The Raven

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Death and the Afterlife Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Death and the Afterlife Theme Icon
Memory and Loss Theme Icon
The Supernatural and the Subconscious Theme Icon
Rationality and Irrationality Theme Icon
Ancient Influences Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Raven, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Death and the Afterlife Theme Icon

As with many other of Poe’s works, “The Raven” explores death. More specifically, this poem explores the effects of death on the living, such as grief, mourning, and memories of the deceased, as well as a question that so often torments those who have lost loved ones to death: whether there is an afterlife in which they will be reunited with the dead.

At the beginning of the poem, the narrator is mourning alone in a dark, cheerless room. He portrays himself as trying to find “surcease of sorrow” by reading his books. One might read this as an effort to distract himself and thereby escape the pain of the death of a loved one. One might also interpret the narrator’s reading of books of “forgotten lore” to indicate that he is looking for arcane knowledge about how to reverse death. In either case, his reaction to the death of a loved one is rather typical: to try to escape the pain of it, or to attempt to deny death.

Before the Raven’s arrival, the narrator hears a knocking at the door of his room, and after finding no one there calls “Lenore?” into the darkness, as if sensing or hoping she has returned to him. Following the Raven’s arrival, he eventually asks the bird if there is “balm in Gilead,” implying a hope that he might see Lenore once more in heaven. In either case, the narrator’s desperate desire to be reunited with Lenore in some way is obvious.

In “Lenore,” another of Poe’s poems featuring a deceased woman named Lenore, the narrator, confronted with the loss of his wife, reassures himself with the prospect that he will see her again in heaven. In “The Raven,” however, the narrator ultimately takes a gloomier view. After the Raven arrives, cutting short the narrator’s sense that Lenore might be visiting as a ghost and answering his hopeful questions about Gilead with only the repeated “Nevermore,” the narrator resigns himself to believing that he will never encounter Lenore again. Poe leaves unclear whether the Raven is telling the narrator the truth or giving voice to the narrator’s own anxieties about having lost Lenore for good. Either way, the poem concludes on the pessimistic note that nothing can exist beyond death, that there is no “balm in Gilead.”

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Death and the Afterlife ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Death and the Afterlife appears in each chapter of The Raven. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Death and the Afterlife Quotes in The Raven

Below you will find the important quotes in The Raven related to the theme of Death and the Afterlife.
The Raven Quotes

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore…

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Lenore
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator is studying “quaint,” “curious” and “forgotten” books in an effort to forget his misery over losing Lenore. Given that the narrator is a man of letters, that he would turn to old books for relief from his emotions might not come as a surprise. But the poem’s supernatural elements leave open the possibility that these books may be more than they seem. Though it’s never mentioned explicitly, the narrator might be searching their pages for some way to circumvent the finality of death and bring his beloved back to life. Despite the learned narrator’s rational bent, losing Lenore may have prompted him to explore magical means for dealing with grief. Either way, his tendency to delve into ancient literature in the face of his grief shows how focused he is on the past, whether in his scholarship or in his memories of his beloved.

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And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Lenore
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

As the narrator stands searching for the cause of the knock on his door, he whispers “Lenore” into the darkness, and receives only an echo back in return. Knowing full well that Lenore has passed away, he nevertheless allows himself to imagine that, should he speak her name, through some miracle he might receive a response. In saying “Lenore” out loud, the narrator continues to erode his earlier commitment to thinking rationally about the knocks at his door. The response he does receive is technically that of his own voice, sent back to him by natural means. Though this brief experiment to check if Lenore is actually there has failed, the brief exchange is not enough to quell his curiosity, as he returns to his chamber with his soul “burning.”

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor…

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Suddenly, the narrator observes that the air has grown heavy, and smells perfume emanating from an invisible source. He describes the presence of seraphim, or angels, whom, he cries out, have been sent by God to help him overcome the burden of his grief. By prefacing this observation with “methought,” Poe emphasizes that the change in the environment is taking place in the narrator’s perceptions, but not necessarily in real life as well; they are, perhaps, a symptom of madness. In this moment, the narrator reaches a state of near-euphoria, having nearly convinced himself that the angels will grant him some relief from misery.

“Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

In Homer’s Odyssey, “nepenthe” is a drug that erases memories. The narrator, citing Homer, evokes the opening scene in which he is poring over “forgotten” lore, potentially in search of some ancient cure for his devastation. While here he desires to simply ingest something and wipe Lenore from his memory, this wish is at odds with his other desire to see Lenore again, whether in some supernatural form on earth or in the afterlife. Ultimately, the narrator can neither forget Lenore nor accept that he and she will never cross paths again.

“Is there—is there balm in Gilead?”

Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

The “balm in Gilead” is a reference to the Bible, in which the prophet Jeremiah asks “Is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jeremiah 8:22), with “Gilead” here (in some interpretations) being a stand-in for heaven. As there seems to be no hope of seeing Lenore again on earth, the narrator, in his desperation, asks the Raven if heaven might allow him to see Lenore once more. Like in the previous stanza, this balm might be in the form of forgetting, but just as probable is that the narrator hopes to see Lenore once more after he himself has entered the afterlife. But to this, too, the Raven says only “Nevermore.” The bird’s response doesn’t make perfect grammatical sense after the narrator’s question, but the narrator is nevertheless unnerved when he hears it again.

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door…

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), The Raven (speaker)
Related Symbols: Pallas, The Raven
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has screamed at the bird to leave, but to no avail: the Raven sits and sits upon the bust of Pallas, continuing to haunt the narrator. In lingering on the bust, the Raven indicates the triumph of dark supernatural forces over those of cool, calm, and collected rationality. As the poem is told as a recollection, the last scene continues until the present day, meaning that the Raven “still is sitting” then, now, and potentially forever. Like the narrator’s memories of Lenore, the Raven refuses to leave the plagued narrator’s mind, causing him misery until the bitter end.

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), The Raven
Related Symbols: The Raven
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

With the Raven and thoughts of Lenore looming over him for time immemorial, the narrator imagines that his soul will never be lifted, that he will never be cheerful, again. The narrator describes his soul as emerging from the shadow of the bird, as though the two entities had been made one by his inability to escape from the bird’s nefarious influence. Tightening the relationship between man and bird is the fact that “Nevermore,” the Raven’s refrain, has now made its way into the narrator’s vocabulary. Having internalized the Raven’s refusal of all his hopes, the narrator now inflicts the word on himself, closing the poem on an appropriately dark and pessimistic note.