‘The Man of the Crowd’ is one of the shorter short stories written by Edgar Allan Poe (who pioneered the short story form when it was still an emerging force in nineteenth-century magazines and periodicals). Written in 1840, the story is deliciously enigmatic and, in some ways, prefigures later fiction, including modernism. You can read ‘The Man of the Crowd’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘The Man of the Crowd’: summary
In summary, ‘The Man of the Crowd’ is narrated by a man who is recovering from a recent illness. As he sits in a café in London, he tells us that he is full of enthusiasm for life and takes an interest in everything. The epigraph to the story, from the French writer Jean de la Bruyère (1645-96) translates as: ‘That great misfortune, not to be able to be alone.’ The relationship between the title of a Poe story and the epigraph he uses isn’t always readily apparent, but in ‘The Man of the Crowd’ there is a clearly ascertainable link: the narrator is ‘the man of the crowd’, who is alone and yet never alone, a nameless face in the crowd.
The unnamed narrator begins by talking about dark secrets and mysteries which are better off unrevealed. He then starts to observe the people around him as he sits in that café, and performs Sherlock-Holmes-esque deductions about their jobs and their social class (before Sherlock Holmes was invented – Poe got there first, and even helped to inspire the character). As evening turns to night, the narrator notices an old man who is carrying a dagger under his clothes.
Intrigued, he follows the old man through the streets and into various shops, until they end up in the poorest part of the city. The old man stops outside the gin palace, but the manager tells him the shop is closing, so the old man turns round and heads back into the centre of the city. Dawn comes up, and the narrator becomes too tired to continue to follow the dogged old man. The story concludes with the narrator standing in front of the old man to try to confront him, only to be blanked by the old man. The narrator concludes that this old man is ‘the man of the crowd’, a criminal genius, who is never alone:
‘This old man,’ I said at length, ‘is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds.’
‘The Man of the Crowd’: analysis
‘The Man of the Crowd’ is slightly usual among Poe’s stories in that it falls somewhat short of Poe’s most tightly plotted stories – very little, in fact, happens – yet it is clearly a story rather than one of Poe’s discursive pieces. Much as in a number of Poe’s other more celebrated stories, such as ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, however, we get a carefully managed build-up of mood and suspense. The narrator begins in high, energetic spirits, happily people-watching; he ends the story by being wracked with exhaustion and unable to read the old man in the way that he had ‘read’ the earlier individuals he had observed.
How should we interpret ‘The Man of the Crowd’? Analysing the story in light of Poe’s broader output – and especially, in terms of those tales of conscience mentioned in the previous paragraph – can point the way, as can knowledge of other Poe stories such as ‘William Wilson’.
In that tale, the narrator is dogged and haunted by his double – another man, also named ‘William Wilson’, who appears to represent the narrator’s conscience, since this doppelganger appears to the narrator at the moments in his life when he is acting immorally and committing some grave sin or crime.
In this connection, then, we might view ‘The Man of the Crowd’ as a variation on the same theme. It’s perhaps telling that ‘William Wilson’ had been published in 1839, just a year before Poe wrote ‘The Man of the Crowd’. Is the latter story Poe’s attempt to explore the same theme – that of a ‘double’, one who is both the narrator and not the narrator, from a different angle? Is the old man an older version of the story’s narrator?
In his excellent study of the subject, The Uncanny, Nicholas Royle analyses the double as a classic example of the uncanny: something that is a curious and unsettling mixture of the familiar (this person is like me) and unfamiliar (this person, though like me, is not me). Although it would perhaps be reductive to analyse ‘The Man of the Crowd’ as merely a ‘double’ story, this interpretation makes sense when we view the story in the context of Poe’s other tales. Poe’s repeated use of the word ‘stranger’ suggests he is at pains to highlight the difference between the two men, and yet the narrator is mysteriously drawn to him.
However, Poe’s text does not make any attempt to drop hints that the narrator and the old stranger are one and the same, and the nature of the ‘crime’ mentioned at the end of the story remains unexplained.
Finally, we might seize upon that title. Although the narrator identifies the old man as ‘the man of the crowd’, the epithet could just as easily be attached to the story’s narrator, who weaves in and out of the London populace as he pursues the stranger. Perhaps, in the last analysis, this is a tale about urban alienation and loneliness: the double-bind of living in a crowded city like London is that you are never alone and yet, because you are just one anonymous ‘stranger’ among the masses, doomed always to be alone.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.