Across the River Styx: A Lacanian Literary Analysis of Poe’s “The Raven”
by Shaun Terry
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.” (6)
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore. (12)
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.” (18)
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more. (24)
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more. (30)
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
’Tis the wind and nothing more!” (36)
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more. (42)
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” (48)
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore.” (54)
But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said “Nevermore.” (60)
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never—nevermore’.” (66)
But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore.” (72)
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore! (78)
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” (84)
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” (90)
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” (96)
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.” (102)
The heart of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” is the river Styx. The river Styx is the border between life and death. We can say that Poe evokes the river Styx—and not some other border between life and death—because of Poe’s various references to Greek mythology. The river Styx gets its name from the goddess of hatred (Styx) who was married to Pallas, the Titan of warcraft. Pallas’s bust appears in “The Raven” as the resting place for the poem’s namesake (41, 103). On a more positive note is Poe’s reference to the Greek for light (10-2).
The effectiveness of “The Raven” is partly due to its tensions and apparent contradictions. The narrator goes from being anxious to being amused (47, 67) to being upset (85). Throughout the poem, light emerges from darkness (10-2, 76-7), death is embodied in life (37-48, 89, 93-5), and so on. The narrator at once seeks hope and seeks death (89, 93-5). The narrator demands answers (88-9, 92-5) and immediately rejects those same answers (97-101). Light (10-2, 76-7) and dark (24, 43, 99, 106-7) are prominent concepts in “The Raven,” just as good (11, 80) and evil (85, 91, 105) are, but (at least briefly) there is hope in death (89, 93-5), while prophecy is associated with evil (58-60, 79-96), so normal associations appear subverted.
Confusions that arise from these dichotomous themes in “The Raven” can be explained through the thought of Jacques Lacan. In some ways, Lacan’s thought deals directly with these kinds of tensions and apparent contradictions. For instance, Lacan views the desire to live and a drive toward death as being mutually constitutive of each other. Lacan says that any drive toward any objective is balanced by the drive toward a return to the previous state—toward the death of that instance of that drive.
In “The Raven,” new life enters into the narrator’s home: the Raven (37-42). The narrator asks the “wandering” (46) Raven what its “name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore” (47), to which the Raven replies, “Nevermore.” The Raven “[flutters]” (37), “[steps]” (38), “[perches]” (40), “[wanders]” (46), and talks (48). Surely, this Raven seems to be alive. At the same time, it is not a coincidence that the Raven claims to be named “Nevermore.” In fact, strangely, the narrator predicts the Raven’s association with death when they suggest that the Raven is from “the Night’s Plutonian shore.” Night is associated with darkness, just as death is, and Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld (Hades is the Greek equivalent—this is the only time when Poe makes reference to Roman mythology instead of Greek). Throughout the poem, the Raven speaks, saying “only (55) That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour” (56): “Nevermore.” The Raven’s soul is embodied in the concept of “Nevermore.” For something to be “nevermore,” it must have been and then to have no longer been; it must die, which is the same as returning to the previous state: the non-living.
Lacan’s idea of the death drive is complicated. For Lacan, the death drive first appears in what he calls “the mirror stage.” When, as infants, we become aware of ourselves, we begin to think of ourselves as whole selves or at least as potentially whole selves. This phenomenon can be represented by the infant looking into a mirror and gazing at the infant looking back at them. The infant recognizes the other as somehow themselves and the infant appreciates the completeness of the other. The infant desires to be complete like this other that is the image of the infant, themselves. This desire is based on a kind of illusion. The othered self that appears in the mirror is an image that includes something alienated from the infant. The image appears at the same time complete and different from the infant. The difference between the infant and the infant’s mirror image results in the infant being inclined to pursue the illusory something that completes their other that they see in the mirror. This elusive completive substance is what Lacan calls “objet petit a.”
