Ravens are commonly viewed as symbols for evil, death, and supernatural forces. The narrator comes to see the Raven, which visits when the narrator is in deepest mourning over the death of his beloved Lenore, in exactly these terms: as a kind of supernatural emissary that has come to crush his hopes of ever being reunited with Lenore in heaven. The narrator sees the Raven not just as symbolizing death, but as symbolizing a specific kind of death: a death without heaven, a death that is simply the end.
All of that said, what the Raven symbolizes in the poem is not exactly the same as what it symbolizes to the narrator. First, a reading of the poem in which the narrator actually falls asleep and then dreams the rest of the events shifts the meaning of the Raven from a supernatural messenger about death to an embodiment of the grief-stricken narrator’s own doubts and fears about what happens after death. Further, regardless of whether the narrator is awake or asleep, it is possible to interpret the Raven as symbolizing not a meaningless death but rather irrationality and unknowability. After all, the Raven never actually says anything other than “nevermore,” and it never says that word except in response to a question from the narrator. The Raven’s “nevermore” never quite makes actual sense, but the narrator interprets it to be a message of death without an afterlife. In this view, the Raven symbolizes the unknowable mystery that the narrator (and human beings more generally) frantically try to use their reason to understand because the unknowable (like what happens after death) is scary. But reason fails, just as the narrator does, in figuring out the unknowable. The Raven perching forevermore on the bust of Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom and reason, indicates the triumph of the irrational and unknowable over any rational attempt to figure it out.
The Raven Quotes in The Raven
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store”…
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy…
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door…
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!