It is a cold December evening, and the narrator has been reading, until upon the midnight hour he hears a tapping at his door. The book he has been reading was a reason for his needing to forget about the sorrow that he has been unable to ignore. Because it is the midnight hour, he felt the sudden need to cower when he heard the noises coming from outside his chamber door. It was uncertainty and the fear about who could possibly be so near at such a late night hour that caused him to refrain from looking out the door. Though it caused him inner terror, he soon saw it was but an error and gaining confidence, he soon would realize it must be a visitor.
The narrator is alone at midnight on a bleak December night, and he has been reading quaint and curious forgotten lore. When he suddenly hears a tapping, it naturally frightens him. He is also somewhat unnerved by the rustling of his purple curtains. There is very little light inside his room. Most of it is coming from the dying embers of his fireplace and from "lamp-light" by which he has presumably been reading. What really frightens him is his own imagination. He imagines that it might be a ghost outside, the ghost of his deceased loved one Lenore. When he stands peering into the outer darkness without finding any human being there, he frightens himself still further by "dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before." These dreams, or fantasies, have to do with the possibility that Lenore, though dead, has come back to visit him in answer to his prayers. He whispers the question, "Lenore?" He must be feeling more and more certain that he is being visited by a supernatural spirit. He is eventually relieved to discover that the tapping was only made by a bird which apparently was a tame pet that had somehow gotten free and was seekiing shelter in another human habitation.