The Raven Questions and Answers
by Edgar Allan Poe

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What are some themes in the poem "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe?

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Amy Evans eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The theme of insanity is emphasized by elements defined by Gothic-era literature, particularly internal darkness (depression, previously termed melancholia), hallucinations, and a supernatural atmosphere. Edgar Allan Poe is considered the apex of American Gothic literature, with ravens or black birds a common animal motif associated with the genre. In the poem, an unnamed narrator gradually descends into madness due to depression, loneliness, and isolation.

While alone in his chamber on a dark night, the Raven flies into the room. Initially, the narrator asks the bird's name jokingly, and the Raven responds to him repeatedly with "Nevermore." Even if a raven actually has flown into his room through the open window, the fact that narrator sees it talking is indicative of an auditory and visual hallucination. More disturbing still, the narrator attempts to understand the Raven's words and takes everything it says seriously.

The narrator then detects an aura or the presence of angels, which, combined with the talking bird, solidifies the supernatural atmosphere. The Raven tells him that he will not see his beloved Lenore in heaven and that it will remain forever in his chamber. The poem concludes with the man's devastation over having been forever departed from Lenore, denied from heaven, and permanently plagued by the bird's presence. It can be assumed then, that the man has now descended into a permanent and irreversible insanity.

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In "The Raven," Edgar Allan Poe employs a Gothic ambiance to explore themes of grief, negativity, and depression. As the poem opens, the narrator is at home alone at night feeling sad and lonely. He is reading to try to forget about his "sorrow for the lost Lenore." His lost loved one so fills his thoughts that at various times in the poem he believes she is near him, perhaps in the form of a spirit, ghost, or angel. That is why the rustling of the curtains and the mysterious knocking "thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before." Later he thinks he hears her footsteps and smells her perfume. His grief is affecting his mind, and thoughts of his departed loved one overtake him so that he imagines her presence. This theme portrays how grief dominates the mind of one who has recently lost a loved one to the extent that his imagination can get carried away.

Sadly, the man's grief leads to negativity and doubt. Although he allows the bird to entertain him for a short while, he soon succumbs to doubts about whether he will see Lenore again in the afterlife and whether he will ever be able to "forget" her in this life and heal from the pain of his intense grief. This leads him to ask the wrong questions of the bird. Knowing the bird is only capable of saying a single word and that "what it utters is its only stock and store," the narrator nevertheless asks a question that is sure to bring an answer of despair. This points out that when one asks the wrong question, one gets the wrong answer. Ironically, a person who is swathed in negativity only asks negative questions that confirm the despair he feels. 

Finally, depression is a major topic of the poem. As the man sinks further into grief and negativity, he finds himself drowning is a disabling sea of depression. The bird's beak in his heart, its eyes demonically gleaming at him, and its shadow enveloping him are symbolic of the depression that immobilizes him and makes him believe that he will feel that way forever. In this way, the poem suggests that grief and negativity can produce long-term depression in a person who has lost a loved one and is experiencing extreme loneliness. 

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allegrac | Student

In Poe’s “The Raven” we see many of the typical Romantic themes on display. There are elements of nature in the setting: the thunderstorm, the bird and the fire in the hearth. We have elements of imagination and superstition with the unknown knock on the door, the “unseen censer” and the possible frenzy of the narrator. We even see the celebration of “beauty” as Poe describes it, as “the death of a beautiful woman”. But the overriding theme over the entire work is fear.

First, let’s strip “The Raven” down to its bare plot points. “The Raven” ala Twitter, if you will…

Narrator: [in a room by a fire reading a book during a storm] *sigh* I am so sad Lenore is dead. I miss her so much. But I also wish I could stop thinking about her.

N: [hears knock at the door, goes to open door] Huh. Nobody there.

N: [thinks he hears footsteps] I hear something

N: [thinks he smells perfume] I smell something.

*Raven flies in, Like a Boss*

N: Wow! A Raven!

Raven: NEVERMORE

N: Dude! You can say “Nevermore”. That’s cool.

N: *sigh* I really, really wish I could stop thinking about Lenore. It hurts so much.

R: NEVERMORE

N: Wait, what? Why would you say that?

R:

N: Will this pain of losing Lenore ever end?

R: NEVERMORE

R: *increasingly desperate* Is she in Heaven? Will I see her again?

R: NEVERMORE

L: GET OUT OF MY HEART AND MY LIFE YOU EVIL BIRD!! I HATE YOU!!!!

R: NEVERMORE

So why did the Narrator act this way?

What makes “The Raven” so scary? Seriously. Strip out all the Romantic elements, and you have some guy reading in his room at night, by firelight, with a thunderstorm outside. He’s reading to distract himself from the recent death of his beloved, Lenore. (Death was kind of Poe’s thing). He hears or thinks he hears a knock on the door. He goes and looks—no one there. Typical horror movie type stuff, right? Then, he hears a sound at the window. He goes to open it, and a bird flies into his room. Not just any bird, mind you. A Raven, black as night. The Raven starts squawking “Nevermore!” all over the place. This is the basic setup for what happens next in the plot.

