Jonathan Ball: Misreading Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”

Whenever I teach “The Raven,” a number of students assume a particular misreading: that the narrator has murdered Lenore, and that the raven of the poem symbolizes his guilty conscience. I’m always shocked by how naturally this misreading comes. Students seem to realize it’s not sustainable as a “reasonable” interpretation, but prefer it to more “valid” interpretations anyway. There’s a way that misreading is something they desire. Personally, I don’t find it an interesting misreading. However, its attractiveness suggests a more complicated, more reasonable interpretation, which we can combine with another common and more interesting student misreading, and then use these as the basis for a further misreading.

When I teach the poem I ask, as I always ask, that students focus on the parts that don’t make sense. In Poe’s poem, what makes the least sense is the questions the speaker asks. He first establishes that the raven always says “Nevermore” (a version of “no”), regardless of what it is asked. Then he asks it questions to which he seems to want the raven to answer “yes.” Will he ever forget Lenore and be happy in this life? Will they be reunited after death? Is Lenore happy in heaven, do angels hold her? No. No. Nevermore.

There are two basic explanations: either the speaker’s despair has overwhelmed his good sense, and he isn’t thinking about the questions, just asking them — or the speaker secretly, unconsciously, wants the negative replies. Perhaps he wants to suffer. This is the interpretation that leads us to the idea that he feels guilt, that on some level he wants to suffer, which often moves the reader to the misreading that he has murdered his lover.

Another, darker explanation can develop here to explain his guilt (more “valid” than the murder thesis): the speaker likes suffering. He loves it more than he loved Lenore. He likes her better dead. With her dead, their love is perfect. Throughout, the narrator uses antiquated, mythological terms, referring to nepenthe, Pallas, “the Night’s Plutonian shore,” and so on. He sees himself as a mythic figure. Their love is a mythic love.

And now the raven — which he calls a “prophet” — is here to confirm the truth of their mythic love, to prove that it has drawn the attention and perhaps the jealousy of gods. Only somehow things get out of control. The narrator receives the worst gift ever (from the perspective of any good Freudian): the fulfillment of his precise wish. This reveals the truth of its horror, makes him conscious of his hidden, nightmare self.

The other interpretation that students sometimes give (much more reasonable, although still a misreading) is that the raven might be the spirit of Lenore, returned to torment the speaker. This is not provable, but has a lot in the poem to recommend it. The raven’s answers would be logical: they won’t be reunited in death (they’re reunited now), she isn’t in heaven (she’s here), and so on. When the speaker first opens the door, after he thinks he hears knocking, nothing’s there. But when he hears the knocks, his reaction is to assume it is Lenore (even though she’s dead). This might be a sense-memory, but it’s also ominous — it reads as if he expects her ghost to visit. When he sees that nothing’s there, he says her name. Then he closes the door — and hears more tapping, and finally the visitor enters. The raven steps in through the window.

The structure of the piece, and its tone, both can be misread in this way to suggest that the raven is Lenore’s ghost in new flesh. The problem is this: why would Lenore return? Possibly, the above is true and Lenore is enacting revenge for being loved more in death than in life. The raven, in a fairly standard interpretation, already symbolizes the memory of Lenore, the insistent presence of which causes the speaker to suffer, so this misreading would just add flesh to the symbol. As a result, this second misreading is more interesting than the first (where the narrator is a murderer) but it doesn’t move far enough away from the poem for my taste.

A third, more extreme, misreading seems necessary. Let’s think about the raven. What does it do? It enters the world of the story, where the narrator sits. It makes itself at home, and watches him. It watches him suffer, and does nothing — except it speaks. Its speaking is a way to increase the narrator’s suffering. In other words, it inserts itself into his story only far enough to move it forward, to effectively control it — but no further. Otherwise it watches. It watches and takes pleasure in his pain. It presence distorts reality: now the study is its own private world. In this world, nothing happens except suffering. There is no longer any possible end to the narrator’s suffering, because the narrator cannot leave the study. The narrator cannot leave the raven’s shadow. The narrator cannot leave because the raven does not leave. The raven keeps him there. Its gaze is its shadow. The raven’s eyes hold him, hold the world.

He would rather die than remain, a prisoner in this shadow. But he cannot die. At the poem’s end, the narrator suggests that the raven is immortal. Of course, in a sense it is — it’s a symbol now. Even if it physically left the room some time ago, symbolically it remains. He remains in its gaze. Let’s assume, though, that it’s still physically there. It’s there and it’s immortal.

In a horror story, what’s worse than death is the horror, the monster you would rather die than face, the thing you’d die to escape. You’d die because the monster is the truth, and what’s worse than death is admitting its truth. You don’t fear that the monster will kill you — you fear that its killing you would mean that it is real. What’s worse than death is what its reality means.

What the raven means is that the narrator cannot die. The narrator is immortal now. He’s the myth that he wanted to be. The raven makes him so. Its gaze holds him, in this timeless study, in this suffering.

We are the raven. The reader is the raven. Our reading is how we speak. Our speaking is a way to keep him there. He cannot leave, because we will not leave him. We read the poem again and again and again.

We are the raven, a gaze made flesh. Say it with me. Nevermore.


BALL_lamp_edited-3-300x199Jonathan Ball‘s latest book is John Paizs’s “Crime Wave”, a critical monograph on an important but overlooked cult cinema classic. His previous books are Ex Machina, Clockfire, and The Politics of Knives (winner of a Manitoba Book Award). Visit him online at or @jonathanballcom.

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