The use of ekphrasis in comparison of Edgar Allan Poes´s 'The Oval Portrait' and Oscar Wilde´s 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

Term Paper 2007 21 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Ekphrastic Theory

3 Analysis
3.1 The narrative structure of “The Oval Portrait” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray”
3.2 Who watches whom?
3.3 Ekphrastic characteristics
3.3.1 The Titles
3.3.2 “The Oval Portrait”
3.3.3 “The Picture of Dorian Gray”
3.4 The importance of the portraits

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

In the tradition of l´ art pour l´ art Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) wrote in his essay “The decay of lying” that the aim of art is “the telling of beautiful untrue things”[1]. Similar to that, one can assume Edgar Allan Poe ´s (1809-1849) understanding of his writing, even though his work belongs to another epoch and another country. Poe was an American writer who, in his own country, was considered to be alcoholic[2] and unrestrained. In Europe his work became the fundament of symbolism and of extravaganza and cleared the way from Romantic to modern fiction. As later in Wilde ´s fiction, form was an important aspect to Poe, and his favourite subject were beautiful dead women. He confirmed that in “The Philosophy of Composition”: “…the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic of the world…”[3]. Therefore Poe ´s epoch can be considered as “the Age of the Beautiful Death”[4]. The dead body, particularly the one of a young unmarried woman, becomes an icon, an object of idolatry. This motif develops out of our fear of, and simultaneous fascination with death. Representations of death in literature are peculiarly pleasing, because in this case people can have a more distant approach to the theme as “death occurs at someone else ´s body and as an image”[5] In “The Oval Portrait” Poe also deals with the death of a young woman. But her husband tends to see the icon not in her body, but in the portrait he has painted. His ambition to create a lifelike painting is at the end – paradoxically – the reason for his wife ´s death.

Oscar Wilde ´s “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” originated in the so-called “Naughty Nineties”[6] of the 19th century when the Victorian way of thinking and living was overcome by different artists. It was the height of aestheticism, decadence and hedonism. At this time artists tried to distance themselves from the bourgeois reality and the earnestness of the Victorian Age. Their response was breaking taboos and refusing conventional concepts of morality and gender. The supporters of aestheticism postulated the separation of art and society. Art was expected to be free of moral purposes – `l` art pour l` art´ or `art for art ´s sake´. The Fin de Siècle -writers wanted to inspire the sensation for the beautiful. In this connection form was more important than content and music was lifted to the highest circle among all arts. Closely connected to aestheticism and decadence is the dandy. This lifestyle expresses aestheticism because these aesthetes tried to make a work of art out of their lives, they were very cultivated, passively receiving and took care of their appearance. Oscar Wilde described the dandy in an aphorism: “In all unimportant matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential. In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential.”[7] His protagonist Dorian Gray is also one of these dandies who lives his life as aesthete and as a work of art – even he inverses life and art by letting his portrait grow old and staying young himself. At the end this philosophy will not work: „Das Leben, so zeigt sich, bleibt gekennzeichnet von Zeitlichkeit, von Handeln und von den wegen der Zeitlichkeit irreversiblen Konsequenzen dieses Handelns.”[8] As he wants to destroy his portrait, since he does not want himself growing old and ugly as a result of his moral decay, he kills himself while the portrait remains in a beautiful way.

Two stories, two authors, two epochs – to compare them will be the purpose of this paper by focussing on the two portraits which are each the important element of their story. At the same time, confusing and paradoxical relationships between art, life and death constitute the thematic centre of both stories. The portraits, as pieces of visual art, are presented in a verbal form. Why and how are they represented with words? To answer this questions I will first give an overview about ekphrastic theory, second classify the narrative situations, third compare the relations of observer and observed subject and finally by the discussion of their function and importance.

