Edgar Allen Poe’s The Man of the Crowd- A critical analysis

Who is the man of the crowd in Poe’s tale, what is his critical and narrative function and what wider resonances does Poe’s figure have in relation to other texts you have studied? 

A new aesthetic experience for Victorian novel writers was the city. Literature began to respond to the challenges of life in the 19th Century as industry began to leave the countryside and develop in the city. People flocked to the city in their droves and Poe’s tale reflects the alienation of the individual in the city. The population grew and the city captured the whole spectrum of society, which fascinated Victorian writers. They were able to capture the heart and soul of the city and bring it alive in all its glory. Friedreich Engels essay ‘The Great Towns’ states that, ‘The hundreds and thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other…and still they crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common’. (Engels, 1987, p69) Engels is showing that the crowd phenomenon incorporates every social class yet is soulless and a mass of humanity; the city experience cold and unfriendly. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist shows that identity can be lost within the crowd and people can be swallowed up and lost within the labyrinth of the city. There was also a de-centering of the individual in an age of migration caused by industrialisation and Poe’s radical tale The Man of the Crowd is an allegorical story of constructed identity in a crowd that shows the true horror of an emerging modern world. In Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Signs of the Times’, he reported on the ‘Mechanical Age’ and stated that, ‘men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand’ (Carlysle, 1858, p102). This is a true reflection of Poe’s The Man of the Crowd.

The construct of Poe’s Man in The Man of the Crowd is a new and experimental literary figure showing the true horror of modernity and this enables Poe to portray this horror in an allegorical manner; the man is a mere metaphor for life in the city. Poe’s tale incorporates a narrator who watches the world from a window following an illness, ‘…two dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past the door’ (Poe, 1978, p507). The imagery used here shows a dense throng of people rushing around and the narrator wishes to become a part of it. Davidson suggests that,

…this Man is an individual who cannot bear to be alone or whether he is… the narrator and protagonist in a cringing, fearsome guise that the narrator will not even admit to himself.’ (Davidson, 1969, p191).

The narrator begins to speculate on the way the light flits over the window in the same way that the crowd flits past it, ‘The wild effects of the light enchained me to an examination of individual faces…’ (Poe,2017). Poe is showing that although the city is now entrenched with the masses and people migrate towards it following industrialisation, the search for the individual within it becomes an impossible task. The man though represents the full spectrum of the social classes and it is in this way that Poe’s allegorical tale shows the true representation of life in the city. Upon the narrator seeing the Man, he tells us of the effect this has on his mind, ‘there arose confusedly…the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of bloodthirstiness, …of supreme despair’ (Poe,2017). The narrator cannot understand the individual he has picked out because his identity changes with his surroundings thus making it impossible for the narrator to read him. Ian Munro argues that ‘…the crowd was a powerfully contradictory presence, symbolizing conflicting aspects of the city through metonymy and metaphor’ (Munro, 2005, p1). This shows us that the narrator is essentially following a ghost whose appearance is deceptive and changes so many times that it would be impossible and in vain to try and understand it. Baudelaire’s theory suggests that man cannot live without the city and would always be searching for modernity, ‘…By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent…’ (Baudelaire, 2017). This would suggest the narrator in Poe’s tale is chasing a transparent entity. Baudelaire believed that being part of the crowd was to be exposed to the modern world and become recharged by it. Yet his theory of a man being more than a flaneur would suggest like Poe’s narrator who is searching out the individual, he will never find it. As the chase ends, the narrator realises that it would be futile to follow him any longer, ‘He refuses to be alone…it will be in vain to follow, for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds.’ (Poe,2017). This realisation is the horror that Poe wants the reader to see.

Dickens and Poe captured the vivid image of the city with their portrayal of crowds and the people within them in very different ways. Poe’s allegorical portrayal separates out the individual in the crowd whereas Dickens show the crowd as a conformative whole. These condensations of symbolic techniques show the disillusion that was felt of life in the city. Poe’s radical approach is in sharp comparison to Dickens’ Oliver Twist.  Dickens flamboyant style shows the crowd as a mass who become one with no identity. In chapter 50 of Oliver Twist, Sykes is pursued through the city by a crowd that grows into a furious throng, ‘…a strong struggling current of angry faces…cluster upon cluster clinging to every house top.’ (Dickens, 1992, p336). Whilst Dickens is being melodramatic in his description of the crowd here, the scene portrays an image of society represented at all levels. He portrays the crowd as one whole, a collective identity instead of an individual one. As part of a whole, the crowd becomes powerful and individuals become hidden, which makes them very dangerous. His use of the word ‘current’ and Poe’s use of the word ‘tide’ to describe the masses, gives the effect of fluidity and movement and one that also cannot be stopped. It is a metaphor for the ever-growing mass of people crowding into the city. There is also a sense of belonging in the crowd, a new-found identity as people joined the cries of the crowd without knowing why, ‘Those who were at too great a distance to know its meaning, took up the sound…’ (Dickens, 1992, p336). This shows the desire for identity, whether individual or collective, was just as powerful as the narrator in The Man of the Crowd. Ian Munro suggests that, ‘The crowd is an inherently polymorphous concept, always evading definition’ (Munro, 2005, p2) and we can see this in both Dickens’ and Poe’s work. Dickens extinguishes the individual identity to be part of a larger group and Poe’s representation of the crowd portrays individual identity as being made of many parts of the crowd.

