Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man in the Crowd” is the combination of the writer’s traditional approach to creating short stories in the Gothic tale genre and an innovative element of a detective story. The story comprises several interesting themes, some of which the author prefers not to reveal entirely but leaves them for the audience to judge. The structure of the tale, its manner of narration, and the minimal number of main characters are only some of the features that make “The Man in the Crowd” one of the most memorable short stories written by Poe.
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The first thing about the tale that draws the attention of a reader is its literary canon. It is a typical representation of Poe’s works: there is a place for darkness, pessimism, and even some fear: people “die nightly in their beds,” the “hideousness of mysteries” forbids their being told, and some burdens are so great that they can only “be thrown down… into the grave” (Poe 84). Such an introduction to the tale makes the audience recollect other stories such as “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and other popular stories written by the author.
However, while these tales keep the readers in horror throughout the whole process of reading, “The Man in the Crowd” deviates from its sinister introduction and later turns into something close to a detective story. The narrator pays close attention to people in the street, he thoroughly describes the tiniest details of their appearance and garments, and he later decides to follow one of the people he sees through a café window because he is dying of curiosity. Such a combination of a detective story and a Gothic tale makes it possible to consider “The Man of the Crowd” as a story not entirely corresponding to the author’s literary canon. However, some of the elements of the genre favored by Poe are present in the tale.
The style and representation of the story are rather peculiar. It is not unusual that the story is being told in the first person singular and that much of it is spent on the narrator’s account of some event. However, in this story, all narration is one single monologue of the man whose name Poe does not reveal. The tale begins with the narrator’s analysis of the world’s mysteries and people’s tendency to conceal their most terrible secrets, some of which “do not permit themselves to be told” (Poe 84). Further, the narrator provides a lengthy description and classification of the people he is observing through the window. At first, he thinks of people “in their aggregate relations” (Poe 85).
Then, he moves down to looking more attentively and regards “with minute interest the innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait, visage, and expression of countenance” (Poe 85). Throughout the whole process of contemplating and analyzing, the narrator does not speak to anyone and does not express a willingness to share any of his observations. Later, the narrator becomes particularly interested in one man and decides to follow him and find out what he is up to (Poe 88). And again, the decision to follow this “decrepit old man” of the age of “some sixty-five or seventy years of age” is shared with no one but the reader (Poe 88). Such a representation is quite unusual even for Poe, who frequently eliminates the number of characters to a few people. Thus, such a style draws the attention of the readers and gives the tale a peculiar sense of mystery and subtlety.
An important role in the story belongs to darkness. The events are taking place at night, which makes the city look depressing and gloomy. People have “knit brows” and do not even get distracted when someone from the crowd pushes them involuntary (Poe 85). They depict many different categories of citizens, and the representatives of each of them look serious and apathetic. Businessmen do not think of anything else than “making their way through the press,” and they show “no symptom of impatience” (Poe 85). Other people also do not stop when somebody jostles them – they just put “an absent and overdone smile upon the lips” and keep going (Poe 85).
The narrator continues to describe “darker and deeper” themes he observes: the humble “Jew pedlars,” the desperate beggars, the “feeble and ghastly invalids,” and the modest girls and women returning home from work (Poe 86). When the narrator decides to follow the old man, it is already “fully night-fall,” and the scene of gloominess is completed by the fog hanging above the city (Poe 88). Throughout the story, the leitmotif of darkness as representing despair of isolation may be traced. Darkness serves as the embodiment of people’s negative thoughts and actions, and it is frequently mentioned in the story that dimness is an inseparable element of living in a big city. Even when the lights are lit in the streets, they cannot save people from the feeling of being depressed and lonely, even though they are among thousands of other citizens.
The main theme of the story is that of isolation. The narrator does not communicate with anyone directly, but his observations of the people show how easy it is for a person to be surrounded by a huge number of people and, at the same time, feel lonely and detached from the others. The people whom the narrator observes are “as if feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around” (Poe 85). This paradox is another leitmotif of Poe’s tale. No matter how many people surround an individual, he or she may still feel lonely and unwanted. In fact, the narrator makes it apparent that the more people there are around, the more isolated one may feel. Another side of the isolation theme is that of individuality that is inevitably lost. While the narrator is pursuing the old man, he hides in the crowd, which leads to his being absorbed by the city and losing his identity. When a person wants to conceal his face, it leads to losing some originality at the same time.
Finally, there is the theme of mystery and desire to solve it. Constant craving for finding answers to questions makes the narrator follow the old man to a variety of places that arouse all kinds of feelings: awe, disgust, curiosity, fear, and others. Each time the old man makes a turn, the narrator thinks he is closer to opening his secret. Each time the man continues his way without noticing that he is being followed, the narrator feels the pleasure of a true detective whose disguise and manners allow him to remain unnoticed. Every time the old man stops, the narrator holds his breath as if he is about to witness the revelation of the greatest mystery of mankind.
However, in the end, it becomes clear that the narrators’ skills of a detective are not the ones to be praised. It is not the follower’s cautiousness that makes the pursue possible for such a long time. It is the old man’s state of being distracted from everything and everyone that makes him unaware of the pursuer. In fact, the narrator becomes disappointed at the end of his journey as he realizes that it is all was in vain. The old man is considered by him as “the type and the genius of serious crime” who “refuses to be alone” and who will never reveal his secrets (Poe 91). He is “the man of the crowd” – he feels comfortable when surrounded by others, and he does not feel the need for individuality or originality (Poe 91). As the narrator remarks, it is a good thing that not all deeds of humans can be known (Poe 91).
Poe’s tale “The Man in the Crowd” discusses some of the acutest problems of modern society. The representation of the story includes both classic elements pertaining to Po’s style and innovative aspects. The themes of isolation, depression, and individuality are depicted under different angles, and the readers have to decide for themselves which of the views they find the most relevant. Everyone has a choice between being an individuality expressing emotions freely or merely a man in the crowd trying to hide feelings behind a polite yet indifferent smile.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Man of the Crowd.” Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Tales, edited by David Van Leer. Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 84-91.