2 Ekphrastic Theory

The superior access of natural signs to the sensible world received

by our eyes can be countered by the superior access of language,

as arbitrary signs, to the intelligible world received by our inner visions,

the eye of mind.[9]

Murray Krieger is one of the theorists who dealt with the “problem of ekphrasis”[10] In several essays he wrote about different historical views and different readings of ekphrasis. Before comparing Krieger ´s theory to others is a first question to be answered: what do we call ekphrasis? The word itself originates from the Greek term ekphrazein which means `to describe exhaustively´[11]. In the times of Plato ekphrasis was used to describe an existing object or artwork as precisely as possible to “place the represented object before the reader ´s (hearer ´s) inner eye”[12] It belonged to the ut pictura poesis tradition which was to produce an absent reality by words. Speakers and writers tried to “to achieve enargeia or, in other words, to reach an equal quality in language as a piece of art. Heffernan defined ekphrasis as “verbal representation of [a] visual representation”[13]

In the 18th century the ekphrastic representation was very common. Three types of representation could be differentiated. The first is the epigram – also called ´Sinngedicht´- which is an inscription on sculptures or tombstones.

It is implicitly acknowledged and set in place the subsidiary relation

of its words to the work of plastic art that it accompanied (epi-gram)

and sought verbally to represent and, on occasion, to speak for,

whether directly or enigmatically[14].

This poetic form gives a profound, surprising or even pointed interpretation of an object. It can be said that language in an epigram plays a secondary role in comparison to the picture itself. Krieger organizes ekphrasis as second step after the epigram because in the 18th century ekphrasis is seeking an equivalence with its visual object and no longer yielding a primacy to it[15]. Ekphrasis is now possible as a fiction, an imitation of an artwork which does not have to exist. For the first time, Krieger argues, literal ekphrasis enters the realm of illusion. The third step of this development is the emblem poetry of the Renaissance. In the emblem a picture (with allegorical meaning) and a text (divided into lemma, dictum and subscription) which comments on the coded sense of the picture are combined. “The final trick is for language to complete its bid for supremacy by taking on the here-ness of the plastic arts…”[16]. Krieger insists that the emblem “becomes the ultimate projection of the ekphrastic principle by representing a fixed object which is itself”[17].

For the 18th century Krieger divides, according to the English poet and politician Joseph Addison, two perspectives on literature. The first contains a hierarchy from the most natural art which is meant to be sculpture to music as extreme version of the non-natural sign. Verbal description is settled right in front of music because it bears “no real resemblance to its original”[18] Though, “in the literary there is still some chance for the poet to work toward the emulation of visual meanings”[19]. The second perspective proceeds from the fact that language “because of its other-than-natural-sign function”[20] can get the better of nature. That means that the natural-sign representation is limited while language is unlimited because it can paint no pictures. Edmund Burke – English writer and philosopher - assigns the first perspective to the Apollonian principle and the second one to the Dionysian. Later, according to Nietzsche in his work “Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik”, the Apollonian is characterized by the power of harmony and order but also by perfection and dream-likeness. The Dionysian is ecstasy in which each human being becomes reconciled with the others and also with nature and feels him- or herself as an work of art. The Dionysian is the unlimited, unorganised and excessive.

The attitudes of following epochs and critical tendencies differentiated in the attitudes towards ekphrasis. Some put more emphasis on sound like the New Critics, but most were divided by emphasis on space or time. Today the classical aesthetic objects are substituted by unconventional objects as for example a jar. That is far away from the unwritten rule of using aesthetic objects which was considered for hundreds of years.

