The Raven

Poe's Personification of Ornithophobia

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Published in 1845, "The Raven" made Edgar Allan Poe a household name. It is said that listening to Poe recite the poem was an evening that one would never forget. Along with "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat," "The Raven" remains one of Poe's most notable works. Today it is often recited at Halloween events and theater festivals, and is analyzed in many high school English classes.

The Plot

The poem opens with the unseen narrator alone in his apartment, poring over old books for a message of comfort. Tormented by memories of his deceased love, Lenore, the narrator dozes uncomfortably over the books but is unable to sleep.

The narrator is startled by a tapping sound, which he assumes comes from the front door. Despite intense fear, he assures himself that the sound must be a late visitor. He steels himself and throws open the door, only to discover that nothing is there.

Hearing the sound again, the narrator realizes that it comes from his window. Terrified but determined to find the source of the noise, he flings the shutters open. A raven is perched on the windowsill. Before the narrator can react, the bird flies into the apartment. It settles itself on a bust of Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom, mounted above the door.

Amused by the raven's serious expression, the narrator relaxes and asks its name.

The bird replies simply, "Nevermore." The narrator is surprised that the bird can talk, and wonders if "Nevermore" could actually be its name. Calling the raven a friend, the narrator whispers that all his friends have departed, taking his hopes with them, and the raven will soon leave as well. The bird responds, "Nevermore."

The narrator settles into a chair to ponder his mysterious visitor, but his thoughts soon return to his lost Lenore. He imagines that angels are surrounding him, and beseeches the raven to tell him whether he will reunite with Lenore in heaven. The raven remains serene and unmoving, answering all questions with the word, "Nevermore." The narrator becomes enraged and insists that the raven leave his home at once. But the bird refuses, simply saying, "Nevermore."

The last stanza of the poem is written in present tense. The narrator has accepted the raven's presence, though he notes that his soul is trapped in the raven's shadow. He believes that there is no longer any hope for redemption.

Analysis

"The Raven" has been analyzed by experts and students since its initial release. Early in the poem, the narrator tries to convince himself, and thus the reader, that "Nevermore" is the only word the raven learned from its previous owner. By that interpretation, the narrator is simply projecting his own fears and distress onto an innocent animal that does not understand his pleas.

In this version, the angels that enter the room are simply further projections of the narrator's own madness.

But why did Poe choose to use a raven as opposed to a different species of bird? Throughout history, ravens have been associated with myth, mystery and evil. Was Poe highlighting the reader's own biases and assumptions while showing us those of the narrator?

Other interpretations cast the raven as an inherently evil sentient being, fully aware of its effects on the narrator. In this version, the raven sets out to deliberately drive the narrator mad. But why? What is the raven's motivation for this behavior? And what of the angels that the narrator seems to sense? Why do they choose not to intervene?

"The Raven" and Phobias

Regardless of which interpretation you choose, "The Raven" draws masterfully on a variety of fears and phobias. Ornithophobia, or fear of birds, is surprisingly common. More than a century after "The Raven," horror film director Alfred Hitchcock released The Birds, widely regarded as one of his most masterful works. Numerous myths and urban legends revolve around birds in general, and ravens in particular. Many of the myths involve the bird entering a home, making the poem even more frightening.

The poem taps into other fears as well. The narrator is alone and seemingly abandoned. The fear of abandonment is another universal theme. He pines for his lost love, Lenore, taken from him by death. While the fear of death often revolves around our own death, many people also fear the death of loved ones. The fear of madness is tapped as the narrator spirals further and further into his own head. Finally, the narrator gives up, resigning himself to living in the raven's shadow. The fear of the loss of control is, perhaps, the most fundamental fear of all.

In today's world, "The Raven" is not likely to cause a new phobia to develop. Yet Poe's dramatic and vivid use of language makes the poem unsettling even to those who have no specific fears. It is possible that "The Raven" could trigger a reaction in those who suffer from the phobias the poem is designed to evoke.

Source:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

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