Edgar Allan Poe Questions and Answers

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How does Edgar Allan Poe use imagery and figurative language to build suspense in his poem "The Raven"? 

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In the poem “The Raven,” Poe uses imagery through the image of the black bird, the raven. The bird’s presence and one word, which Poe references throughout the poem, symbolize death not only literally but also figuratively. A person has literally died, but so has the soul or spirit of the person left to grieve. As a symbol, the raven leaves open to interpretation in the poem its meaning in terms of death, questions of the supernatural, and an afterlife.

For example, the raven says “nevermore” several times in the course of the poem. This one word builds suspense because its meaning can be interpreted as changing each time the word is uttered toward a dramatic climax. It is ambiguous as to whether the bird is literally saying “nevermore” or if the word is simply reverberating again and again in the tortured mind of the narrator.

The imagery is evoked of a bird literally saying the word while the actions of the poem take place in the narrator’s recollection of Lenore. Yet, the repetition of “nevermore” by the bird also works figuratively as an imagination by the narrator through grieving for her and contemplating an end to life with the visitor, who could be interpreted as the grim reaper. As such, the word “nevermore” certainly refers to Lenore, yet also foreshadows doom for the narrator.

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Poe has a great talent to expose the development of madness in people--a condition not discussed in private or in public during his time. Today, awareness for different mental illnesses is common and often looked upon with compassion. In Poe's day as well as today, however, the process through which a person turns mad is interesting, intense, and suspenseful in and of itself. One might ask how a person gets to the point of overwhelming madness or loss of self-control. Poe uses this curious process as the background for "The Raven."

Along with the use of an intense and confusing scene, Poe uses the techniques of repetition, alliteration and rhythm to bring about the madman's process towards loss of self-control. Words that are repeated often are: "Lenore," the symbol of his emotional pain; "chamber door," the focus of audible irritation; and the bird's unsatisfying response, "Nevermore." Examples of alliteration that create the repetition of maddening sounds are: "While I nodded, nearly napping"; "Perched upon the bust of Pallas"; and, "Startled at the stillness." Finally, the rhythm of the rhyme scheme (trochaic octameter) seems to remind one of a spastic rhythm that can't quite be grasped or understood fully as Poe does not finish some lines' meter but does finish others. Here, Poe creates chaos that the character and reader alike cannot align or make sense of. Through these techniques, confusion and chaos are maintained throughout the drunken period of grief that the main character travels through. The raven then becomes the most confusing symbols of death and chaos in literature as seen through a madman's maddening state of mind.

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