Text: Ray Mazurek, “Art, Ambiguity, and the Artist in Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’,” Poe Studies, December 1979, Vol. XII, No. 2, 12:25-28


[page 25:]

Art, Ambiguity, and the Artist in Poe’s
“The Man of the Crowd”

Purdue University

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” is on one level about the mystery of human existence in a horrifying urban environment; on another, it is a tale about the unreliability of its narrator, who is unaware that his own illness colors his perceptions; and finally, it is a narrative about ambiguity, structured by images of doubleness and descent, which reveals much about Poe’s situation as an artist. By questioning the narrator’s faith in the power of his imagination to penetrate to essential levels of reality, the tale rejects the Romantic vision of the unlimited powers of artistic imagination, implicitly replacing it with a more ironic view, in which art repeatedly undercuts previously generated structures of perception. As I will try to demonstrate, Poe’s relation to his art and to his audience, implicitly revealed within the tale, remains as problematic as the narrator’s relation to the crowd and to his perceptions themselves.

“The Man of the Crowd” has received relatively little criticism. Patrick Quinn, who perceives autobiographical qualities in the tale, has called ir Poe’s most ingenious treatment of the theme of the double, in which the narrator fails to recognize in the man of the crowd an image of his own future self (1). Stuart Levine considers this story strikingly modern in its non-moralistic exploration of urban isolation and its note of “realism” (2), while G. R. Thompson speculates that the tale “may be read as the deluded romanticizing of the tipsy narrator, who perversely attributes a Romantic significance to an old drunk” (3). Each of these critics points to related elements in the story’s structure: the crowd, as Poe uses it, is a mass of similar yet isolated doubles, unable to recognize one another, while irony necessarily involves a multiplication of meaning (or, at the very least, two complementary yet discordant meanings). Irony and doublings of various kinds occur frequently in Poe’s fiction (4), while the image of the crowd is less prevalent (5). An examination of the narrative structure of “The Man of the Crowd” — with its various doublings, its thematic treatment of ambiguity, and its use of dramatic irony — is in order before discussing the relationship of its presentation of the crowd with the story’s context and the modernity of Poe’s aesthetic. [column 2:]

“Doubling” occurs within the narrative organization itself; “The Man of the Crowd” can be conveniently divided into two main sections, with a further division within the first. Paragraphs one to ten include the exposition, in which the narrator presents generalizations about the mystery he will reveal and describes his situation as an observer; beginning with the fifth paragraph he presents a long catalogue of the different types and classes who wander through the city streets. In paragraph eleven, halfway through the story, the scene changes, night deepens, and the narrator begins his attempt to penetrate the individual faces of the crowd, conjuring the vision of the mysterious “man of the crowd” whom he pursues for the remainder of the tale.

The division of the narrative at the moment when the double makes his appearance suggests the meticulous (and often playful) self-consciousness in Poe’s work, the treatment of ambiguity in “The Man of the Crowd” is self-reflexive in a similar way. The first paragraph speaks about an obscure German text which will “not permit itself to be read,” of “mysteries that will not suffer themselves to be revealed,” of moments when “the conscience of man takes up a burthen so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only in the grave.” To the narrator, such mysteries signify “the essence of all crime,” which necessarily remains “undivulged” (Works, II, 506-507). So we have a story in which nothing is to be divulged but the undivulged, in which the hidden secret that is pursued is finally revealed as that which cannot be revealed. Not surprisingly, the narrator’s discovery of ambiguity is itself ambiguous; the tale, which begins and ends with a statement about unfathomable mystery, turns in upon itself.

This effect is produced partly by the use of dramatic irony. As in most Poe stories, the accuracy of the narrator’s perceptions is called into question. The narrator says he is in a state of electrified perception, the opposite of ennui in which the film passes from one’s eyes and objects are seen with vivid clarity. This condition has been brought about by his recent illness; in his convalescent state, a commonplace situation such as observing the crowded streets from a London coffee house fills him with “a delicious novelty of emotion” (II, 507).

The exposition of the story thus presents a basic opposition: the opaqueness of that which cannot be revealed versus the clarity of vision whereby the mind sees things afresh. The narrator’s claim for unusual clear-sightedness serves, on one level, to allow him to lead us into a search for the essence of the horror at the heart of the city, which finally fails to be revealed; on another level the narrator’s diseased state calls into question his perception and denies [page 26:] him his position as privileged observer. But the possibility remains that, in revealing his own mind, the narrator does divulge the urban horror he experiences: although the narrator’s questionable perception leads us to doubt his conclusion about the city’s unfathomable mystery, there is, as will be seen, a significant relation between his mind and the city on a deeper level than that of his surface observations.

