The speaker goes from isolated and miserable to avoidance to confronting the raven, and then being entertained by him.
Throughout the poem, the speaker seems to pass through some of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
When the poem begins, the speaker comments that it is late on a dismal night, and he is weak and tired.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping … (stanza 1)
The speaker is miserable with grief because he has lost his love, Lenore. He is studying not because he wants to, but because he is trying to distract himself from his sorrow.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore – (stanza 2)
He is deep in the denial stage. He knows that Lenore is dead, but he is trying to distract himself. The knocking on the door is like a reminder. When he can’t take it anymore, he stops denying the bird and responds in a combination out of anger and bargaining.
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
`Sir,' said I, `or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping (stanza 4)
The speaker is frustrated and possibly angry that the knocking will not stop. He tries to tell the visitor that he didn’t hear him, and asks for forgiveness for not answering sooner. The bargaining comes up empty though. When he opens the door, no one is there.
The tapping continues, and the speaker can’t handle it any more. He opens the door again, and this time he sees the bird. He is so surprised that he actually smiles.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
`Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven. (stanza 8)
Unfortunately, that is not the end of it. The speaker has to confront the fact that Lenore is dead. He lashes out in anger, not really at the bird but at his grief.
`Wretch,' I cried, `thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!' (stanza 14)
The speaker has decided that the bird is a thing of evil. He does not want to face his grief. He is being tortured by the bird. The poor speaker sinks back into depression, only this time it is even deeper.
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore! (stanza 18)
Throughout the course of his experience with the bird, the speaker has progressed from denial to anger, and has now reached a deep depression. He does not achieve acceptance in the typical way. Instead, he seems to accept his continued depression.
The poem’s meaning has long been debated by many scholars, but one thing is clear. The speaker undergoes a series of self-tortures as a result of his struggle with his grief. In the end, he has either conquered nor accepted it.