The Raven

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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.
Rationality and Irrationality  Theme Icon

In an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which Poe explained his writing of “The Raven,” he describes the narrator as a scholar, a learned person devoted to rational investigation. It is therefore natural for the speaker to attempt to escape his obsessive memories of his wife by reading “ancient lore,” and when he senses Lenore’s presence he comforts himself with the words “Nothing more” to assure himself that a ghost has not actually paid him a visit. Even after he meets the Raven, he supposes that its first replies of “Nevermore” are only “stock and store,” that the bird is only parroting a phrase it has heard before from a previous unhappy owner.

Put another way, the speaker attempts to respond to and understand the Raven (and the world) in a rational manner. But the poem shows how the speaker’s rationality can’t cope with the profound irrationality of the Raven and its responses, and even shows how the speaker’s despair at the death of Lenore, and his desperate attempts to understand the Raven rationally, leads him to a frantic irrationality of his own. Although the Raven exerts no tangible power over the speaker, and in fact seems not even to notice the narrator’s pained reactions to its constant message, the narrator nevertheless sees the bird as an ill omen of tragedy that means him harm. The speaker’s obsession with his beloved’s death is such that he immediately associates the bird’s arrival with his memories of Lenore, in his despair making this connection without concrete evidence.

Further, it’s important to note that the Raven is gifted with speech, not conversation: no matter what the speaker says, whether to himself or directly to the bird, the Raven responds, mechanically, with “Nevermore.” The Raven never addresses the subject of Lenore directly; it is the narrator who chooses to interpret its remarks in the context of his lost love. Considering that Poe envisioned the narrator as a scholar, it is possible to understand the narrator’s reading of the Raven’s remarks as similar to how he might approach his books in that he performs a sort of literary analysis of the Raven and its comments, viewing them as the denial of all his desires and hopes. The narrator, whose despair over death leads him to need to understand whether he might ever again hope to see Lenore, interprets that the Raven is responding to him and is bringing him a message, but it is not at all clear that is the case. He attempts, over and over, to rationally make sense of a response that makes no sense – and, as the cliché goes, continuing to do the same thing with the hope of a different result is the definition of insanity.

Through the poem, the Raven perches above a bust, or statue, of Pallas — a reference to Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. This placement of the “nevermore”-spouting bird on top of the goddess of wisdom, suggests the victory of the irrational over the narrator’s ability to think clearly and rationally. At the conclusion of the poem, the narrator describes seeing the Raven still sitting upon the bust of Pallas, “never flitting.” The image places irrationality above rationality, forever. One can therefore read “the Raven” as suggesting that the bird makes its eternal nest solely in the narrator’s frantic mind. His irrational tendencies in the face of his lost Lenore, bordering on madness, make his rational approach moot, suggesting that the aftermath of an event as traumatizing as the death of one’s beloved cannot be overcome with measured, sensible thinking.

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Rationality and Irrationality ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Raven related to the theme of Rationality and Irrationality .
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.”

Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), The Raven
Related Symbols: “Night’s Plutonian shore”
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator is amused upon first encountering the Raven, and speaks to it candidly before he realizes it has the ability to respond. He treats it like a distinguished guest, and asks it for its name on the “Night’s Plutonian shore” — Plutonian refers to Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld —jokingly accusing the bird of having emerged from hell or the world of the dead. Amusement fuels this question, but the narrator’s subsequent interactions with the Raven stem from anxiety and desperation. By the close of the poem, the narrator shouts at the bird to return to the “Night’s Plutonian shore,” having realized that his nightmarish jest has actually come to pass.

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

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), The Raven
Related Symbols: The Raven
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

While interacting with the Raven for the first time, the narrator does a fair bit of muttering to himself as though the bird cannot hear. When, to his surprise, he hears the bird replying “Nevermore” to his side comments, he tries to interpret the anomaly with reason. Here, he presumes that “Nevermore” is something the bird might have picked up from an especially pessimistic former master, and not, as he comes to assume later, a fatalistic pronouncement signaling the end of his hopes and dreams to be reunited with his dearest Lenore. This exchange is the last of the narrator’s efforts to exercise reason in his dealings with the bird; in all subsequent interactions, he perceives the bird’s comments as legitimate responses to his frantic questions, rather than stray, accidental utterances picked up from previous travels.

Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy…

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

The narrator sits down in a velvet chair and resolves to study the bird and explain to himself its mysterious ability to speak, and the meaning of its repeated word. The etymology of “fancy” is linked to the word “fantasy,” and means both “a mental image” and “to believe without being absolutely sure or certain,” to fantasize. Poe’s use of “fancy” helps to blur the line between what is reality and what is the product of the narrator’s imagination, implying that what the narrator is seeing in the Raven might be entirely a result of his subconscious playing tricks on him while he grieves for Lenore.

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.

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.