Text: William J. Scheick, “The Geometric Structure of Poe’s ‘The Oval Portrait’,” Poe Studies, June 1978, Vol. XI, No. 1, 11:6-8


[page 6:]

The Geometric Structure of Poe’s
“The Oval Portrait”

University of Texas at Austin

“The Oval Portrait” has never attracted a great amount of critical attention. When critics have written about the tale, they have registered confusion about its intentions (1), discontent with its execution (2), or fascination with its alleged reflection of Hawthorne’s influence (3). G. R. Thompson, however, has discussed Poe’s technique of placing a tale within a tale, whereby “the meaning of the whole lies in the relationship of the various implied stories and their frames rather than in the explicit meaning given to the surface story by the dramatically involved narrator,” and he has cogently concluded that “The Oval Portrait” seems “for the unwary a Gothic tale of the occult with a clear didactic point, but produce[s] for the wary a multiform ironic tale, with no obtrusive didacticism, and with rather satisfying ratiocinative clues to a typical Poe hoax” (4). For Thompson, the story presents the responses of an unreliable narrator and thus illustrates, rather than departs from, the Romantic irony characteristic of Poe’s oeuvre. Thompson’s emphasis on “a secret irony” in the tale, designed, as it were, for select friends, seems correct to me; and, I believe, this feature of the story can be better appreciated by recognizing Poe’s management of the tale’s geometric structure, a structure bearing a functional similarity to the mandala used by some religious devotees to induce a dreamlike state in themselves.

The fictive space of “The Oval Portrait” is geometrically shaped in that it suggests a series of more or less circular layers. There is, first of all, the turret into which the narrator retreated from the outside world, a circular setting objectifying the narrative manner of the tale. Although the story is related retrospectively, it conveys the illusion that its first-person account, the narrative frame, occurs within the turret. The narrative frame in turn encircles the “vague” gloss on the portrait provided by the catalogue raisonne found by the narrator’s bedside (5), and this gloss relates to the “rich golden arabesque” frame (p. 245) encircling the portrait. The word arabesque, which in the story is synonymous with Moresque ( p. 247), refers to “patterned strangeness,” a “carefully wrought design, which is colorful, intricate, symmetrical, and therefore pleasing, often fascinating, in its effects” (6). Both words provide clues to the complex scheme of the successive frames in the tale, concentric frames increasingly narrowing the reader’s attention toward the portrait. The arabesque frame implies a greater proliferation and intricacy of design beyond that of the catalogue’s gloss, in which repetition, echo, and sonority suggest in turn a proliferation and intricacy of design beyond that of the narrative frame.

The portrait itself is an oval of intensified vagueness, and the perceptive viewer should notice still smaller ovals. The narrator is oblique on this matter, particularly in the tale’s revised state, but he stresses how he stared at the portrait, [column 2:] discovering in it some elusive truth. In the portrait is the oval of the young girl’s face, and the features of her face include the ovals of her eyes. The very last touch the artist is said to give the portrait is “one tint upon the eye” (p. 249). Within the eye — perhaps we are to assume it designates the very center of the portrait — lies the secret of the young lady’s “light” and, as well, the elusive center of the structure of the story. Throughout the tale the image of light is associated with the young woman and, significantly, with the flame of a candle. The most telling instance occurs when, in the catalogue account, we are told that as the artist was about to add the final tint to the eye, “the spirit of the lady . . . flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp” (p. 249; my emphasis).7 Having gradually progressed through, as it were, concentric rings of increasing intricacy and diminution, the narrator focuses on the young woman’s “life-likeness of expression” (p. 247), implicitly localized in her eye, which proves as hypnotic as staring into a candle flame. This innermost point, the candle flame of the eye, symbolizes supernal beauty, as is evident as well in another narrator’s emphasis on his beloved’s eyes in “Ligeia” and in Poe’s inclusion of “the lustre of [a woman’s] eye” among the “simple elements which induce in the Poet himself the true poetical effect” (8). By contemplating (the narrator’s word) the oval portrait the narrator has, in a mystical sense, achieved a blinding, entrancing glimpse of ultimate reality or life, the “spiritual” dimension9 which ( with the “secret irony” of which Thompson spoke) may be Nothing. After this glimpse of “the true secret of [the portrait’s] effect,” the narrator briefly falls “back within the bed” (p. 247), even as for a moment the artist of the portrait “stood entranced” before his completed work (p. 249) (10). In short, the geometric schema of “The Oval Portrait” represents a structural equivalent to Poe’s recurrent symbols of the whirlpool (maelstrom) and the whirlwind, with their image of concentric rings and vertigo-inducing revelatory centers or depths.

