The Raven | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Raven | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Stanzas 1–3

On a midnight in December, the speaker reads over old books for the purpose of easing his sadness over the death of his beloved Lenore. He falls into a doze, only to wake when he hears a knock on his door. As he sits debating who could be at his door, his imagination begins to run away with him.

Stanzas 4–6

He finally convinces himself that it is just a late-night visitor at his door and asks for forgiveness for his hesitation in answering. He'd been napping, he explains to the visitor as he approaches the door, and wasn't sure he'd actually heard the knocking, thinking it might have been a dream. However, when he opens the door, there is no one there. He stands in the doorway, gazing into the darkness and doubting his senses. He thinks he hears a whispered word—"Lenore"—before going back inside his room. Soon he hears a tapping at his window. He suspects it is the wind and goes to investigate.

Stanzas 7–9

When he opens the window a raven steps inside. It flies into the room and perches on the bust of Pallas Athena that sits above his door. At first the speaker is amused by the raven's manner. He asks the bird's name, to which the raven replies, "Nevermore." The speaker is surprised that the raven can speak, even though the word it says doesn't make sense in context. The raven says nothing else, sitting silently on the statue.

Stanzas 10–12

The speaker mentions with a sense of sorrow that the raven—like everyone else in his life—will leave him in the morning. Once again, the raven croaks, "Nevermore." He is shocked, but then explains away the bird's utterance as a sign of the bird's previous owner's terrible misfortunes. He still finds the bird interesting and amusing, and so takes a seat in front of the bird and the bust. He tries to figure out what the bird means by "nevermore."

Stanzas 13–15

As he sits, he thinks of his lost love, Lenore, who will never again sit in the chair. At the thought of her, the speaker feels something in the air and smells incense in the closed room. He gets angry, asking for a potion of some kind that will make him forget Lenore and the memories of her that torture him. The raven replies, "Nevermore," enraging him further. The speaker calls the bird a prophet, but whether for good or evil remains to be seen. He asks the bird if there is "balm in Gilead" that will quell the pain of his remembrance. The Raven answers once again: "Nevermore."

Stanzas 16–18

Next, the speaker asks the bird if he has any hope of reuniting with Lenore in heaven. The raven replies with the same answer as always, driving the speaker into further fits of rage. Furiously he orders the raven to leave him to his loneliness and despair. The raven again says, "Nevermore." The final stanza, which moves into the present of the speaker's retelling, sees the raven still sitting in the chamber, perched on the bust of Pallas Athena. The speaker has succumbed fully to his despair and sees himself engulfed in the raven's shadow forever.

Analysis

The Supernatural

References to the supernatural are rife within "The Raven." While Poe never confirms whether the raven is a supernatural entity or a product of the speaker's subconscious, an argument can still be made from clues within the text.

He first hears a knock on his chamber door, only to open it and find no one there. Yet before opening it, he is struck with a terror of the unknown. Overcoming his fears, he gazes into the empty corridor and thinks he hears a whispered "Lenore" in response to his own whispered question. He's already grieving for his lost love, already primed to be haunted by her ghost as he tries to lose himself in study to stop dwelling on his memories of her.

With the arrival of the raven, more supernatural elements creep into the poem. The raven itself is often used as a supernatural emissary, a way of communicating with the unknown. The speaker questions where the bird might have come from. He equates the bird's source with Pluto, the Roman god of the Underworld, cementing further the idea of ghostly communications about the afterlife.

In a later stanza, the speaker thinks he smells incense from "some unseen censer swung by Seraphim," which brings the supposed presence of angels into the poem. Is the speaker hallucinating or is he being visited by a heavenly being? Is he being haunted by actual creatures or by the grief in his own mind? The angels are a heavenly force, negated by the raven's own darkness and its answers of "nevermore" to the speaker's queries.

The raven is given more sinister intent by the end of the poem, as it stays perched on the statue of Athena. It looks down on the speaker, seemingly casting some kind of spell on him, snaring his soul in its shadow. Whether the speaker succumbed to his grief or the sinister force animating the raven is something we are left to ponder. The poem walks the line between suggesting the presence of forces of the subconscious and forces of the supernatural, giving it much of its narrative punch.

