Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” employs a raven itself as a symbol of the torture, mainly the self-inflicted torture, of the narrator over his lost love, Lenore.
The raven, it can be argued, is possibly a figment of the imagination of the narrator, obviously distraught over the death of Lenore. The narrator claims in the first stanza that he is weak and weary (731). He is almost napping as he hears the rapping at the door, which could quite possibly make the sound something he heard in a near dream-like state, not an actual sound.
He is terrified of being alone in the chamber he is in when the poem takes place. The “sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me-filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before” (731). When the poem opens, he is reading over books of “forgotten lore” (731). His imagination is probably already running wild. His surroundings are conducive to the situation he finds himself in. The word “chamber” itself implies a cold, rigid feel, like the narrator has shut himself away from everything in order to be alone to brood and torture himself.
The words “ghost” and “dying ember” give the reader a feeling of discomfort, like something is not quite right with the situation. The narrator opens the chamber door into darkness, deep darkness, and silence. He stands there, fearing what is before him, “dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” (732). December is also the time of year when most plants are dead, to which extent the narrator remarks that it is a “bleak December”, making for a dismal scene both outside and inside the chamber. There is also a “tempest”, a storm, brewing outside, not good for calming the spirits of the narrator.
Thoughts are running through his head and it is safe to say that he is frightening himself more than the situation merits at this point. He says he has to still the beating of his heart by repeating outside the door, “‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door” (731). He is literally trying to talk himself down from the frightened state he is in. The mind is the most powerful tool of one’s imagination, and the narrator’s is definitely working in overdrive.
Given the language used by the narrator and the surroundings he has placed himself in, one could think that the whole story was a figment of the narrator’s imagination. Just like when watching a scary movie or reading a scary book, one may become frightened and imagine things that are not there or hear noises outside.
The raven also symbolizes the torture the narrator has inflicted upon himself due to the death of Lenore, a “rare and radiant maidennameless here forever more” (731). The raven’s refusal to answer any question asked of him with an answer other than “nevermore” only tortures the narrator even more.
The narrator is as much saddened by the arrival of the raven, as he is disturbed. He says, “on the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before” (732). He is still recovering from the sadness of the loss of Lenore and in this raven he may find comfort for a while, but the raven will only be gone in the morning, just like everything else.
The narrator can anticipate the answers of the raven, knowing that the only word it speaks is “nevermore”, and tortures himself even more by asking certain questions to which the answer nevermore would devastate him. He asks if there is balm in Gilead. He even goes so far as to ask the raven if Lenore is in Paradise-”within the distant Aidenn, it shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore-” (733). The answer “nevermore” sends the narrator into a rage. He calls the raven a “prophet”, but cannot place if it is a prophet of evil or of good.
The narrator mentions that the raven lands on a bust of Pallas-Pallas Athena-who, according to Roman and Greek myth, was the goddess of wisdom. The narrator can consider that a Freudian slip of sorts; that the raven speaks the truth because it has landed on the bust of Athena. He takes the words of the raven to heart, especially the raven’s words about Lenore and the state of her soul, as evidenced by his rage at the raven, “Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore! Leave that black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken! Leave my loneliness unbroken!-quit the bust above my door!” (733). Before this, the raven’s words intrigued the narrator, but these words enflame the narrator, due to the nature of the conversation-Lenore. He cannot handle the stress of remembering Lenore and his loss for even a second.
The actual death of Lenore is something that is also symbolized by the raven. The narrator asks it what its name is on the “Night’s Plutonian shore” (731). According to Roman mythology, Pluto was the ruler of Hades, a section of the underworld. The narrator later in the poem tells the raven to return there and to take with it all signs of its lie-that Lenore is not in Paradise. The raven’s cry of “nevermore” is also a symbol of Lenore herself, as she is nevermore in this world.
Furthermore, the raven serves as a perfect symbol of death as it is a non-reasoning creature. Death itself is not something to be reasoned through the human capacity of understanding, and neither are the raven’s cries of “nevermore.” The narrator is trying to apply human reason to both the raven and the death of Lenore, something that cannot be done and will not answer any of the narrator’s questions.
The raven may also represent the narrator’s fear of living without Lenore. When the narrator sits in the chair, he thinks how she will never sit there again-”she shall press, ah, nevermore!” (733). In the next stanza, he senses angels in the room by their perfume smell-”perfumed by an unseen censer swung by seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor”-and cries for nepenthe to make him forget his lost Lenore and the pain he has felt since her death.
Nepenthe, in Greek and Roman mythology, was a drink given to rid a person of sorrow. The narrator is crying for nepenthe to forget his pain, to allow him to go on because he cannot do so without Lenore. Everything he does reminds him of her, even sitting on the chair.
As the poem comes to a close, we see that the narrator will forever be reminded of death and the fact that he, as a part of his nature, cannot understand it. And he will be forever reminded of Lenore and his loss, as the raven is sitting there above the door-”and the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting on the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door” (734).
The raven plays an important part in the poem, hence the title, “The Raven.” The raven has so many meanings: death, sorrow, fear, frustration, and the self-inflicted torture of the narrator. All these things can attest to the mental state of the narrator due to the loss of Lenore.
“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door,” he pleads. But the raven will not go. The raven will sit above the narrator’s door every day for eternity to remind the narrator that he cannot understand death. And left under the shadow the raven casts on the floor is the soul of the narrator that shall be lifted-nevermore!