Poe and Optics



      Light and Dark

      Poe uses the theme of light versus darkness in his writings to emphasize the contrast between reality and illusion - an altered perception of reality. In "The Oval Portrait," he utilizes light as a symbol for illusion and darkness as a symbol for reality. For example, in this quote, “But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead,” Poe uses light and darkness to illustrate the gloomy mood of the setting. Furthermore, he contrasts the "dark high turret-chamber" (reality) to the "light... pale canvas" (the artist's perception of reality). The representation of darkness as reality and illusion as light is evident in many of Poe's works. With this, he portrays reality as dull, malicious, and mortal and portrays illusion as radiant, promising, and immortal. This parallels his biography in that his life was full of misfortunes, and therefore, he created an altered, happier perception of reality through his writings.

      When using light in his works, Poe references Newton's corpuscular theory of light in his writings. This theory suggests that light is made up of small particles that travel in a straight line and have kinetic energy. This thus suggests that light has mass, and therefore has a physical attribute. In this quote, “The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book,” Poe incorporates this theory. According to the description of light in "The Oval Portrait," light has a physical element to it as its rays were “thrown” upon something,which parallels with Newton’s theory of light.



      Poe uses eyes in his writings to represent perception. In "The Black Cat," he utilizes this theme to represent the cat's perception. With the following quotes, “.. grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket” and “The socket of the lost eye presented, it is truly a frightful appearance...,”  Poe portrays the loss of the cat's perception as devastating and frightening. This is because during Poe's time, sight was considered on of the most important of the five senses. In support of this idea, this quote, “It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in my mind my reason for so shutting them," demonstrates the power of vision and perception. Even after the narrator's eyes are closed, images can remain imprinted on the mind; this shows the importance of the sense of sight for its effects have lasting effects on the mind - on an individual's memory, perception, and cognizance.



      Poe uses the theme of color in this works to represent life. In "The Oval Portrait," he uses this theme copious times to symbolize life. For example, in the following quote, “And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him,” he utilizes the transfer of color from the young bride's cheeks to the artist's painting to illustrate the transfer of life. As the young bride withers away, the painting reaches completion to show life in the depiction of the bride. Furthermore, the more intensely the artist painted, the more his bride's health deteriorated. When dealing with pixels and light, adding more and more colors leads to an increasingly lighter tint, but when dealing with paint, adding more and more colors leads to an increasingly darker tint. This increasing darkness of color is symbolic of the increasing of the bride's mortality.