As this correlation suggests, the geometric structure of “The Oval Portrait” does not imply stasis but intimates simultaneously a dilation from the center to the circumference (emanation) and a contraction from the circumference to the center (dissolution). In “The Oval Portrait” one movement encompasses the motion of the narrator’s attention from the turret, to the catalogue’s iterative gloss, to the arabesque frame, to the oval face in the portrait, to the flamelike eye of the face. This is a cycle of diminishment similar to the implosive stage of the universal rhythm Poe described in Eureka. In this progression, the narrator traces a meditative movement that carries him from a wounded, ennervated state toward a condition in which he is startled “into waking life” (p. 246). The reader traces a not dissimilar path by beginning with the narrator’s frame story, moving to the quotation from the catalogue, and ending with an epitomizing quotation within a quotation: “‘This is indeed Life itself!’” (p. 249). The energy at the center toward which these progressions aim appears to spring from another, apparently contrasting progression, for the young lady wastes away and dies in order that the spirit, true “life,” can emerge. The tale’s structure of contraction from circumference thus offers, not unlike the collapse of Eureka’s universe, a waning of phenomenal life, a contrasting [page 7:] expansion of the life of consciousness through an ingathering movement toward spiritual oneness, and a paradoxical center at which the phenomenal is transformed into the spiritual (that may simultaneously be Nothingness). Art, whether embodied in the narrator’s analytical or the artist’s creative imagination, is the vehicle for this process of transformation, insofar as one of art’s mode’s for Poe (as described by Richard Wilbur) is “destructive transcendence” (11).

Paradoxically there is, as well, an accretive direction in this art implied in the tale’s patterns of dilation from center. A life force (light, spirit) gives rise to a painting, which in turn generates the catalogue’s gloss, which again in turn engenders the narrative of the story. This feature of art suggests that phenomenal life is an expression of a “divine” artistry comprised of a layering up, an emanation, from an apparently creative center. And so when the secret message seems to be revealed in the quotation within the quotation, it is ambiguous. The artist’s cry that “‘This is indeed Life itself’” (p. 249) refers obliquely to the complete process of art, which, in its simultaneous accretive and diminishing features, reflects the ambiguous cyclic art exemplified by the universe in Eureka (12).

The “true secret” of the portrait’s effect, then, is to some degree revealed in the artist’s ambiguous exclamation but is more fully embodied in the cryptic design of “The Oval Portrait.” This design exhibits a remarkable resemblance to a mandala or yantra, which may serve as an illuminating paradigm for the structure of the tale. A mandala is an instrument of worship in many Oriental religions. Most often consisting of intricate geometrical diagrams symbolic of the multifarious yet unified universe, it is designed to restrain and direct psychic energy by intensifying the concentration of the viewer (13). To the uninformed, the mandala appears only as a schema of intricate, somewhat pleasant though puzzling geometric forms; to the initiated, it possesses a secret dimension capable of inducing in the perceiver a gradual evolution of insight into the mystifies of creation. As the informed viewer concentrates on the mandala, the geometric designs seem to move simultaneously toward and away from the very center of the diagram. a minute still-point at once generating and assimilating the designs around it (in a manner similar to a Moresque decoration radiating from a center). The contemplator becomes entranced by this rhythmic flux as he progressively approaches the ultimate revelation signified by the eyelike still-point yet, albeit on the verge of transcending consciousness as if in a dream, never quite penetrates its mystery. The mandala, in short, is a device used by an informed religious devotee to approach, through mystic contemplation, the reality beyond the world of maya, of illusive phenomena.

It remains at the moment difficult to say whether Poe had direct knowledge of the mandala that I offer as a paradigm for the structure of “The Oval Portrait.” We do know of course, of his interest in all features of the hypnotic arts, of his surprisingly vast knowledge of esoteric and occult lore, including Gnosticism (14) and Egyptian hieroglyphics (which, like the yantra, reveal secret meanings only to the informed perceiver) (15). We have learned, too, that specific parallels exist between Hindu philosophy and Eureka (16). A [column 2:] fascination with Oriental theology is evident in the writings of many of Poe’s contemporaries, especially in those of the Transcendentalists; and, it has even been suggested, Walden might be structured after the yantra (17).

Whether or not Poe specifically had the mandala in mind, the instructive similarity between the religious device and his story is noteworthy and provides at least a convenient analogue for discussing features of the tale’s geometric structure — features that have analogues in tales such as “The Descent into the Maelstrom” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Similar to a mandala or yantra, the story’s structure covertly depicts to the wary concentric stages of gradual awareness (18), an inward progression away from ignorance and toward a nearly-glimpsed trance-inducing ultimate reality or “spiritual” center symbolizing the source of the phenomenal layers characteristic of existence (19). That eyelike center may only be Nothingness — the contemplator faints away, in one sense or another, at the point of final revelation, but Poe apparently invites us to contemplate and gain gradual insight into the “true secret of [the] effect of the artistry that is phenomenal existence, with its antipodal rhythms, by artistically reproducing those rhythms in the mandala-like structure of “The Oval Portrait.”



(1) For example, William L. Howarth’s reference to the story as an illustration of Poe’s equivocal treatment of the artistic imagination — “Introduction,” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe’s Tales (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), p. 18. See also James Hafley, “Malice in Wonderland,” Arizona Quarterly, 15 (1959), 5-12.

