Pedro the valet brings the injured narrator to an abandoned chateau because he does not want the narrator to have to sleep outside. They force an entry and prepare for a night in one of the building's smallest apartments, which lies in a minor tower. The apartment has rich but decaying decorations, including tapestries, trophies, and paintings.
The narrator is semi-delirious from his wounds and takes an intense interest in the paintings, so he has Pedro close the shutters, light a candelabrum, and open the bed curtains so that the narrator can look at the paintings while reading a book he has found on the pillow, which provides information about the paintings. Rather than going to sleep along with his valet, the narrator reads and observes until around midnight, when he decides to shift the candelabrum to throw more light on the book.
The main effect of the narrator's movement of the candles is that the light now reveals a portrait that had been hidden in the dark near one of the bedposts. The painting is of a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, and the narrator feels a sudden impulse to close his eyes, which he does in order to calm down and view the painting more clearly. When he opens his eyes again, he sees that his senses had momentarily deceived him and startled him into wakefulness.
The portrait displays a vignette of the girl's head and shoulders in the style of Thomas Sully, an American portraitist. The details below the bust darken into the shadow of the background, and the oval frame is covered with gold filigree in the Moorish style. The painting is beautiful, as is the subject, but the narrator had momentarily mistaken it for a living person, although it is obviously a painting. He continues to observe the portrait to determine how the painting had caused the effect before respectfully returning the candelabrum to its previous position so that he cannot see the painting.
The narrator opens his book to read about the oval portrait. It describes the subject as a naturally cheerful "maiden of rarest beauty" who marries the painter for love. The painter, the book relates, is passionate but studious, and as much in love with his painting as he is with his wife. Consequently, although the wife is naturally happy and loving of all things, she despises his art and the tools of painting because she has to compete with his art for the painter's time and affection.
The wife's dislike of her husband's art eventually comes into conflict with his love for the painting when he asks her to sit as a model for a portrait. She dislikes the idea, but being a modest and obedient wife, she agrees to sit in the dark tower where the only light comes from above so that he can paint. The painter is passionate about the painting, but because of his moodiness and dreaminess, he does not notice that she is wasting away in the dark. Nevertheless, she does not complain and continues to smile for his portrait because she knows that her husband is obsessed with his project.
The portrait is so life-like that everyone who sees it marvels and concludes that it is the combination of his skill and his love for his wife. However, as the portrait nears completion, the painter shuts himself and his wife into the tower away from visitors so that he can place all his concentration on his work, not realizing that his wife grows paler as the portrait grows more life-like. When he finishes the painting, he stares at it and realizes that "this is indeed Life itself!" before turning to his wife and realizing that she died during his last few strokes of the brush.
As one of the shortest of Poe's stories, "The Oval Portrait" consists of a brief one-paragraph story framed within a larger vignette whose main purpose is to establish the romantic Gothic mood in which the story occurs. The setting and basis of the plot are shrouded in mystery; the narrator does not explain how or where he is wounded, and with his servant, he enters an abandoned, decaying chateau that offers no more answers than the narrator. The dark gloom of a deserted house is a classic background for a Gothic story, and the tapestries and strange architecture of the building give the narrator's choice of apartment a feeling of removal from the contemporary world. Nothing of consequence occurs during the night, but the details provide a romantic feeling of loss that serves as an introduction to the story of the oval portrait.
The oval portrait indicates the tension between the impermanence of life and the intransience of art. The portrait's subject is full of life when she marries the painter, but the as the guide book says, "The tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him." With his artistic powers, he has created a double of his wife, but as in "William Wilson," both cannot simultaneously subsist for long without one defeating the other. The history of the painting suggests that although the metamorphosis from life to eternal art may create a masterful work of beauty that simulates life, the narrator is only deceived by his "dreamy stupor" and by the sudden reveal of the painting from the dark. A second, more intense look at the painting reveals the illusion, and similarly, the painter of the story ends by giving up his wife for a mere image.
The destruction of loved ones is a common theme in many of Poe's short stories, but unlike in Poe's other stories, the painter does not cause his wife's death because of hate or any negative emotions. Instead, his passion for his art simply overwhelms him to the point where he can no longer see his wife except though the lens of his painting. Thus, the story associates art and creativity with decay, not only within the story of the painting but in the juxtaposition of "spirited modern paintings" with "rich, yet tattered and antique" decorations within the narrator's room. In the stories of C. Auguste Dupin, Poe praises the power of creativity tempered by the ability to maintain emotional removal, but the passion of the painter in "The Oval Portrait" is unrestricted and hence ultimately harmful in his search to immortalize his wife's image.
The association of beautiful women with death is prevalent in Poe's works, and is especially prominent in "The Oval Portrait." The painter's wife is a beautiful woman even before she agrees to model for her husband's portrait, but as she begins to fade away under the influence of the tower, she becomes pale and wan and as a result could easily fit the Romantic and Gothic ideal of the ethereal woman. Finally, as she dies, the process of transfer between life and art completes, and her portrait captures her "immortal beauty" before it can fade away in old age and memory. Art and aesthetics are intrinsically connected, and the relationship between art and death places the painter's wife next to other Poe characters such as Ligeia from the eponymous story, who also become beautiful as they approach death.
Although "The Oval Portrait" centers on the painting of a woman, the painter's wife is essentially a passive figure within the story. Docile and loving, she is akin to the canvas of the portrait in that both are manipulated by the male painter, whose passion and drive make him the active figure in the history of the painting. Furthermore, the wife is never the active, observing character. She is only observed, both by her husband, who in the throes of his art sees her only as a model, and by the narrator, who peers at her image in order to while away the night (we know that the narrator is male because his servant is described as a valet, a term commonly used for the male servant of a man). The wife's fate acts as a criticism of the male domination of art, but her compliance and submissiveness prevent her from serving as more than a silent warning.