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  • Writer's pictureHannah Zunic

The Reverse Portrait of Dorian Gray: A Look at Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Oval Portrait”

Hello, Book Nerds! Welcome back to Reading Has Ruined My Life or welcome if you are new. As always, my name is Hannah and I am your captain on this journey into my bookcases.

Guys! Do you know today’s date?

Yes! It’s January 1st and it’s RHRML’s second birthday! My blog is two! It’s a toddler with over100 posts. I’m so proud of my little blog. It has been a joy to create this insanity over the past few years and gush about books with all of you. And thank you for following along. I have big, big plans for 2022 so I hope you’re ready. Be prepared for some more versus matches, a lot of great reviews on books old and new, and of course more self-deprecating humor to go along with the trials and tribulations of falling in love with a new book each week.

I've thought long and hard about how to kick off this new year here at RHRML, and there is only one thing worth talking about today. We have to talk about the one and only, the GOAT, the best author ever: Our Lord and Savior Edgar Allan Poe!

Standing ovation.
I know, it has been awhile since we've talked about him, but break out the ravens, get the music pumpin, and let's get this party started!

But this is RHRML’s two-year anniversary post. This can’t be any old review. Today’s post needs to be a super special event. Which is why I have a hot take for you all. It has been a while since I’ve written a Hannah Hot Take post. At this rate, I write one about every six months. So I’m pretty much right on schedule then. Anyway, we’re going old school today with this hot take.

The year is 1842, and Poe publishes his shortest short story. Seriously, this story only took up two pages when it was first published. The collection I have only bumps the thing up by one-third of a page. This thing is short. But what story is it? It’s “The Oval Portrait” of course.

Originally titled “Life in Death,” “The Oval Portrait” begins as most traditional gothic literature. Our unnamed narrator seeks refuge in a rundown chateau on a dark and stormy night.


There is no other sign of life in this chateau, save for a singular servant under our narrator's employe, but the mansion is filled with a plethora of artwork. One specific piece of art catches our narrator’s eye. It is a portrait of a lovely young woman. The titular oval portrait is described as extremely well executed and incredibly life like. That latter reason is why the narrator finds the piece so fascinating, but after staring at it for over an hour, its perfect realism creeps him out to the point he finds it appalling and lowkey scares him.

Picture where the eyes follow you.
It's definitely a portrait where the eyes follow you.

Not wanting to see the portrait anymore, our narrator moves the light away from it and begins to focus on a book he found in the room he’s staying in. Luckily for our narrator, this book details the stories behind all the pieces of art, and what better art to learn about than the one piece that freaks him out.

Thus we enter our framed narrative and finally learn about the titular portrait. The artist who created it was head-over-heels in love with the subject. He was a passionate man who threw himself into his art. But he was so much in love with this woman that he did marry her. She was a quiet, obedient woman who loved the artist dearly, but wasn’t the biggest fan of how obsessive he was about his art. But being the obedient wife, she agreed to sit for a portrait one day. This went on for ages. The pair would spend all day up in a tower where the lighting was just right, and he would paint her. On and on he would paint, and she would sit there in silence.

Because he was so absorbed in his work, the artist would not speak with his wife. His only focus was on his newest painting. As the days went on, he slowly forgot about his wife. Silent as a mouse she would sit. She would never complain or speak out about how she was feeling. And the longer she sat, the weaker she became. Her hair lost her shine, he eyes didn’t sparkle, her face dulled. When the artist finally finished, and declared he had captured life itself, he realized his wife had died.


“The Oval Portrait” is short, sweet, and to the point. It’s a very straight forward story, so what weird ass take can I possibly give you all? Well, I’m here to tell you that the artist is Death itself. To be honest, it’s not the hottest hot take; it’s more a lukewarm take, but I think I have the evidence to back this up.

First of all, I think we can all agree that every brush stroke the artist makes takes a piece of this woman’s life. Her life is being taken away and is going into the portrait. That’s the reason the picture is so lifelike; it’s taking away her life essence or soul or whatever you want to call it. I think that we can all agree on this part of the story. But instead of this portrait being a thing that keeps the woman alive for all of time, it kills her. It’s the reverse portrait of Dorian Gray.

Portrait of Dorian Gray from Penny Dreadful.
There shall be none of this in Poe's story.

This does not explain nor confirm my "the artist is Death" theory though. But if we continue with the idea that the picture takes her life away, we have a starting point. Someone needs to hold the brush and make the paint strokes; this portrait is not magically painting itself. And seeing as there are only two people in the room where this portrait is being created, one of whom is sitting for the piece, that leaves the artist to be the one painting.

The brush may be the murder weapon if you will, but the artist is the one to slay this young woman. Ok, so I still haven’t proven that the artist is Death. All I’ve proven is that the artist is partially responsible for his wife’s demise. But this is an important piece of information to confirm. Now let me give you an important quote from the text, it’ll show just how much time the artist takes to lead this young woman towards death.

And when many weeks had passed, and but little remained to do, save on 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 lamps. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed.

Yes, the longer he paints, the less health the woman has. That final brush stroke equates to snuffing out her life.

Bob Ross painting.
Bob Ross would never.

Note that the above passage also mentions that weeks had passed since the portrait was begun. Death does not come overnight. The artist takes his time, and therefore, Death takes his time. Death can come quickly, or it can take slow, agonizing ages to arrive; in this case he chose the latter.

Death is also never fair. At the beginning of this piece’s framed narrative, Poe describes the woman as “in the bloom of life.” She’s young. She has her whole life ahead of her. She’s fallen in love and ready to live her life with her husband by her side. Maybe they’ll start a family. Maybe they’ll travel the world. Who knows what the pair would do together. Whatever they do, it doesn’t really matter as they should have many happy years together.

Except there’s one issue: the artist is obsessed with his work. He pretty much demands that she sit for the portrait before they do anything else. Now the subject isn’t happy about this. She’s jealous of the passion her husband puts into his artwork, but she does it to make him happy and he really wants to paint this portrait of her. But he doesn’t just want to do this because she’s gorgeous. He’s taking her on one final journey. He, Death, is leading her to the end of her life.

Grim Reaper.
Just imagine the Grim Reaper here with a paint brush and not a scythe.

Now if we take a step back and look at the full picture, we can see that the woman in this story is slightly scared of the artist. Personally, I think the jealousy she has towards his art is an alarm going off for her. It’s like she knows nothing good can come from getting her portrait painted, but she ultimately has to go through with the artist’s plans because she knows he’d never shut up about it if she hadn’t sat for it. There is no escaping from him. He is Death. He comes for all, and leads everyone towards his, her, or their end.

So yes, the artist is Death and no one can tell me otherwise. Please feel free to use some of my points as the basis for a high school English paper. Maybe you can elaborate on them better than I can today.

Thank you for joining me on my blogging adventure. I so look forward to continuing in 2022 and seeing what insanity I can spew from my mind. Thank you for helping making the past two years some great ones. And with that, I must bid you all adieu. I shall see you again on Wednesday with a new review. So until then, stay safe, wear a mask, wash your hands, and read some good books for me.

Bears waving.
See y'all Wednesday, bye!

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