Through The Looking Glass of Liberal Humanism: ‘The Oval Portriat’ by Poe

Liberal humanism refers to a literary theory, which insists on using techniques like ‘practical criticism’, as given by I. A. Richards. It is a method, which focuses on close study of the text by isolating it from history and context. The words on the page should be the only available resources for analysis. William Empson, Richards’ pupil designed a far stricter version of this ‘close verbal analysis’. Thus, liberal humanists believe that isolated study of literature should be carried out to enjoy and appreciate the essence of a literary work exclusive of any extra knowledge.

Principles of liberal humanism compile the spirit of this school of thought. Literature is considered to transcend over the nuances of the age it was written in, and become canonical. It contains its own meaning within itself. Literature should not require a socio-political, literary-historical or autobiographical approach, for the reader to understand it. According to this idea, just by reading ‘The Oval Portrait’ by Edgar Allan Poe, one should grasp the eerie, uncanny air of the story, instead of having any prior knowledge that Poe was a nineteenth century American writer of the Gothic genre. Liberal humanists feel that, since human nature is essentially unchanging, and a repetitive pattern can be observed in human emotions, conflicts, passions- literature, which depicts the same, will remain unchanged or consistent. Similarly, Poe has shown that whatever the genre and whichever the era he had written it in; he had successfully depicted universal timeless feelings of curiosity, fear, discomfort and attraction through the wounded soldier and the lady in the portrait.

Peter Barry, in his opinion, says that a liberal humanist, or Leavisite approach to this story might focus on the explicit conflict of values between ‘art’ and ‘life’. A critic could take up the moralist argument that life is truly valued when lived, and that the artist had committed a crime in upholding art at the cost of life. Peter Barry even refers to the artist as a ‘Faustian superhero’, after the legendary German character of Faust, who had sold his soul to the devil. The artist in the story managed to transcend above taboo, social practices, taste, conduct and even assumed an omnipotent role of taking away life. Therefore, the artist is considered an isolated parasitic being, who choked life out of his subject. In this story, liberal humanists would consider ‘art for art’s sake’, which ­negates any didactic purpose that art serves. Leavisite scholars would study the role of art in ‘The Oval Portrait’ as only an enhancer of aesthetics and not contributing in a broader personal and psychic health. A Leavisite approach also seems to ignore the form and structure of the tale, and the genre as already mentioned. Also, a moralistic attitude to review this story also identifies with the liberal humanist school of thought, according to Peter Barry.

The way ‘life’ has been portrayed as an absolute concern, is similar to the liberal humanist principle that, “the purpose of literature is enhancement of life and the propagation of humane values, but not in a programmatic way”. Moreover, there is no seeming analysis of the form and structure, since form and content should fuse organically and complement each other, and not used for mere ornamentation. F.R. Leavis, in his work, enthusiastically stated how words in a text should enact the idea the author wants to portray rather than just presenting abstract ideas. In ‘The Oval Portrait’, a close reading offers a pretty clear picture of the incidents, the words are also placed in a manner that they successfully keep the curiosity and fear looming, thus demonstrating the theme rather than preventing readers from grasping it.

Liberal humanism is one of the approaches that is applied on literary works, like structuralism and other theories. It is hard, even unjust, to decide its worth and importance, as different theories take different stances for analysing. Thus, like its tenets, the theory should also be studied in its own right, excluding external references and relations.

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