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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 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. 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).
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.“The Oval Portrait” has never attracted a great amount of critical attention. 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).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). 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.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).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 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.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.