Before the mirror stage, the child does not feel desire because the child does not feel a sense of lack. They may have needs and they may cry out, but their needs can be provided for and they can be satisfied. However, after the mirror stage, the infant is inclined to try to complete themselves by finding things outside of themselves that can make up for what they lack. Objet petit a appears as that which is lacking that can make someone whole. When we feel desire, there is some invisible thing in the object that leads us to think that the thing will completely satisfy us. Instead, objet petit a is merely an illusion and complete satisfaction never comes. Desires always appear as manifestations of what we learn as the desires of others—desire is not determined by some authentic version of ourselves. Objects that we crave are represented by symbols that we internalize. This is what Lacan calls “the symbolic order.” The symbolic order is everything that can be expressed. All expressions happen through symbolizations. All symbols and all modes of symbolization are inherited through observing others. Symbolization necessarily is not a product of ourselves.
In the same way that the image in the mirror is not exactly ourselves, no desire that we express relates exactly to our contentment. What I mean by this is that the self that we see is not our complete, accurate self. For any of us, the image is the closest possible approximation to our self, but it does not accurately represent us. Similarly, any symbol—that we use to represent anything—necessarily fails to fully capture what it means to represent. If any object external to ourselves could ever completely satisfy us, it could never be expressed through language or through any symbolization. We can never achieve long-term satisfaction through acquiring anything or achieving anything because the idea that there is something that we lack and that we have to find that thing is an idea that is produced by the false image of our complete and independent selves. As we acquire things, those things never have the something that could make up for what we lack because the lack is fabricated through the false understanding of the image in the mirror.
In “The Raven,” the narrator desperately wishes to be reunited with their love, Lenore (“Lenore” comes from Greek for light). The death of Lenore leads the narrator to sense that Lenore is what they lack (10-2, 93-5). As we are on Earth, our reunion with someone dead is an excellent example of objet petit a. Once someone is dead, we cannot be reunited with them (at least not as we remember them). We are destined to be disappointed and to remain unsatisfied so long as we desire such a reunion. In “The Raven,” the narrator thinks about Lenore before the Raven appears, and when the Raven arrives, the narrator demands that the narrator “forget this lost Lenore” (83). Predictably, the Raven responds, “Nevermore” (84). There is no possibility for the narrator to be satisfied by their desire for Lenore, but the narrator persists. The narrator obsesses.
It seems that the narrator cannot help but think about Lenore and to imagine reuniting with Lenore, but before this obsession becomes fully obvious, the narrator demonstrates a different obsession. At first, the narrator is amused by the Raven (43), but the narrator becomes more and more fixated on the fact that the Raven repeats the word “Nevermore” (49-75). When the Raven’s “Nevermore” (84) follows the narrator suggests that they “forget this lost Lenore” (83), the narrator repeatedly asks whether, by dying, the narrator will be reunited with Lenore (85-96).
Lacan relates such extreme destructive behaviors to suicidal narcissism. When we see ourselves in the mirror, we can become intensely attracted to the complete image of our self, like in the Greek myth of Narcissus. When our attraction to the completed image of our self is strong enough, we can become reckless in the pursuit of objet petit a—that which we believe will make us complete. This recklessness can result in self-sabotage in various forms.
In “The Raven,” this suicidal narcissism’s extreme form appears at the end of the poem (97-108). The narrator is so desirous of reunion with Lenore that the narrator demands that the Raven leave and commit its own suicide (97-101). The Raven responds with the only word it speaks (102). In the last stanza, the verb tense changes from the past to the present. What then becomes clear is that everything that has been narrated is a depiction of something past. Now, after however long the Raven has been there, the narrator remains sitting across from the Raven, unable to move (103-8). If, as the narrator suggests, their “soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor (107) Shall be lifted—nevermore!” (108), then the narrator is sure to die under the weight of their obsession.
Again, it is in the very hope for the narrator’s completeness that they are eventually driven to absolute self-destruction. Narcissism, according to Lacan, is about an unhealthy fetishization of the apparent completeness in the self’s image. What I mean is that the narcissist is so convinced of the completeness—and, therefore, so attracted to its beauty—that the narcissist tragically hopes too strongly to embody this image.