The description of the Man is composed of many things that don’t go together, ‘his clothes… filthy and ragged…his linen, although dirty, was of beautiful texture’ and underneath his cloak was ‘both of a diamond and of a dagger’ (Poe,2017). He is a mass of contradictions. The narrator tells us that he is feeble, yet he manages to run through the streets and the narrator struggles to keep up with him. He is a hybrid, a construct and represents the whole of the crowd, which in turn represents the whole spectrum of the social classes. ‘I saw jew pedlars with hawk eyes…sturdy professional street beggars…feeble and ghastly invalids…’ (Poe,2017). All manner of humanity is represented in Poe’s description and it is made in the style of descriptive lists of the people in the streets. The stylistic technique of using no full stops shows the text as self-referential. Dickens uses the same style of list making in Oliver Twist to describe the vigilante mob. The list technique gives the impression of a huge mass ever growing. But whereas Poe describes the individual, Dickens shows the mob to be as one. Dickens had quite a reserved view point of city life and whereas it fascinated him greatly, he also kept himself at arm’s length from it. Poe also uses the stream of consciousness technique in the narrative which is also symbolic of Victorian authors and the narrator tells us that, ‘I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in every thing’ (Poe,2017). The reader can hear the narrator’s thoughts and it is this that connects humanity with the text. The Man of the Crowd is also observational. The narrator is watching life from a window, seeing the world go by and all manner of people pass by. Kevin J Hayes suggests that Poe’s story is ‘one mans effort to read another man, who happens to be a denizen and therefore a representative of the modern urban environment’ (Hayes, 2002, p445). This observational theory is comparable with Baudelaire’s flaneur and was the modern way that art and literature was heading. The loss of self also showed how industrialisation needed to cater for the age of modern life. The Victorian times were about trying to keep identity assured in an already fractured world but Poe’s tale of loss of identity and that it cannot be read breaks away from this mould and explores the true horror of the realities of industrialisation and the modern world.

Poe’s The Man of the Crowd portrays the horrors of modern life and shows the narrator following a Man that doesn’t exist. The Man represents all of society and cannot be read as he embodies all aspects of the social classes. His appearance is deceptive and this represents the way society is heading now that industrialisation is taking over in the city. Poe attempts to separate the identity of the Man but the Man is made up of many things and is impossible to read. Poe’s representation of this is allegorical in that it is a sociological experience of city life and showed the disillusion that came with it. In Oliver Twist, Dickens’ portrayal of the crowd scene in chapter 50 shows a crowd moving as one, a conformative whole with a collective identity. They are part of something which gives them power and strength and Dickens does not show the individual. Baudelaire suggested that modern life was ghostly and fleeting and the crowd was something to lose yourself in and escape. Whilst Baudelaire had this modern take on life, Poe demonstrates the true horror of the modern life in the city.


Baudelaire, C. (2017) ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. Handout given in Literature & Modernity November 2017 by Martin Jesinghausen

Carlyle, T. (1858) ‘Signs of the Times’ (1829) in Collected Works Vol 3, pp. 101-102. London: Chapman & Hall

Davidson, E.H. (1969) Poe- A Critical Study.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Dickens, C. (1992) Oliver Twist. Hertfordshire; Wordsworth Editions Ltd

Engels, F. (1987) ‘The Great Towns’ in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) London: Penguin

Hayes, K. J. (2002) ‘Visual Culture and the Word in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd”’ in Nineteenth Century Literature, Vol 56, No. 4, pp. 445-465. [Available from: http://ezproxy.staffs.ac.uk/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.staffs.ac.uk/docview/211933431?accountid=17254 [Accessed 18/12/2017]

Munro, I. (2005) The Figure of the Crowd in Early Modern London: The City and its Double [Online] New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Available from: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/staffordshire/detail.action?docID=308224. [Accessed 28/12/17]

Poe, E. A. (2017) The Man of the Crowd. Great Britain: Amazon

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