The Oval Portrait

By Edgar Allan Poe

One of Poe’s scary stories for adults, teens, and all

Valet
Good sir, I have ventured to forcibly enter the chateau we spied from the road.
Me
Thank the Lord! Perhaps I’ll live after all!
Valet
Most certainly I could not permit you, in your desperately wounded condition, to pass the night in the open air.
Me
It is a fearful place, Pedro, one out of the fancies of a Mrs. Radcliffe!
Valet
Yes, sir, grand but decayed.
Me
One of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur that have so long frowned among these Italian Mountains.
Valet
To all appearance it has been temporarily abandoned.
Me
And very lately. Will you establish us in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments, so long as it has rugs and tapestries and a fireplace.
Valet
I shall, gladly, sir. Good! A warm room!

Bizarre architecture

Me
This room’s decorations are rich!
Valet
But they are tattered antiques, sir. But the walls are hung with tapestry, as you suggested.
Me
Yes, and with armorial trophies, and a great number of very spirited modern paintings in arabesque frames. Quite a place!
Valet
Who would expect it in a remote turret of such a pile?
Me
Who but you would have carried our things all the way up here, Pedro?
Valet
Above all, sir, it was done that you might recover faster. It is nothing.
Me
Thank you!
Me
In these paintings, which depend from these walls, not only in their main surfaces, but in every nook that this bizarre architecture renders necessary—my incipient delirium, perhaps, will allow me to take solace. It’s bracing!

(later)

Deep midnight

Me
Would you please close the heavy shutters of the room — and since it is already night — please light the tallows of this tall candelabrum, and also throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet that envelop me.
Valet
It shall be done, and gladly.
Me
A thousand thanks. It is well done, Pedro. I asked all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of the pictures, and the perusal of a small volume I found upon the bed, which purports to criticize and describe the artwork.
Valet
If you are comfortable, sir, I believe I will sleep on the sofa by the fire. (Hours passed in pain. Long, long I read and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came.)
Valet
Are you still awake sir?
Me
Pedro! Yes, half-waking. I have grown displeased by the position of the candelabrum, however, for my reading. Might you place it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book?
Valet
Certainly, ah, there you are, sir. I am going down to check the horses and so forth.

(15 minutes later)

Regaining strength

Me
[Thinking] Pedro’s action in adjusting the light has produced an effect altogether unanticipated! The rays of the many candles now fall within a niche of the room which had been in deep shade from one of the bed-posts. It is a portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood.
Me
[Thinking] Why did I close my eyes? It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought—to make sure that my vision has not deceived me—to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I shall again look fixedly at that beautiful painting.
Valet
I have returned; is there anything else that you need, sir?
Me
You startled me! No, all is as well. The flashing of the candles upon that portrait have seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor stealing over my senses, and to startle me into waking life. I am regaining strength.
Valet
Very good news!


The painting was a mere head and shoulders study, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the background. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque.

Peculiarities

Me
As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than this painting itself. But it could be neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which has so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it be that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, has mistaken the head for that of a living person. The peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, instantly dispelled such an idea — and prevented even its momentary entertainment.
Valet
Surely great art can awaken fancies, and even startle us.
Me
Yes, true, but there is more to this than fancy. Good night, Pedro.
Valet
Good night.

A terrible thing

Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me.

With deep and reverent awe I managed to replace the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow.

Author
She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. But evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; in contrast, she all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art that was her rival; dreading the pallet and brushes and other instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover.
Author
It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to portray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead.
Me
The high turret-chamber! Here?

The spirit of the lady

Author
But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. Furthermore he was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him.
Author
Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak.
Me
But this is a terrible thing!
Author
Some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well.
Me
My Lord, I see that he loved her.
Author
But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him.

Scary story for adults

Me
God, no!
Author
And when many weeks had passed, and but little remained to do, save one 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 lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and cried with a loud voice:
Artist
This is indeed Life itself!
Author
The painter turned suddenly to regard his beloved — She was dead!

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