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The “Men of the Crowd”

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Although “hardboiled” narratives became a popular literary genre in the early- to mid-twentieth century, these writers were not the first to create characters and stories in this genre. Early creators of the tough detective were preceded by the first “hardboiled” literary detective, Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin of The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Although Poe is credited with having invented detective fiction in stories such as Murders and The Purloined Letter, his most “noirish” story is The Man of the Crowd. It is commonly believed amongst literary critics that the narrator of Poe’s The Man of the Crowd is not sane. They often point to the line which reads “in my then peculiar mental state,” which clearly shows that the narrator, during the time of the story, at least, did not possess a sane person’s frame of mind. However, this idea is derived not simply from content, but from style and form as well. Through the use of specific words, form, context, and content, the reader is provided with information about the characters in the story, thereby giving him or her an accurate framework within which to interpret these characters. Although the sanity of Poe’s narrator is a major issue in the story, so is the aspect of being a “man of the crowd.”

Many words from other languages are incorporated into The Man of the Crowd. Before the main text begins, there is a quote that reads, “ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir etre seul” (“this great misfortune, of being incapable of being alone”). This quote foreshadows the events to come: the theme of this story is being singled-out; the “man of the crowd” is alone, although this first quote contradicts this fact. Throughout the story, the reader believes that the man whom the narrator is following around the city is odd, and the “man of the crowd,” but at the end the reader learns that this man is not as odd as he once appeared. This is, perhaps, playing back into the idea that no matter how one may appear, it is not possible to be alone.

In addition to this introductory quote, there are several other instances of foreign phrases and words present in the text. In the first line of the actual text is a German quote that is again found in the final sentence of the text. Also the French word “ennui” (meaning “boring” or “annoying”) is used in the second paragraph, along with a phrase written in a language that is not Latin-based; neither the translation nor the language in which it is written is known to me. One wonders why Poe includes these phrases and words when most people will not know the translations; the most logical reason is to suggest that the narrator is crazy, and unable to keep languages straight in his mind. This idea is confirmed in the middle of the story: “in my then peculiar mental state.” During this time, the narrator is not completely sane, thus explaining the details and vocabulary taken from foreign languages.

The Man of the Crowd is constructed of highly-detailed sentences that offer lengthy descriptions of characters. The sentences are not short, disconnected thoughts, but rather they long, detailed diatribes about the narrator’s environment and those around him. The narrator simply sits back in a cafe, examining each person who walks by and classifying them into predetermined groups. He goes into specific details to describe each group of people, detailing the manner and style in which members of the group are dressed, as well as their hygiene and physical characteristics such as hair colour, height and weight.

For each group, there is a set formula of dress and physical appearance; he simply examines each person, and then places them in their proscribed group. The amount of detail and length of many sentences may also serve as indicators of the narrator’s unstable mind. The style alone opens up this possibility, but when combined with the actual content there is little room for doubt.

Poe also includes details about the narrator’s surroundings, thereby creating the noir-ish atmosphere of the story and the other characters who fill it. The narrator, however, remains rather mysterious because there is little information provided about him. Instead, most everything the reader learns about the narrator is learned through his actions and vocabulary. Very similar to The Man of the Crowd is Hawthorne’s Wakefield, in which the main character, much like Poe’s narrator, wanders around the crowded streets of London searching for the “man of the crowd.” However, Poe’s narrator is following the man whom he believes to be his “man of the crowd,” while Wakefield is trying to make himself the “man of the crowd” – to add some significance to his own life in his own mind, at least.

Poe begins by stating that “it was well said of a certain German book that ‘er lasst sich nicht lessen‘ – it does not permit itself to be read.” At the end of the story, the narrator realizes that the “man of the crowd” whom he had been following around for the past 24 hours does not permit himself to be read, exactly as this German book declares in the first line of the story. Once the reader realizes this, he or she concludes that it is not the man being followed who is the “man of the crowd,” but rather the narrator. He is following around this man because he does not fit into one of his pre-determined groups of people; he is odd, the “man of the crowd”. By the end of the story, however, the reader learns that this person is actually not so odd; he is merely going about his business just as any other person would. The reader is thus led to the inevitable conclusion that the narrator is the true “man of the crowd.”

This conclusion can even be taken one step farther: the reader believes that the narrator is following around this random man; the action is bizarre in itself, and thereby casts the narrator as the “man of the crowd.” However, the reader is also following around a random man – in this case, the narrator. It therefore becomes apparent that the reader himself could be viewed as the “man of the crowd,” for he is committing the same unusual acts as the narrator. This aspect of the story helps the reader to relate to the narrator, and helps him to draw conclusions concerning the true mental state of the narrator; is he actually insane, as most critics believe, or is he simply like the reader and perfectly sane? After all, both the narrator and the reader are essentially doing the same thing: following around a man who appears strange and odd, albeit in different fashions.