Yet “The Man of the Crowd” is largely a presentation of those observations. In his excitable state, the narrator becomes fascinated with the “two dense and continuous tides of population” which rush past “the smoky panes” through which he gazes. Peering through these dark lenses, he devotes all his attention to “contemplation of the scene without.” At first, he observes things abstractly and generally, but then “descend[s] to details” (II, 507). The remainder of the narrative recounts the various phases of that descent.

Images of both doubling and descent are important in the detailed catalogue of the different classes and types of humanity which follows the exposition. Each class, often divided into two sub-groups, is described in terms of opposing principles, and each is compared, as Stuart and Susan Levine note,0 in a hierarchy which begins with the most respectable and ends with the most “criminal” and lonely. Similarly, the second section of the tale begins when night “deepens,” also deepening the speculative interest of the narrator, who descends into the nighttime crowd, drawn by his interest in an unusual figure perceived through the glass, who proves to be his double. The emergence of the narrator into the crowd thus inverts the story, transforming him from observer to participant.

The movement of the narrative involves a gradual identification between him and the crowd, an identification implicit throughout the tale and hinted at several times in his catalogue of human classes and types. The catalogue begins with the most numerous classes observed in the afternoon, those with a “satisfied business-like demeanor,” who are juxtaposed to “others, still a numerous class,” who “were restless in their movement, had flushed faces, and talked and gesticulated to themselves, as if feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around” (II, 508). As Walter Benjamin says of this passage, “One might think he was speaking of half-drunken wretches. Actually, they were ‘noblemen, attorneys, tradesmen, stock-jobbers’” (7). Even the most “respectable” group is divided into a self-satisfied, complacent, everyday type and its excitable, nervous opposite, on which the emphasis is placed. The narrator, who feels solitude because of the denseness of the crowd, who is lost in his thoughts (although not literally muttering to himself), is identified with the second, unbalanced group.

The next class, that of the clerks, is also divided into “two remarkable divisions . . . the junior clerks of flash houses” and “the upper clerks of staunch firms” (II, 508), both of which are defined in relation to the “decent” men of the first class. Crowds, in Poe, are often depicted as masked.8 Here, the junior clerks literally wear the “castoff graces of gentry,” clothing that was recently in the latest fashion; the upper clerks are similarly marked by the superficial acquisition of the manners of the respectable: “Theirs was the affectation of respectability; — if indeed [column 2:] there be an affectation so honorable” (II, 509).

As the narrator continues his downward exploration of the social hierarchy, his mask, his affectation of superiority toward those he describes, is repeatedly exposed. For example, he identifies the gamblers by a “filmy dimness of eye” (II, 509) which would seem to contrast with his own clear vision; yet all along he is observing them through the “smoky pane” of the window, finding a dark underside in everything:le sees. Obsessed with perception, he describes “jew pedlars” who are defined by “hawk eyes” that contrast with their general humility; he contrasts modest young girls who must meet the “glances of ruffians” with “women of the town” whose beauty hides inner decay; and, in a foreshadowing of the movements of the man of the crowd and of his own later attempt to read individual faces, he notes “feeble and ghastly invalids, upon whom death has placed a sure hand, and who sidled and tottered through the mob, looking every one beseechingly in the face, as if in search of some chance consolation, some lost hope” (II, 509-510). As the catalogue concludes, the lower depths of the crowd are described as “full of a noisy and inordinate vivacity which jarred discordantly upon the ear, and gave an aching sensation to the eye” (II, 510). The emphasis on the eye reinforces the repeated description of the crowd in terms of eyes, gazes, glances; the language suggests jarring, discord, sudden juxtapositions which shock one into insight, into a new and vivid state of perception (especially visual perception). And yet the possibility of such perception is repeatedly called into question.

