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The Raven | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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

The Raven | Themes


Madness and Despair

"The Raven" is a poetical study of grief. The speaker attempts to stave off his sorrow at the passing of Lenore using rational means, but grief is not rational. As the poem progresses, he veers further and further away from rational thought. The bust of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, looks down on him from the very beginning of the poem, but she—representing rational thought—is overcome in the end by the symbolic despair embodied in the raven.

Throughout the poem, the speaker is trying to convince himself of something. First, he convinces himself that he is not being haunted by Lenore when he opens the door to his chamber to find no one there. He clings to his rational explanation of the sound of knocking. When the raven appears, he attempts to reason its presence at his window, saying that it escaped from its master and fled the storm. Its speech, he supposes, is the bird parroting a word it heard from said master.

The speaker is trying to ground the strange circumstances in the ordinary, but with little success. As he continues to question the bird, he grows increasingly upset with every response of "Nevermore." His reason begins to break down, as he becomes desperate for a different answer. His rational attempts to deal with the raven cannot overcome the strangeness of the situation in the face of his grief. The speaker obsesses over his reunion with Lenore, losing his hold on rationality.

The speaker is the one who assigns context to the raven's answers. The raven only speaks one word, which the speaker ascribes meaning to. He asks the same question in several ways, hoping for a different answer, even though—rationally—he realizes the raven is probably repeating the only word it knows. His grief has driven him to madness. Once his hope is dashed by the raven's final answer, he succumbs to his grief-fueled despair. The raven has overthrown reason, as symbolized by its perch upon the bust of Athena. Rational thought has succumbed to madness.

Death and the Afterlife

"The Raven" explores man's relationship with death, specifically the effect of a loved one's death on those left behind. We see the progression of the speaker's grief throughout "The Raven." He sits alone in his room—a room and a chair where Lenore once sat, as he says in a later stanza: "But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er, /She shall press, ah, nevermore!" The speaker is engulfed in memories of Lenore, and he retreats to his books to find solace from remembering. It is possible that the speaker looks through his books of "forgotten lore" seeking a way to bring Lenore back from the dead. It would certainly be in keeping with some of Poe's other works, such as "Ligeia" or "The Masque of the Red Death," where characters attempt to cheat death. Regardless, the speaker is attempting to stave off the pain of Lenore's loss through study.

Upon the raven's arrival, the speaker asks for the creature's name: "Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!" The speaker, and Poe by extension, already equates the raven's presence with death, tying the two together with his reference to Pluto, Roman god of the underworld and overseer of the afterlife. Because ravens were often seen as messengers, associating the raven with Pluto suggests that the bird brings a message from beyond.

In a later stanza, the speaker asks, "Is there balm in Gilead?" Gilead is another name for heaven; the speaker is asking if he will see Lenore again in heaven. Death may have taken Lenore from him too soon, but he desperately hopes to be reunited with her in the afterlife. Poe takes a darker view as to the afterlife in "The Raven" than in other poems such as "Lenore." The raven's answer to his question is "Nevermore," destroying the speaker's fragile hope in reuniting in the afterlife. There is nothing to hope for after death.

Loss and Grief

"The Raven" is a study in loss and grief. The speaker's lover, Lenore, has died. Thoughts of her consume him, even when he tries to distract himself. Many scholars have drawn parallels between the speaker and Poe, who likewise lost his wife at a young age. (Poe's wife, Virginia, was suffering from tuberculosis when he composed the poem.) Though "The Raven" is not considered biographical, the speaker's feelings of grief are incredibly vivid and affecting. The loss of a loved one is a universal experience, and Poe chose this theme of loss to deliver the most profound effect he could.

When the speaker asks the raven if there is any hope he might be reunited with Lenore after his own death, his question mirrors those same hopes and fears within the reader. The speaker's reaction of outrage and anger at not getting the answer he wanted from the raven reflect common feelings of anger and grief at being denied what is most desired.

There is another type of loss at work in the poem: the loss of the past. There are many allusions made to the bygone era: the speaker reads "forgotten lore," the raven is from "saintly days of yore," the bust is of Pallas Athena, an ancient Greek goddess. The antiquated language used in the poem reflects a time long past. An obsession with the past is also a convention of the Gothic, as mentioned above. Not only is the speaker in mourning for a lost love, he is mourning a lost way of life or world that has succumbed to time.

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