(2) For example, Richard W. Dowell’s “The Ironic History of Poe’s ‘Life in Death’: A Literary Skeleton in the Closet,” American Literature, 42 ( 197 1), 478-486.

(3) For example, D. M. McKeithan, “Poe and the Second Edition of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales,” The Nathaniel Hawthorne Journal, 4 (1974), 257-269.

(4) Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), pp. 14, 132-137. Thompson’s discussion responds to Seymour L. Gross,’’Poe’s Revision of ‘The Oval Portrait,’” Modern Language Notes, 74 (1959), 16-20.

(5) Complete Works, IV, 247; subsequent references to “The Oval Portrait” cite this edition parenthetically.

(6) L. Moffitt Cecil, “Poe’s ‘Arabesque,’” Comparative Literature, 18 (1966), 55-70. Thompson, pp. 105-109, rightly argues, beyond Cecil, for a larger European sense of arabesque as an intricate design in irony and tension. See also Stuart and Susan Levine’s good note on Moresque in The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976), p. 99.

(7) The narrator also tells us that “the ends of [her] radiant hair, melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow,” and the catalogue account tells us that “the light dripped upon the pale canvas” as she “grew daily more dispirited” ( pp. 245, 247, 248; emphasis mine). The candle is a traditional emblem for the life force, and it might be useful to note that in alchemic lore gold (the substance of the arabesque frame) is the receptacle of fire — fire is the quintessence of gold. [page 8:]

(8) “The Poetic Principle,” Complete Works, XIV, 290. A possible link between “Ligeia” and Poe’s revision of the reference to the woman’s eye in “The Oval Portrait” is mentioned in Ruth Hudson, “Poe Recognizes ‘Ligeia’ as His Masterpiece,” University of Virginia Studies, 4 (1951), 40. In the 1842 version of “The Oval Portrait,” the narrator’s description refers specifically to “the too real lustre of the [woman’s] wild eye” (p. 318).

(9) Floyd Stovall describes Poe’s poetic aim as “contemplation of the beautiful, an elevation of the soul, to satisfy insofar as humanly possible the soul’s thirst for supernal beauty — beauty existing in no collocation of earth’s forms,” Edgar Poe the Poet: Essays New and Old on the Man and His Work (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1969), p. 188.

(10) The poet, in Poe’s view, can achieve only a glimpse of supernal beauty and can arrive only at the verge of the truth evinced by that beauty: see, for example, “Marginalia,” Complete Works XVI, 88-90; “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Complete Works, V, 68-70.

(11) “Introduction,” Poe (New York: Dell, 1959), pp. 7-39; see also Joseph J. Moldenhauer, “Murder as a Fine Art: Basic Connections between Poe’s Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision,” PMLA, 83 (1968), 284-297.

(12) “Both construction and destruction may inhere in the same process — even in the specifically creative process of art,” concludes Patrick F. Quinn’s discussion of the story: The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1957), p. 261.

(13) Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, ed. Joseph Campbell (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), pp. 140-144. See also Carl Gustav Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), and Jose and Miriam Arguelles, Mandala (Berkeley: Shambala Pub., 1972), which include some illustrations of various mandalas. As these illustrations indicate, mandalas include a wide variety of geometric designs, including ovals, within their essentially circular form.

(14) Barton L. St. Armand, “Usher Unveiled: Poe and the Metaphysic of Gnosticism,” Poe Studies, 5 (1972), 1-8. Occult lore abounds in Poe’s work; see, for instance, the Levines’ discussion of the pentagram, p. 104.

(15) See John T. Irwin, “The Symbol of the Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance,” American Quarterly 26 (1974), 103-126; and my The Slender Human Word: Emerson’s Artistry in Prose (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1978).

(16) D. Ramakrishna, “Poe’s Eureka and Hindu Philosophy,” Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 47 (2nd Quarter 1967), pp. 28-32.

(17) Raymond Benoit, “Walden as God’s Drop,” American Literature, 43 (1971), 122-124; Michael Gates, “Walden: Yantra above Yantras,” ESQ, 22 (1976), 14-23.

(18) In the original version of the story, the narrator speaks of the “easy gradation” of the effect of his mental derangement as well as of his resolve to “proceed by degrees” (p. 317). Herein I think exists another clue not only to the possible influence of the mandala on the story but also to the probability (as argued by Thompson) that “The Oval Portrait” was not markedly changed in intent from its earlier version as “Life in Death.”

(19) Pertinent to this point and to the accretive and diminishing movement of the story are Paul John Eakin’s discussion of the rhythm of approach toward and withdrawal from vision in Poe’s work, in “Poe’s Sense of an Ending,” American Literature, 45 (1973), 1-22, and Jules Zanger’s discussion of the combination of fascination and horror felt by Poe’s protagonists as they approach some revelation, in “Poe and the Theme of Forbidden Knowledge,” American Literature, 49 (1978), 533-543.


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