REVIEW: “The Oval Portrait” by Edgar Allen Poe

Review of Edgar Allen Poe, “The Oval Portrait”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 127-130 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story is one of the reasons I was so excited to review this anthology — for despite having been an English lit major many many years ago, the only Poe I’ve ever read is “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” (if you can call listening to the Crüxshadows’ version of it “reading”).

Poe’s tale of an oval vignette portrait of a young woman is gothic in the extreme — an injured hero, a forced entry into an abandoned building, old and gloomy and grand, references to Mrs. Radcliffe — and it was a little bit weird to read a story that wasn’t so much aping or mimicing or paying homage to these literary structures as being a part of what the homage is paid to in the first place.

Two other things struck me about the story: I love Poe’s use of hyphens, his punctuation style is very much after my own heart; and on p. 129 there were a few things where I wasn’t sure if they were errors in language or intentional. When Poe’s narrator reads a description of the portrait in a small volume he has found upon his bedpillow, the same sentence describing the woman is repeated. A few sentences later, the unusual spelling “pourtray” (for “portray”) is found — not implausible for the mid-19th century, but it’s the only atypical spelling in the story. I could look past both of these as being quirks of Poe’s writing, but then a few sentences later there is a genuine typo, (“be” for “he”), which served to make me unsure about the legitimacy of the two earlier issues. It’s unfortunate: For it then made me question the reliability of this edition of the story.

There is a note at the end of the story indicating that this is a shortened version of a longer story originally published in 1842; this shortened version was revised to remove “the suggestion of a drug-induced hallucination” (p. 130). Given that, and my uncertainty about the story as it is published in this 2018 edition, if nothing else I have now been stirred to go find the original 1842 edition and read that!

(Originally published in Broadway Journal, 1845.)