At this point night deepens, bringing “forth every species of infamy from its den,” and the narrator attempts to read the history in individual faces while “all was dark yet splendid” amid the “wild effects of light” produced by the “garish” rays of the gas lamps. Abnormal conditions and the narrator’s “peculiar mental state” (II, 511) seem to produce possibilities for unusual insight. Here the narrator spots the old man’s face with its “absolute idiosyncracy of expression. . . . Any thing even remotely resembling that expression [he] had never seen before” (II, 511). Yet the narrator’s position, with his “brow to the glass” (II, 511), suggests that the glass functions as a mirror, that the narrator sees the old man as he is simultaneously gazing at himself. The old man’s face has diabolical connotations; in its suggestion of the devil and of death, as well as in its appearance in the glass, this image is surrounded by many of the conventional connotations of the double as a literary and mythic device (9).

Having discovered the double while gazing, as it were, “through a glass darkly,” the narrator pursues the old man, observing him at a distance. Although both are described as feeble, the chase continues, fantastically, for twenty-four hours. The old man is clothed in filthy, ragged garments including dirty but quality linen and appears to have a diamond and a dagger; thus he is associated with the movement from respectability to poverty and crime presented earlier in the tale. His wanderings are aimless; he moves through the crowded streets in a state of hurried excitement, appearing more hesitant and uncertain when on a side street, and more in his element when in a crowd. The crowd itself appears to be the object of his wanderings. He passes through shops looking “at all objects with a wild [page 27:] and vacant stare” (II, 513); somewhat comically, he walks with his head upon his breast while staring “wildly . . . in every direction, upon those who hemmed him in” (II, 512). He continually retraces his steps, turning, like the story, back upon himself, finally leading the pursuing narrator to the most desolate and impoverished section of London, where, “by the dim light of an accidental lamp, tall, antique, worm-eaten, wooden tenements were seen tottering to their fall, in directions that seemed so many and capricious that scarce the semblance of a passage was discernible between them” (II, 514). The buildings themselves seem like a crowd of dying, almost sentient things, reminiscent of the collapse of the house of Usher. But even in this urban hell to which the “fiendish” double leads the narrator, nothing occurs but a meander through a tavern. The real events of the story remain moments of perception.

The double, in the obsessive, literal absorption of his life in that of the crowd, parallels in his wandering the narrator’s own fascination with the city’s endless surfaces and seemingly unfathomable depths. There is an obvious irony in the narrator’s calling the old man’s movement aimless while he is himself engaged in the aimless pursuit of the old man (and while he remains unaware of his own aimlessness). The two are also parallel in their nearness to death. Toward the end of the tale, “the spirits of the old man again flickered up, as a lamp which is near its death hour,” while the narrator confesses one paragraph later that “as the shades of the second evening came on, I grew wearied unto death” (II, 514-515). In this state, in front of the “D —— Hotel” (suggesting, perhaps, both “death” and “double”) from which the search began, the narrator confronts the double and, “stopping fully in front of the wanderer, gazed at him steadfastly in the face. He noticed me not, but resumed his solemn walk.” Echoing his introductory comments, the narrator decides that this is “the man of the crowd “ who “refuses to be alone” and who is the “genius of deep crime.” He concludes that it “will be vain to follow,” for he should “learn no more of him, or of his deeds” (II, 515), and speculates that it is a mercy of God that there are things that cannot be read, thus bringing the narrative back to the generalizations about the “unreadable” from which it began.

Yet while the narrator tries to stand apart, with the grim comfort provided by his notion of the unreadability of the mystery that surrounds him, he is himself implicated as part of that which he describes. The revelation that the double fails to notice the narrator, even when his pursuer stops and “gazes at him steadfastly in the face,” highlights the narrator’s failure to recognize himself. It also suggests that there is nothing behind the mask of momentary appearances and affectations. Perhaps there is no mystery to be revealed, other than the processes of art itself, and the nothingness which art, for Poe, reveals at the center of the rhythms of phenomenal existence (10). In any case, the reader, like the narrator, is attempting to decipher the mystery in an elaborate but “unreadable” text.

