"The Raven" By Edgar Allen Poe
The setting of any novel, story or poem is a very complex component, which plays a great role in the communicating the main idea of the work to the audience. Nevertheless, the given function of the setting is often underestimated. Readers tend to focus on the behavior of the main characters or the nature of the conflict, but very often ignore the significance of the place where the events described by the author occur. It is a false strategy of interpretation as the setting is in most cases crucial for understanding many key elements of the literary work. One of the most prolific and celebrated American authors, Edgar Allen Poe, was especially skillful in creating parallels between the descriptions of places and the emotional state of the characters. The setting in Poe’s The Raven helps the author construct the mysterious and nebulous atmosphere of the poem that is perfectly combined with significant psychological problems of the protagonist.
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The setting in The Raven is defined primarily by two main qualities, namely the light and symbolism of the objects. Very often in his poem, Poe highlights that the events he describes occur on a very dark day in a room that is not sufficiently lightened by candles. He draws the readers’ attention that even the remains of the light that were in the room were gradually going away. Poe writes, “Each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor” (Poe, n.d.). The light in this poem is a powerful metaphor to the human consciousness and the protagonist’s ability to make logical conclusions. The man in the poem feels so much pain from the death of his beloved Lenore that he is gradually losing any ability to properly evaluate and define the things that occur around him. Poe intensifies this idea with constant focus on the insufficiency of the light in the room. Moreover, it allows the author to avoid the univocal answer to the question about the reality of the bird and all other things that the protagonist sees. Due to the darkness of the room and the outside space it could be both reality and the man’s aching imagination. Hayes (2009) argues that in this poem “the conscious choice of an emotional atmosphere… takes primacy over incident, character and versification” (p. 19). Therefore, the emotional implications of the setting are likely to play even more important role than the actual plot.
Another characteristic feature of the setting in this poem is its blurriness. The Raven’s setting is blurred not only by the darkness and corresponding weather conditions, but also by the great emotional pain of the protagonist. The story told by Poe is neither a detailed account of what occurred with the protagonist and his beloved Lenore, nor a text where the author describes all tiny details of the setting. Both the life of the young man from the poem and his house are hidden from the audience by metaphorical and literal fog. The feelings of the protagonist are unclear as he is too weak and suffers from too much pain to understand the true nature of his actions and thoughts. The similar situation is with the setting where the fog and darkness prevent the protagonist from seeing everything clearly. Even the first line of Raven shows how strong the setting is connected to the psychological state of the young man. Poe writes, “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary” (Poe). This line has a strong inner rhyme dreary – weary that even rhythmically hints the reader that the outside (“dreary”) has powerful links with the inside (“weary”). The imagery related to the setting does not make the readers make univocal conclusions. The information about the protagonist’s house is rather scarce, so the reader is free to offer his or her interpretations. Poe allows the mind of the reader to function like a ray of light wondering about the house and taking different objects out of darkness. The imagination of the reader is the only element that counteracts the darkness in the poem, as the protagonist seems to be ready to ponder into the real and psychological darkness of his sorrow. He lets the mist and darkness of the outside enter his house – “here I opened wide the door; - darkness there and nothing more” (Poe). According to Hayes (2009), the protagonist of the poem “seemed, except when some fitful pursuit subjugated his will and engrossed his faculties, always to bear the memory of some controlling sorrow” that was also quite true of Poe himself (p. 211).
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The dark Gothic nature of the setting in Poe’s The Raven helps the poet convey the gloomy, melancholic, and depressed moods of the protagonist. The events of the poem occur in “the bleak December” and the author constantly mentions how dark that night was (Poe, N.d.). The place where the character sits is not called a room, but a “chamber” that, along with the frightening darkness, perfectly corresponds to the atmosphere of classical Gothic novels. The focus of this type of setting allows the poet to match significant psychological problems and tensions of the protagonist with the “spirit” of the place where he is portrayed. Despite the fact that Poe does not give many details about the interior of the room, the readers are likely to add “cluttered, book-strewn parlor, the disheveled slightly crazed looking character and the voluminous, wind-blown curtains” (Hayes, 2009, p. 213). The given elements of the setting correspond to the unstable state of the protagonist’s psyche (Meyers, 2000). He experienced a great loss, Lenore, who was a woman he loved with all his heart and he still cannot return to the normal life. The darkness, frightening sounds from the outside, and other elements of traditional Gothic setting are aimed at intensifying this aspect of the poem.
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The tone and the usage of symbols in The Raven make a significant contribution to the construction of the links between the setting and the feeling of the protagonist. One of the strongest symbols in the poem is the purple color that is usually associated with some mysteries or magic. For many centuries, this color had a powerful supernatural aura in the Western culture. Poe mentions different hues of purple in The Raven several times. He writes, “The silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before” (Poe). In this line, the poet clearly highlights the connection between the elements of the setting and the emotions of the speaker. Moreover, the impact of the setting is obviously significant. Later, the poet introduces the cushion’s “velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er” that was made by Lenore (Poe). In this manner, the purple/violet color of the interior is used to connect the reality and the memories of the protagonist. The tone used to describe the house of the young man has similar functions. When the narrator mentions the “pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door”, the epithet “pallid” that is usually associated with the dead, clearly explains his attitude towards the setting (Poe). The psychological problems make the protagonist see the allusions to death in every object that he faces. It also gives additional symbolism to the setting elements via the perspective of the narrator. Moreover, as it has already been mentioned, each element of the setting in the poem is highly symbolic and the “bust of Pallas” is no exception. Pallas is one of the epithets of a Green goddess Athena who was considered a symbol of wisdom and justice. However, the raven comes and sits on the head of the goddess of wisdom metaphorically conquering her. The similar situation is seen in the mind of the protagonist. His wisdom and logic approach to the reality is overshadowed by the darkness of pain and psychological disorder.
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In addition to all above-mentioned aspects of the setting, Poe also pays much attention to the sounding support of his descriptions. Such phonetic devices as alliteration and assonance play a great role in this text. They are supposed to intensify the impression created by the direct mentioning of certain objects, weather conditions, light, etc. For instance, the phrase “silken, sad, uncertain rustling” imitates the sounds that a heavy silk curtain makes when touched. Moreover, by using close words “napping, tapping, rapping” Poe tries to imitate the sound of the knocking made by the bird. Such approach allows the poet to create the setting not only by naming the objects, but also by forming a vague, but effective sounding “atmosphere” of the environment.
To conclude, the setting in The Raven is a crucial component that is used by the poet to create strong connections between the material environment of the protagonist and his psychological and emotional state. Poe introduces some elements of the dark Gothic atmosphere to enhance such links and strengthen the feelings of vagueness and uncertainty that prevail in the poem. Special role is also played by the symbolic nature of some interior elements and the general tone of the poem. Moreover, Poe uses a number of phonetic devices to support his descriptions of the place where the protagonist is located.