Edgar Allan Poe’s Man of the Crowd is a narrative about mystery, art, and urbanism that is sprinkled with images of doubleness and descent. By questioning the narrator’s power of imagination, the tale replaces the vision of artistic imagination with a more ironic view of society and humanistic interactions. Poe presents insight on urban relationships by highlighting his distaste for isolation and the loss of individuality that city life fosters. By using symbols like the ‘dagger’ and the ‘diamond’, Poe sends across the critical message to his readers that human life is infested with poverty and crime on all levels. Along with the narrative tone, he uses internal focalization to develop on the sighting of the ‘man’ as a symbol of interaction and stature in the modern world. Poe offers an interpretation that the narrator’s ‘sighting’ and ‘pursuit’ of the old man through the crowd might only be a metaphorical journey through the narrator’s own mind and that the old man is actually an apparition of the demented narrator. By splitting the human psyche into chaser and chased, Poe explores the themes of conflict, curiosity, and loneliness throughout the tale while simultaneously focusing on the narrator’s internal struggles, as he deals with his own curiosity. The ordinary person, the man in the street, is at heart a criminal.
The nameless narrator who has just recovered from an unspecified illness, is sitting at the window of the “D-Coffee House” in a London hotel, reading the newspaper and observing “the promiscuous company in the room”. He describes in brief his illness and that he is now “convalescent” and with “returning strength”. Interestingly, Poe chooses to open with the line “Not long ago, about the closing in autumn, I sat at the large bow window…” and introduce the tale and plot from an anecdotal perspective. By cleverly employing foreshadowing, he subtly sets the atmosphere to that of revisiting previous memories. Although he appears to be in a state of eternal bliss, his sadistic feelings are questionable: “Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive pleasure even from many of the legitimate sources of pain. I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in everything.” Although he feels a calm and inquisitive of his surroundings, his mind appears to be fickle and vary between the two states.
As the narrator mostly describes the city at night, the reader sees almost nothing of the daylight hours. The audience is left with a dark and gloomy image of the city. By providing this sole nighttime depiction of the city through the narrator, Poe automatically creates a depressing outlook on city life that permeates through the story and provides the stage for the entire narration. He uses the city of London to create a connection in the reader’s mind between modern cities and the growth of impersonal crime. Poe has the narrator enumerate the features of the "verge of the city" in more detail than any other part of London. He states that this place "[wears] the worst impress of the most deplorable poverty, and of the most desperate crime". The poverty and crime reveal that people do not care about each other, in that no one helps the poorest of the poor and the criminals have no regard for their fellow city dwellers.
Poe’s observations of passing crowd are at first “abstract and generalizing”, but he cleverly identifies 5 kinds of passersby and relates them to the various stages in human life - the “satisfied” businessmen, “flashy” junior clerks, “staunch” senior clerks, “dashing” pickpockets, and “swarthy” gamblers. He is interested in the minute details of the innumerable varieties of “figure, dress, air, gait, visage, and expression of countenance”. A contradiction lies here: he points out there are "innumerable varieties", yet he does exactly the opposite by ‘evaluating’ the types of people that he sees and placing each person into a specific category. The narrator treats each person within each of his classifications as the same as the whole: though he calls them "individuals", he immediately places them into a larger group. Poe here is trying to convey to the reader that although people believe themselves to be distinct in the city, they have already lost their individuality by being part of the crowd. The narrator uses the setting of the bustling downtown center to highlight the extent of isolationism and urbanism in the city: “When impeded in their progress, these people suddenly ceased muttering; but redoubled their gesticulations, and awaited, with an absent and overdone smile upon their lips, the course of the persons impeding them.” He notes that there is nothing distinctive about their “habiliments” of these “men of leisure” (the “noblemen, merchants, attorneys, tradesmen, stock-jobbers”).
Firstly, he describes the stage of life of the working middle-class man. He comments the businessmen outnumber the rest of the passersby: “By far the greater number of those who went by had a satisfied, business-like demeanor, and seemed to be thinking only of making their way through the press.” Their descriptions of their facial expressions and appearance describe their demeanor and appearance: “Their brows were knit, and their eyes rolled quickly ... evinced no symptom of impatience ... were restless in their movements, had flushed faces, and talked and gesticulated to themselves”. This reminds us of the initial ethical conundrum presented - although these ‘businessmen’ have content outlook in their professional lives, in their personal lives they are impatient, restless, and lack empathy. They remain isolated from each other, in their pursuit to fame and success (“making their way through the press”).The narrator uses the symbol of the businessman to portray the confusion and lack of cohesive sentiment in the current society.