Hawthorne’s Wakefield has a similar theme: the story is narrated by observers who find something odd in the behavior of an inhabitant of a crowded city, a citizen otherwise indistinguishable from those around him. The story describes a man who has left his wife and home in London, and gone on to establish another residence one block away from his wife’s home. He lives there secretly for twenty years without his wife knowing, only to return and live out his remaining years at home. Poe’s narrator believes that some men cannot be read, such as the “man of the crowd.” Hawthorne’s narrator is equally certain that that nothing should interfere with the ability to effectively read somebody’s character in person, as they are a character in a story or book.

Hawthorne spends a considerable amount of the novel describing Wakefield’s life during these twenty absent years: Wakefield often runs over to his wife’s residence, spies on her, and runs back to his own apartment a block away. Like Poe, Hawthorne sets his characters in the busy streets of London, thus rendering them unnoticeable in the crowd. Wakefield, however, enters the crowd to be discovered. He becomes Poe’s “man of the crowd,” but without Poe’s narrator’s desire to not know himself. He imagines footsteps following him and a far-off voice calling his name, but he cannot escape his own insignificance because he cannot force acknowledgment from someone other than himself. After ten years of separation, he one day bumps against his wife in a crowded street; they stand face to face, but although they stare directly into each other’s eyes, she does not recognize him: he is only a face in the crowd. The narrator travels into the mind of Wakefield’s wife, to observe that she was partly aware of a quiet selfishness that had faded into his inactive mind.

There are three compelling forces in Wakefield, as constructed by the narrator. It is unclear, however, whether or not these are contradictory to Wakefield’s character, or whether he offers them as possible motives for his unusual behavior. The first is that, unlike Poe’s narrator, Wakefield wants to be seen. He does not want to blend into the crowd – he wants to stand out; to be the “man of the crowd.” Wakefield believes that he is doing something that lifts him out of the crowd, but does not believe that he can truly stand out unless some observer makes it so; his desire to stand out, in effect, cancels itself out.

The second compulsion is that Wakefield regularly places himself in situations in which he is in danger of being discovered: he continually re-enacts his escape from insignificance in an attempt to appear more significant. The third compulsion is slightly different: he refuses to return home, because he has been “rendered obstinate” by “the inadequate sensation which he conceived to have been produced in the bosom of Mrs. Wakefield. He will not go back until she be frightened half to death” – until he has seen some evidence of her mourning for him. This mourning, he believes, would give him proof that he does signify something to her.

Wakefield then uses his absence to elicit a reaction from his wife that he will later use to confirm his own significance or insignificance. He does not want to abandon his life, but wishes rather to live that life at a comfortable distance, to construct his life based upon his wife’s response to his absence. He wants to gain a life by linking together his present life, his wife’s response to his disappearance, and what he imagines his former life might have been like if he were to have lived it out. In this manner, Wakefield hopes to gain some control over his life that he might not have otherwise had, to feel not so anonymous, not so much a “man of the crowd.”

By using many different components to portray the narrator, mood, and atmosphere, the author is able to strengthen the story’s message. When all of the components compliment each other, the story becomes clearer than it would be if only one component was used to convey its mood and message. Poe’s narrator and Hawthorne’s Wakefield are both mysterious characters: they are both trying to stand out, either consciously or unconsciously, from the massive crowds of London, and become the “man of the crowd.” However, at the ends of the stories, the reader learns that despite the characters’ best efforts, the introductory quote of The Man of the Crowd summarizes it all; it is not possible to be alone, to stand out, or to be the “man of the crowd”; rather, it is only possible to maintain one’s sanity if one accepts the inevitability of being just another face in the crowd.

Works Cited

Armistead, Allyson. “Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ As a Satire of the 19th

Century Penny Press.” Internet Article.

Brevda, William. “Search for the Originary Sign of Noir: Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd.'” Mythosphere, 2.4 (2000): p 357-59.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Wakefield.” 1835.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. “The Limits of Reason: Poe’s Deluded Detectives.” American Literature, 47.2 (1975): p 184-89.

Lopate, Phillip. “The Pen on Foot: The Literature of Walking Around.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review, 18/19.1/2 (1993): p 176-83.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “Man of the Crowd.” 1850.

Polk, Noel. “Welty, Hawthorne, and Poe: Men of the Crowd and the Landscape of Alienation.” Mississippi Quarterly. 50.4 (1997): p553-56.

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