On a cold night, at midnight, the narrator is sitting by himself, “weak and weary,” reading an old book full of “forgotten lore” and nodding off. When he is suddenly awakened by something knocking at his door, he assures himself that it’s “nothing more” than a visitor.
The cold night, book of “forgotten lore,” and sudden knock establish the gothic mood and at the same time mark the narrator as a scholar. That the narrator drowses off before the knock makes it unclear if he’s awake or dreaming through the rest of the poem, whether what happens is supernatural or subconscious. Note also how he at first explains the knock rationally, using “nothing more” to assure himself the knocking has a rational origin, though the fact that he has to assure himself at all indicates his uncertainty. Both his rationality and doubt are on display.
The narrator then explains that he remembers that all this happened back in December. As the fire slowly dies, each dying ember like a “ghost,” he wishes for the night to pass so that he might escape from his sorrow over Lenore, his dead beloved. To distract himself from thinking about her, he says, he has been reading, but without success.
The framing of the poem as a memory emphasizes how the events of the poem continue to haunt him. Here the poem also introduces the fact that the narrator is grief-stricken over his dead love Lenore, and is trying to escape that grief by reading. The fire, too, is dying. The poem vividly establishes its concerns with death and memory, and casts memory (both of his dead love, and of the raven) not as something desired but as a burden the narrator wishes he could escape, but can’t.
When the curtains rustle, the narrator is suddenly frightened. Once again he tells himself that it’s merely a visitor, and “nothing more.”Finding some measure of courage, he calls out to whoever is knocking at the door of the room, and apologizes that he was taking so long to come to the door because he was napping.
As his fear increases, the narrator again asserts his rationality, using “nothing more” to deny the knocking could be supernatural and then acting “normal” by calling out and apologizing. But all of this effort to assure himself that there are rational answers to the knock show how, lost in grief, his rationality is already under siege. Meanwhile, the mention of napping again raises the possibility, without giving an answer one way or another, that the narrator is actually dreaming all this.
The narrator opens the door, only to find that nobody is there. He stands at the entrance to his room, staring into the darkness, equally hopeful and fearful, “dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.” He whispers “Lenore” into the darkness and hears in response only an echo – Lenore! – and “nothing more.”
Although the narrator began the poem trying to forget Lenore, in a moment of irrational hope he allows himself to wonder ifshe could possibly have returned from the dead. Suddenly it’s clear that narrator, while fearful, also wantsthe supernatural: he can’t escape the memories of his lost love, and desperately wants her to return, even if it’s as a ghost. But now the “nothing more” is turned against him to dash those hopes: earlier he used the phrase to assert rationality, but now that he is hopeful of his lost love’s supernatural return, the real world asserts itself and he is forced to realize the name is just an echo and “nothing more.”
Suddenly, the narrator hears a knocking at his window, and he opens it. The Raven flies in, perching atop a bust of Pallas above the door. At first, the narrator finds the bird’s “grave and stern decorum” amusing, and asks it for its name. To his bemusement, the bird responds “Nevermore.” The narrator remarks to himself that what the Raven says must be “stock and store,” words picked up by copying those from a previous master. But, unable to contain his curiosity, he grabs a velvet chair and sits directly in front of the bird, trying to understand what this “ominous bird of yore” means by “Nevermore.” All the while, heimagines that Lenore might be near.
Pallas Athena is the Greco-Roman goddess of wisdom and learning. The bird’s landing place on the statue thereforeimplies a kind of opposition to such rationality. Note how at first the narrator finds the bird merely amusing, and he quickly develops a rational answer to how the bird learned the word “Nevermore.” But curiosity – the desire to learn more, to venture into the unknown – drives him to want to understand the bird. And his sense of Lenore’s presence implies that his curiosity is driven by a not-all-that rational sense that the bird might be able to give him news of his lost love. Also note how similar the bird’s “nevermore” is to the narrator’s earlier “nothing more,” except that he used “nothing more” to assert rationality, while the bird’s “nevermore” will do exactly the opposite.
The narrator then perceives that the air has become “denser, perfumed from an unseen censer,” and says it must indicate the presence of “Seraphim,” or angels, sent from God to help him recover from his grief over losing Lenore. He wonders if he might be able to “quaff this kind nepenthe” — to forget about her entirely. The Raven, however, answers “Nevermore.”
Earlier the narrator hoped to be reunited with Lenore by supernatural means. Now suddenly he senses another possibility, that he might be saved from his painful memories by supernatural means: the “nepenthe,” a mythological potion of forgetfulness. But whereas earlier the narrator explained the Raven’s words as rote learning from a former master, now in his growing mania, he takes the Ravenseriously and is crushed when it answers his pleas with “Nevermore.”
Growing more anxious, the narrator asks the Raven if there is “balm in Gilead” —if heaven will give him some hope of seeing Lenore again. The bird, as usual, responds “Nevermore.” The narrator asks again if he and Lenore might meet once more “within the distant Aidenn,” or Eden, but again the bird responds “Nevermore” in response. Now furious and heartbroken, the narrator screams at the bird to return to “the Night’s Plutonian shore!” and never return. But the bird does not depart.
The narrator’s relentless questions, despite the fact that the bird always answers the same way, show how the narrator’s rationality has not just failed in helping him understand the bird, but pushed him to despair and near-madness. First, in his fervor to understand the bird’s meaning, he has lost sight of the fact that the bird might not have any meaning at all – that its words might be nonsense. Once he gives that up, his mind slips into a kind of interpretive frenzy, finding meaning in everything, and seeing the Raven’s “nevermore” as denying all his hopes of reuniting with Lenore. He’s fallen down a kind of rabbit hole, in which he tries to figure out the unknowable – the raven, death – and with each failure only tries harder until he erupts in fury and despair.
As the poem ends, the narrator is overcome by despair, while the Raven “never flitting, still is sitting” on the bust of Pallas. The narrator concludes by saying he continues to live in the bird’s inescapable shadow.
The Raven’s refusal to leave parallels the narrator’s memories of Lenore, which likewise never dissipate, suggesting that death and grieving for the dead are inescapable. Further, the Raven sitting, forever, on the bust of Pallas suggests that the narrator’s ability to reason has been permanently diminished and overwhelmed by the unknowable. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether the Raven is a supernatural visitor, a product of the narrator’s dream, or a random bird that learned one word. In each case, it is the narrator’s own doubts in the face of loss, memory, and the unknown that have driven away his rational peace forevermore.