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The Raven | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven.

The Raven | Symbols


The Raven

Poe wrote in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition" that he meant for the raven to be the primary symbol in the poem. Ravens were often viewed as harbingers of death, evil, and the supernatural. The speaker is lost in grieving remembrance of Lenore when the raven appears to him. The bird can be viewed as a supernatural emissary, a way of communicating with the unknown.

Ravens were also viewed as messengers, especially in Norse mythology where the two ravens that served Odin, the father of the Nordic gods, were called Thought and Memory. The speaker is torturing himself with memories of his lost love, and the raven could be a physical manifestation of those memories.

Unfortunately, when the speaker asks the raven for assurance that he will see Lenore in heaven, the raven tells him, "Nevermore." Here, the raven represents a different kind of ending in death. Instead of reuniting in the afterlife, the lovers will be parted forever. Death is truly the end. The raven is the death of hope that was sustaining the speaker.

The raven also symbolizes the unconscious or the unknowable. The speaker is a scholar, a man of thought and fact and logic. He is rationality, the ego or a person's sense of reality and identity. The raven represents the unknown, flying in from a dark storm at midnight, a physical embodiment of the id or impulse behavior. The speaker attempts to reason with the bird, explaining its presence at his window, its ability to speak, its apparent knowledge; but his reason ultimately fails him. The bird is the incarnation of the unknowable, and no matter how he tries, the speaker cannot figure out the logic of the bird's one-word answers. The triumph of the unknowable over the rational, the id over the ego, is expressed in the final image of the raven, perched on the bust of Pallas Athena (the goddess of wisdom and patron of scholars), looking down at the defeated speaker. The unknowable has won.

The Bust of Pallas Athena

Pallas is a reference to Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and battle strategy. The speaker is a scholar, so it makes sense that he would have a small statue of her in his chambers. The bust of Athena also represents the rational mind or ego and logical thought. The raven lands and perches atop the bust, placing itself above reason and logic. It supplants the speaker's ordered mind, taking precedence over rationality. Even as the speaker attempts to ascertain the raven's presence in his room through reasonable questions, we can see him growing more and more unstable with every answer of "Nevermore." He's approaching his breaking point. When, in the final stanza, the raven sits unmoving atop the bust of Athena, it symbolizes order overthrown by chaos, and the speaker's loss of rational thought. The known has succumbed to the power of the unknown.

There is also a physical juxtaposition of the statue and the bird. The bust of Athena is made of marble or other pale stone. The raven is a black bird. We see a contrast between the light and the dark, white and black, day and night, life and death. This type of symbolic contrast is common in Gothic literature. The bust and the bird serve as visual representation of the two forces that pull at the speaker and help sustain the effect of the poem.


Pluto is the Roman god of wealth and the underworld (taking the Greek Hades' position in the pantheon). The speaker mentions that the raven could have come from "Night's Plutonian shore." This a reference to darkness (Night) and death (Pluto), and ties in to the idea of ravens being messengers or harbingers of death or ill omen. Coming from "Night's Plutonian shore" also reinforces the idea that the bird might actually possess the knowledge the speaker seeks about the afterlife and could explain why he questions the raven about seeing Lenore again.

When the speaker rages at the raven after getting an answer he does not like with "Prophet still, if bird or devil," he ties the raven more closely to the underworld by calling it a devil. While the ancient Greeks and Romans did not have a Christian hell, they did believe in a level of punishment in the underworld that functioned like hell. The raven is associated with the darkness and death of the underworld.

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