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Who Was Poe’s “Man of the Crowd”?

Updated on August 10, 2018
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E.A.Poe is arguably a crucial link between the romanticism of authors like ETA Hoffmann and the sentimental symbolism of Charles Baudelaire.

In the beginning

E.A. Poe’s story, “The man of the crowd”, starts on a cheerful note. The narrator has just recovered from a serious illness. He is now enjoying spending time outside once more, and at the start of the story he is relaxing in one of the lounges of a luxurious hotel in central London. The room is on the ground floor, and from the large window the narrator can observe the large numbers of people walking by.

He quickly divides the passers-by into neat categories, on account of their apparel and their walking style. Everyone, from the aristocrat, to the impostor, the dandy and the lowly beggar, is carefully identified by the analytical mind of the narrator. Everyone is defined by his clear type. Until someone else walks by. Until the man of the crowd makes his first appearance…

E.A. Poe
E.A. Poe

The narrator has just recovered from a serious illness. He is now enjoying spending time outside once more, and at the start of the story he is relaxing in one of the lounges of a luxurious hotel in central London. The room is on the ground floor, and from the large window the narrator can observe the large numbers of people walking by.

A strange figure

The bizarre figure belongs to a very old man. The narrator immediately suspects him of being up to not good. Soon thereafter he makes the discovery – or did he merely imagine seeing this? he is not certain which of the two is true - that the man of the crowd is hiding, under his coat, both a precious jewel and a frightful dagger. At this point the narrator is resolved to leave the cozy hotel lounge, and follow that dreadful figure, in hopes of learning more about him.

Thus begins the day-long journey in the streets of London, which takes both the narrator and the nameless man of the crowd from one edge of the city to the other, and from the high street to some despicable and downtrodden suburb.


Thus begins the day-long journey in the streets of London, which takes both the narrator and the nameless man of the crowd from one edge of the city to the other, and from the high street to some despicable and downtrodden suburb.

How fast can an old man be?

While the only certain trait of the man of the crowd is his old age, he seems to regularly outpace his suitor. The narrator has at times to stop pursuing him, so that he may replenish his powers a bit. The old man, on the other hand, apparently feels no need to rest, and is singularly focused in always moving forward. He often returns – after a long walk which took him very far away – to the same place; but once there he again starts moving, and can even run after a whole day of being on the streets…

The narrator is, naturally, impressed by the old man’s stamina. And yet he obscurely attributes this to the spirit of malignancy he suspects as being the prime mobilizer of this bleak wanderer's soul.

The narrator has at times to stop pursuing him, so that he may replenish his powers a bit. The old man, on the other hand, apparently feels no need to rest, and is singularly focused in always moving forward.

After an entire day of pursuit…

The narrator becomes tired… He may be a lot younger than the man of the crowd, but he certainly isn’t as able to carry on running around with no end in sight. After an entire day of pursuit, he decides to just let the old man escape his sight. He will never manage to discover just what kind of person this was. He reflects on this failure, mentioning that the old man is much like a certain book, the “Little Garden of the Soul”, which prevents its reader from carrying on reading it. Indeed, the man of the crowd is of a similar type, only larger; “grosser” as Poe puts it. Both the book, and the man, are to remain a mystery, and never allow a full comprehension. And that is the final sentence of the story.

But who was this man? Can we find any clues within the text itself? Can we, the readers, succeed where the narrator had failed?

The little garden of the soul

For the narrator the clue is also there: the old man keeps on walking – and at times running – for an entire day. This can’t be happening… No man of old age would be able to do this.

Let us also recall that the narrator saw – or imagined – at least a part of that old man: he imagined the dagger and the jewel.

Thirdly, this narrator only just recovered from a serious illness. We can assume it was an illness brought by a nervous disposition, and one possibly featuring hallucinations among its list of symptoms.

It shouldn’t seem far-fetched at all, that the man of the crowd was a figment of the narrator’s imagination, and the – very tragic – proof that his illness had not actually been dealt with… Much like the “grosser” version of the book remained unknown (that is, the man of the crowd himself), so did the lesser version of the book, the lesser part of the “little garden of the soul”, which is to say the chasms in the consciousness of the narrator himself also remained largely unknown to him, and enabled the nightmarish introduction of a character from beyond the confinement of the little part of his consciousness he tried to heal...

The Man of the Crowd

The Man of the Crowd: By Edgar Allan Poe - Illustrated
The Man of the Crowd: By Edgar Allan Poe - Illustrated

This short story is a main example of the works by E.A. Poe which primarily focus on self-delusion: The Man of the Crowd, that curious wanderer, may only exist in the narrator's mind.

 

© 2018 Kyriakos Chalkopoulos

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