Setting and Mood

Poe uses atmosphere to build the dread evident in the last line of the poem. Every choice he makes is designed to create one singular effect on the reader. To that end, Poe chooses the time of day and year for a specific purpose. It is midnight, the closing of the day, in December, the last month of the year. The day is ending and the year is ending, reinforcing the imagery of death already present in the poem, as when the speaker notes how "each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor." Images and words combine to evoke death—the dying of the day, of the year, of the fire, of Lenore. This line also enhances the supernatural element of the poem by introducing the idea of things beyond our knowledge at work with the mention of a ghost, soon to be reinforced by a mysterious knocking and the feeling of a strange presence.

The room the speaker sits in also sets the mood of the poem, and it is complete with all the trappings of Gothic literature. The speaker sits alone in the dark on a bleak, stormy December night. He's studying to distract himself from constant thoughts of Lenore, his dead love. Shadows are thrown throughout the room by the light of the dying fire. He's disturbed by the arrival of the raven in a flurry of wind and swirling curtains, an entrance rife with drama and portent.

Poe seeds the poem with images of darkness that encroach more and more on the speaker. It's night, the fire is dying, and there is a storm brewing outside the room. When the speaker opens the door, all that greets him is a darkened, empty hallway. The raven is a black bird that casts a long shadow that will eventually envelop the speaker, symbolizing the darkness in his soul.

Rationality and Madness

As "The Raven" progresses, the speaker is consumed with his memories of Lenore. She's mentioned in passing in the second stanza, "Nameless here for evermore." She is always on his mind, as shown in the fifth stanza: "And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?" / This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"—." When he opens his door to find no one there, he immediately makes the jump to Lenore. This is another instance of the Gothic sensibility that infuses the poem—the possible presence of the supernatural. Was there someone at the door or did the speaker imagine the knocking? Is the speaker being haunted by Lenore? Is it all in his head? Is he mad? Is he a reliable speaker? These are questions we have to ask as we continue on with the speaker's story.

The speaker's emotional state shifts throughout the course of "The Raven," and the narrative voice reflects this change. In the first stanza he is calm, if weary and melancholy. As the poem progresses, his agitation grows as his imagination or the supernatural begins to assault him.

Once the raven appears, the speaker attempts to explain its presence and strangeness through rational means. Again, there is an air of the otherworldly about the bird's arrival: "In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore; / Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he; / But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door." The raven is described with human characteristics; the speaker uses aristocratic terms, giving it a proud air. It does not ask permission, but rather steps inside as if it owns the place.

The speaker is first pleased by the arrival of the raven, and amused by its behavior. He wonders if it was sent by angels as some messenger to bring him comfort. Here the speaker's state of mind is suspect. He is attributing human behavior to an animal. Is he mad? Has he gone insane from the grief of losing Lenore or is there more to this raven than meets the eye?

His rational arguments continue to break down as the raven gives him one word answers. At first, the speaker is amused by the bird's aspect, going so far as to ask for its "lordly name," and surprised when it answers him. But as the poem progresses, the speaker's explanations and questions become more desperate and his mental stability must be called into question. He thinks he smells incense: "Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer / Swung by Seraphim," reminding us of his deteriorating mental state and the Gothic sensibilities of the poem. Are there angels present or is this just a delusion brought on by grief? He grows more anxious and angrier with each of the raven's utterances of "Nevermore." Now, he believes the bird was sent by dark forces to torment him, to deprive him of the hope of being reunited with Lenore.

Eventually the speaker yells at the bird, calling it, "Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—" and pleading with it to give him answers to his questions. He verges on hopelessness, already suspecting the answer the bird will give him—"Nevermore"—but compelled to ask anyway. The breakdown of his mental state is reflected in his narration. He alternately begs and yells at the bird in later stanzas, eventually ordering it out of his house. The narrative voice changes from one of logic to one of madness.

When the bird tells him that he will not be reunited with Lenore in the afterlife, the speaker loses hope entirely, his reason overthrown. This is evident in the final lines of the poem: "And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming, / And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; / And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor / Shall be lifted—nevermore!" The speaker is no longer seeking escape from his remembrance, he is wallowing in his grief. The speaker's despair has overwhelmed him, his logical arguments abandoned as the bird sits atop the bust of Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom, looking down on him. The final image intimates that rationality (Athena) has been overthrown by irrationality (the raven). With the final line, we can see that he has succumbed to a grief-driven madness and the dread that has been haunting both the speaker and the reader has finally arrived.

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