At first, the narrator thinks this is really cool. He even thinks that he figured out why and how the Raven says “Nevermore” (a totally logical explanation I will discuss below) So, he smiles at the Raven and they just, for better or worse, kind of start to hang out.

Then, the narrator thinks “the air grew denser” (61) with a sent filling the room. This, for some reason, reminds him of Lenore and he goes off, full of grief and longing:

“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee

Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!

Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore! (63-66)

Of course, the Raven hears this and says, “Nevermore.” Because that is what he says.

The narrator, hearing the Raven say “Nevermore”, kind of freaks out. He basically was just saying aloud that he wants this pain of losing Lenore to end. And the Raven just said, “Nevermore” because that’s all he knows how to say. But the Narrator thinks, for some reason, that the Raven is talking to him and his specific situation. He takes the Raven’s response very, very personally.

The Narrator then asks the Raven if Lenore is in Heaven. The Raven replies, “Nevermore”. Because of course he does. The narrator then asks the Raven to tell him, absolutely, once and for all, if he will ever be free of the pain of losing Lenore. Please, oh please TELL ME!!??

The Raven says, “Nevermore”. Because, again, that’s what the Raven says.

Then the narrator really loses it. He starts screaming at the Raven to get off his bust of Pallas, away from his door and out of his life. He starts calling the Raven “a fiend” (79) and accuses the Raven of stabbing him in the heart with his beak. The Raven just sits there, on the bust of Pallas, and, that’s the end.

Ok, so that’s what happens. But before we think that the Narrator is flat out crazypants, Poe shows us that the Narrator is capable of rational thought. Look at what the Narrator says about the Raven and his word, “Nevermore” at the beginning of the poem:

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,

“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,

Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster

Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—

Till the Dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore

Of ‘Never-nevermore” (61-66)

The narrator here is making a perfectly logical assumption that the Raven learned “Nevermore” from his former owner, a person with such bad luck he must have said it all the time. The Raven started copying the word, without a single clue as to what it really means. This makes total sense.

But then the Narrator thinks he hears footsteps. He thinks he smells scents. His imagination heightened by grief starts to work on him. He moans aloud about never seeing Lenore again. And the Raven just says “Nevermore”.

But then, look at how the Narrator reacts. He then asks the Raven, basically, “Is Lenore in Heaven?” “Am I ever going to see Lenore again?” He asks these questions KNOWING the Raven is going to say “Nevermore”. He knows the answer will be No. Think about it.

He asks these incredibly painful questions to a “non-reasoning creature” (Poe’s words),(Poe) knowing in his mind that the creature is going to say “Nevermore” because that is all he can say. He has already established this. It is set.

So, knowing in his rational mind that the Raven can only say “Nevermore”, telling himself that the bird has no idea what “Nevermore” actually means…….why does he ask such awful, painful things, only to have that pain confirmed and thrown back in his face?

Poe wrote an essay about “The Raven”, “The Philosophy of Composition”. In it, Poe explains, with exact mathematical precision, exactly why he wrote “The Raven” the way that he did and what he was trying to do with it. Here, he discusses the impact he was trying to achieve, or the point he was trying to make:

“………[the Narrator]—is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character—queries whose solution he has passionately at heart—propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair that delights in self-torture—propounds them not altogether because he believes in a prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which, reason assures him, is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote) but because he experiences a phrenzied pleasure in so modeling his questions as to receive from the expected “Nevermore” the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrow.” (Poe, bolding mine)

That’s right. Poe was out to make you cry.

The narrator asks really painful questions that he already knows the answer to. He knows the Raven is going to say “Nevermore”. But the narrator asks anyway. This is the basic equivalent of hitting oneself in the face repeatedly. Why? Why does this happen? Why does the Narrator torture himself like this?

According to Poe, it is because people like to torture themselves.

And it is true to some extent, isn’t it?

We all have asked questions of some authority figure when we already know the answer is going to be “No”. But we still do it. All the time.

Think about an instance in your own life, when you’ve asked something of someone and the whole time you knew the answer was going to be a hard No. But you ask anyway. How did you feel when you got that “No” answer?

Poe’s meaning in “The Raven” is that the scariest thing isn’t thunderstorms, or reading alone by firelight, or even a black bird flying into your room and speaking English. It isn’t imagined knocks on the door, or even perceived “footfalls” and strange smells.

To Poe, all that is just the setup.

The scariest thing about “the Raven” is the Narrator. It is the reality of human behavior. The scariest thing about the Raven is that it’s a mirror. That Narrator is us.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Raven By Edgar Allan Poe | Poetry Foundation". Poetry Foundation, 1845, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48860/the-raven. Accessed 21 Feb 2020.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "Edgar Allan Poe Society Of Baltimore - Works - Tales - The Philosophy Of Composition [Text-02]". Eapoe.Org, 2020, https://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/philcomp.htm. Accessed 21 Feb 2020.