As we can see, Lacan’s thought, as in “The Raven,” is characterize by ambivalences. Life carries death with it in the form of the death drive. Every phenomenon that is not stamped out by external forces is sure to eventually end its own existence. The Raven at once embodies transcendent answers and the source of the narrator’s denial. By “transcendent answers,” I mean that the Raven has a direct relationship to entities and information that are not of this world. Lenore is both a light (and a source for hope) in the narrator’s otherwise dark world and the source of the narrator’s frustration and eventual death. For Lacan, this is the nature of desire as embodied in the ever-elusive objet petit a. Objet petit a is the source of one’s ultimate hope for fulfillment as well as a source of our misery.
One might argue that the tension is false, and a shallow look at the evidence might suggest that. Death simply pervades the poem, so the poem is about death in a more simplistic way, the argument might go. Of course, the narrator laments Lenore from very early on (10-2). Symbols for death pervade the text, preceding any thought of the Raven or of the narrator’s explicit mention of suicide. In the second line of the poem, the narrator refers to “forgotten lore.” The death drive is meant to represent both the death of any thing-as-such and the returns of things to previous stages. When the lore is forgotten, conditions return to those of the time before the lore. The mirror stage could be thought of as a clear example of the death drive’s tendency to bring us back to that which precedes. When someone becomes aware of themselves but also fails to conceive of themselves completely, they kill off parts of themselves. This misrecognition is, itself, a kind of death that leads to all the misguided energy that leads to one’s eventual destruction.
Toward the beginning of the poem, the narrator says, “each separate dying ember wrought its ghost” (8), “Eagerly I wished the morrow” (9), and “to still the beating of my heart” (15). Each of these has its relationship to death and the death drive. “To still the beating of [the narrator’s] heart” is to creep toward death: the point at which one’s heart stops beating. Wishing for the morning represents the death of the day and a return to something that precedes. In some sense, it is the symbolization of day and night, and light and dark, that help to reproduce the death drive within this poem. If the narrator did not symbolize day and night as associated with light and dark, or life and death, then the anxiety over what each of them lacks might not be so profound. Finally, the “dying ember” that brings about its ghost appears as a dead thing with a life drive (or “Eros”). For the narrator, death constitutes life just as life constitutes death. In the binaries to which I refer, the one lacks the other in the same way that the narrator lacks what is promised by objet petit a. Death is always with live and vice versa. Lenore is the light in the narrator’s darkness. The Raven emerges from the dark of night (37-42), uncannily appearing in the light, casting its dark shadow that traps the narrator into their death (103-8).
To return to my earlier point, all of this might suggest that this poem simply represents the idea that someone in exceptional circumstances might simply seek an excuse to die. My contention is that the way that the poem presents the motivation to die is not very different from how Lacan describes the death drive. The death drive is the balance to life that appears as a complication. This complication can only be made completely clear at the end of one’s life. There is always a tension between one’s complete, authentic self as life and the inauthenticating acts that are intended to fulfill desires—acts that eventually lead to death. It is this constant bidirectionality that is central to Lacan’s thought and central to “The Raven.”
Indeed, as counterintuitive as it may initially seem, the river Styx is the perfect symbol for “The Raven.” The river Styx is where good crosses with evil and life crosses with death. One can conclude that there is no pure category on the river Styx—only potential. There is always the hypothetical possibility of turning oneself around, of altering one’s fate. Instead, though, as Lacan makes clear, the problem of this existence appears in an illusion on the river Styx of human consciousness. Our consciousness is determined by our social existence, Lacan might tell us, and the boat can appear to be going in opposite directions at once, but we always only end up on the side that someone(s) else has helped to determine for us. We hope for an impossible something that torturously appears to be within our reach but always nudges out, just beyond our grasp.