for art, only the degree is different. The keen interest that the narrator has in the portrait in his room shows that he might be an art lover. The husband is so much into art that he ignores his wife, the reality and is completely devoted to his art.The wife on the other hand is very submissive. She does not rebel against her husband but sits there for God knows how long so that his husband can make his portrait. Literature shows us that certain emotions, desires have existed throughout the history and will continue to do so. Although here I would like to say that ‘certain’ emotions, desires, beliefs might continue to exist but not all. It is clearly visible that the wife was submissive and it makes sense since that century was patriarchal. However, we see change in today’s century. No one would sit for a painting for days now. So some things are bound to change.
Thirdly, according to liberal humanistic view, literature should magnify and propagate humane values and morals but not in an obvious manner. One can observe this in the text. I do not think it tries to propagate any religious or political ideas. It contains its own meaning. As mentioned above, the story focuses more on the contrast between life and art. The moral in the story that is reflected is that no one should be so addicted to their passion, like how the painter was with art, that they neglect their reality.
As liberal humanists believe that literature should silently demonstrate something rather than explaining it, and I believe the values and morals in the text are propagated in the similar manner.
Fourthly, the question of individuality which is possessed within us as a unique essence comes into the picture. Individuality can be changed and developed but it cannot be transformed. This is quite right. The example of the painter and the wife fits here. Even though the husband/painter is married to a beautiful woman, he is completely devoted to his artwork. “He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art.” One can see that he is married to his wife for the sake of it but he is actually married to his Art. The character of wife also does not undergo transformation as such. Yes, maybe her physical appearance did as she was beautiful, healthy woman in the beginning but towards the end she is dead shows that her physical appearance might have undergone changes. But her personality is the same. “But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark high turret-chamber…” Therefore, their identity cannot go through transcendence.
Lastly, the form and content are fused together and put into good use. For instance, “”This is indeed Life itself!” turned suddenly to regard his beloved: – She was dead!”” This one line gives the essence of the entire story providing a very potent image. *spoiler alert*
Coming to Poe’s use of language : He uses irony, haunting and eerie imagery, elaborate imagery and repetition like “Long-long I read- and devoutly,devoutly I gazed.” His language is well an able to interest the reader even though it only of two pages. The story is cathartic and is an enjoyable piece of writing.
Liberal humanism as a method of analysis is an important one. It gives you the real essence of the text without much deep knowledge about the background of the text which is sometimes nice. “The Oval Portrait” mostly implies that art for art’s sake is destructive. To conclude I would say one thing that was discussed in my classroom, Art exists only because there is Life.
Reference: Beginning Theory. Third Edition 2010. Peter Barry