Krieger ´s ekphrastic principle consists of three limits: 1.) the imitation of plastic arts by words, 2.) the use of language to function as a substitute natural sign and leads 3.) to words as verbal equivalent of a plastic art object.[21] He establishes that the obvious fact with words is that they “are many other things but are not – and happily are not – pictures, and do not, in any literal way have capacity.”[22] This lack in capacity can be better thought by realizing that words try to imitate natural signs but verbal representation is non-natural. W.J.T. Mitchell describes this fact in another way: “Ekphrastic poetry is the genre in which texts encounter their own semiotic “others”, those rival, alien modes of representation called the visual graphic, plastic or spatial art”[23] Mitchell also offers a threefold division echoing to Krieger ´s. He calls the first phase the “ekphrastic indifference” where he states the impossibility of ekphrasis: “verbal representation cannot represent its object in the same way a visual representation can”[24] Likewise Nelson Goodman states that “no amount of description adds up to a depiction”[25], which means that a written text can never bring a visual presence of a thing or even a person before us. This is according to Krieger the phase where literary works only describe works of visual art. The second phase is the “ekphrastic hope”. This is the phase when the impossibility or indifference of ekphrasis is overwhelmed by getting a “sense” for the text and creating a picture in mind. Murray Krieger calls this moment the “still moment”. Not only vision, but also stasis, shape, closure, and silent presence are the aims of ekphrasis. The language is shaped and forms a static and lasting picture. So the separation of image and text is overcome and an image arises instead. (See Keats, “Ode to a Grecian Urn”) The second phase generates a third phase which is the “ekphrastic fear”. At this stage it will be sensed that the verbal and visual representation might collapse and the described image suddenly becomes a natural fact which can be referred to. As a consequence of that, the picture would be aesthetically reduced in this moment, because the words reach the same level as visual art. This is the stage where we can be speak of notional ekphrasis which describes an entirely imaginary and non-existing work of art, as though it were factual and existed in reality. Lessing says that the literary imitation of the visual arts is the attempt to “convert a superior being into a doll”[26]. (See Shelley, “On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery”) Mitchell also points out that ekphrastic literature does not have special textual features on a grammatical level in comparison to other literary texts:


[1] Weinlaub, Stanley [Ed.] (1968): Literary Criticism of Oscar Wilde. Lincoln, NE, 195.

[2] here meant as “trunksüchtig”

[3] Poe, Edgar Allan: The Philosophy of composition, in: Poetry and Tales: Essays and Reviews (1984). New York: The Library of America, 184.

[4] Kennedy, J. Gerald (1987): Poe, Death, and the life of writing, New Haven and London, 63.

[5] Kot, Paula: Feminist “Re-Visioning” of the Tales of Women, in: Carlson, Eric W. [Ed.] (1996): A companion to Poe studies, Westport, 392.

[6] Nünning, Vera (2004): Der englische Roman des 19. Jahrhunderts, Stuttgart, 10.

[7] Beckson, Karl E. [Ed.] (1981): Aesthetes and decadents of the 1890´s: An Anthology of British Poetry and Prose, Chicago, 238.

[8] Middeke, Martin (2004): Die Kunst der gelebten Zeit. Zur Phänomenologie literarischer Subjektivität im englischen Roman des ausgehenden 19. Jahrhunderts, Würzburg, 155.

[9] Krieger, Murray: The problem of Ekphrasis: Image and Words, Space and Time – and the Literary Work, in: Robillard, Valerie & Jongeneel, Els [Ed.] (1998): Pictures into Words: Theoretical and Descriptive Approaches to Ekphrasis, Amsterdam, 3.

[10] Ibid.1.

[11] Robillard, Valerie & Jongeneel, Els [Ed.] (1998): Pictures into Words: Theoretical and Descriptive Approaches to Ekphrasis., ix.

[12] Krieger, M., 8.

[13] Heffernan, James A.W.(1991): Ekphrasis and Representation, in: New Literary History 22, no.2 (Spring 1991), 297-316.

[14] Krieger, M., 9.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 13.

[17] Ibid.,12.

[18] Krieger quoted this sentence from “The Spectator” edited by Addison and Sir Richard Steele (1712), 416.

[19] Krieger, M.,14.

[20] Ibid.,14.

[21] Ibid.,4.

[22] Ibid.,3.

[23] Mitchell, W.J.T.: Ekphrasis and the other, in: Mitchell, W.J.T.(1994): Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, Chicago, 156.

[24] Ibid.,152.

[25] Goodman, Nelson (1976): Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols, Indianapolis, 231.

[26] Lessing Gotthold, Ephraim(1766): Laocoon, translated by Edith Frothingham (1969), New York, 68-69.


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Edgar Allan Poes´s Oval Portrait Oscar Wilde´s Picture Dorian Gray



Title: The use  of ekphrasis in comparison of Edgar Allan Poes´s 'The Oval Portrait' and Oscar Wilde´s 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'