Secondly, Poe describes the “tribe of clerks” of whom the juniors worked in flash houses. These young gentlemen with tight coats, bright boots, well-oiled hair, and supercilious lips set aside a dapperness of carriage. Here he is alluding to the stage of life that humans go through when they are young and flamboyant. He notes that they wear the castoff graces of the gentry which is the best definition of the class. Thirdly, the narrator describes the gamblers whom were “still more easily recognizable”. Their capricious personalities and youth are represented by the attire they choose: “They wore every variety of dress, from that of the desperate thimble-rig bully, with velvet waistcoat, fancy neckerchief, gilt chains, and filagreed buttons”.
Fourthly, Poe describes youth in the form of the “tribe of clerks” in which he discerns “two remarkable divisions.”Firstly, we see young gentlemen attired with “tight coats, bright boots, well-oiled hair, and supercilious lips.” This reminds us of the young, working generation of office-goers and breadwinners. Poe describes them as the “best definition of the class.” Next Poe describes the “steady old fellows” who are known by their “coats and pantaloons of black or brown”.
In telling us about the ‘man of the crowd’, the narrator describes a set of contradictory characteristics: “there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense – of supreme despair”. The man’s dress, too, is contradictory: his linen is “dirty” but “of beautiful texture”, and through a tear in his cloak the narrator glimpses a “diamond and a dagger” - the two symbols of success and crime.
According to Poe, the reason for the narrator's infatuation with the man stems from “the absolute idiosyncrasy of [the man’s] expression”. After all, the narrator was able to categorize all the other people walking down the street, so why can’t he do so for the man? Although it is not immediately or entirely clear why the narrator is so ‘haunted’ by him, Poe presents an interesting possibility: the two men are two sides of the same person. The old man may represent a secret side of the narrator, but the narrator is unable to see this.
The narrator notices that the man never stops wandering around the city, but changes demeanor depending on the atmosphere. The man’s movements change pace depending on his crowd as when walking in a brightly-lit square “his chin falls upon his breast, while his eyes roll … wildly from under his knit brows, in every direction”. Another interesting observation is that as the man enters shop after shop, he “speaks no word, and looks at all objects with a wild and vacant stare”. It is through these actions that Poe represents the actions of criminals. The quick, nervous responses of the man suggest that he is hiding. Poe’s description of the man’s eyes wildly rolling in every direction when under ‘scrutiny’ of the light reinforce our understanding the claim that he is indeed a criminal trying to hide something. Initially, the man walks slowly and carefully, but later he tries to capture every detail, going back to areas he’s already been. And with every singularity, the narrator becomes increasingly infatuated with the man, fascinated by his actions, but unable “to comprehend the waywardness”.
The old man may be wandering through the crowd in search of someone or to escape a crime. His possible evil nature is implied by the dagger that is possibly seen under his cloak - whatever ‘crime’ he has committed condemns him to hopelessly wander the streets of London. Poe purposely presents the story as a sort of mystification, inviting readers to surmise the old man's secret themselves. When Poe argues that “the conscience of man takes up a burden so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave. And thus the essence of all crime is undivulged…”, he uses epiphany as a literary device and leaves the reader with an image of crime as an overpowering, dominating guilt that faces mankind.
Poe employs the technique of doubling within the narrative organization. At a glance, the text can be divided into two main sections, each with a further division. The first ten paragraphs include the exposition in which the narrator generalizes about the ‘mystery’ to be revealed and describes his situation as an observer.
Starting from the fifth paragraph, the narrator presents a long catalogue of the different categories of wanderers in the city streets.
In the eleventh paragraph, the scene changes as night falls and the narrator conjures his vision of the mysterious ‘man of the crowd’ whom he ‘pursues’ for the rest of the tale. At this point, night deepens and brings forth “every species of infamy from its den”. The narrator attempts to read the history in individual faces