Everything in “The Man of the Crowd” turns back upon itself, even our attempts at interpretation. The story is more than the speculation of a misguided narrator — though it is certainly that — for it stands at the borderline at which a Romantic aesthetic, concerned with the privileged [column 2:] perception of the artistic consciousness into nature or experience, is replaced by a modernist aesthetic which conceives of literature as a concrete act of creation in language, and thus takes a critical stance toward its own practice. In Frank Kermode’s terms, “The Man of the Crowd” is a text of “deception” rather than one of “recognition,” a text in which the narrative structures we ordinarily take for granted, and are unconscious of as we use them in the act of reading, turn out to be deceptive guides, forcing us to reread, becoming active interpreters and producers of the text rather than passive consumers. In such texts, the issue is not merely the unreliability of the narrator, but the unreliability of narrative.!’ “The Man of the Crowd” is not merely ambiguous: it is about ambiguity, about the sudden juxtapositions (or doublings) that allow one to see things afresh, and about the apparent arbitrariness of perceived relationships, which often seem, like the structures of a Poe tale, to be elaborate constructions, elaborate games.

Yet Poe’s ironies do not negate the social content which is, on an initial reading, probably the most striking feature of the tale. Instead, the self-reflexivity of this narrative allows the question of the relation of the text to its social context to reemerge as questions of form and audience as well as of content. By making us recognize how problematic the act of reading is, the tale reminds us that the relation of literature to society is not merely a matter of isolated “ideas” presented in the garb of narrative; rather it is a matter of the interaction between the ideas and actions constituting the narrative and the text-reader relationship the narrative establishes through its form (assuming, for the moment, that form and content can be separated for analytical purposes) (12).

On the level of content, “The Man of the Crowd” remains an evocation of Poe’s America as, to borrow F. O. Matthiessen’s phrase, “a barbaric immensity lit up by gas” (13), in which lonely people pass each other with blank expressions. But the crowd is also a particularly appropriate metaphor for the continually multiplying possibilities of Poe’s ironic art and for the emerging modernist artist of the mid-nineteenth century and his relation to his audience.

As Michael Allen has demonstrated, Poe worked in a tradition of nineteenth-century journalism which sought to appeal to both the “many” and the “few” (14). In the journalistic context of Poe’s times, the magazine existed as a mediation between the few who reflected the richness and complexity of an upper-class culture and the many who sought entrance into that culture. The use of sensationalism on the surface of Poe’s gothic tales attracted a wide audience; yet that sensationalism was repeatedly undercut in a parodic irony accessible only to the cognoscenti (an irony, as many have noted, also used to explore serious psychological and epistemological concerns). In the process, Poe’s texts came to embody the complex ironies of his own cultural situation. In “The Man of the Crowd,” the old man exists in a context of the many in which depth has become seemingly impossible; the narrator functions in a context in which the depth that is perceived exists, perhaps, only for the narrator himself. The social world evoked in the tale, a world based on increased fragmentation, class division, and human isolation, is thus suggested by the form of the text and the relation between its implied audiences [page 28:] In “The Man of the Crowd,” the crowd comes to embody the urban and modern context on the edge of which modernist art flourishes, a context in which art is revealed not as the sudden insight of a mysteriously and uniquely penetrating imagination, but as an elaborate process of construction which proceeds by imitating, parodying, and making strange previous constructions (15). The artist who would, like Poe’s narrator, penetrate the mysterious essence o’ things, is replaced by the artist who retraces his steps, who reveals his processes of construction by treating his product as a created object through parody and irony. Such art is implicitly democratic, insofar as it reveals the “rules” by which the text is produced and invites participation in the constitution of its meaning; and yet, by its very density and difficulty, it remains aristocratic and elitist, perversely becoming known only to a small group of initiates. Poe himself seems to have written for two audiences: first, the mass audience which he amused with tales of horror, and toward which he may have felt the same revulsion and fascination as his narrator feels toward the masses in “The Man of the Crowd”; second, the few who could understand him, although it seems quite possible that the latter, in his own time, included only the author himself.



(1) The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 229-233.

(2) Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman (Deland, Fla.: Everett Edwards, Inc., 1972), pp. 222-237.

(3) Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison, Wis.: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), p. 170. (4) See Thompson, pp. 3-18.

(5) In both “The Masque of the Red Death” and “William Wilson,” somewhat similar treatments of the crowd occur: in both the crowd suggests death and the double and is related to the motif of masks. “Four Beasts in One” treats the crowd with more obviously satiric intent, although the motif of classifying its members is present.

(6) The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (Indianapolis: BobbsMerrill, 1976), p. 292.

(7) “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt ( New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 171.

(8) See “The Masque of the Red Death” and “William Wilson.”

(9) See Ralph Tymms, Doubles in Literary Psychology (Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes, 1949), pp. 15-27. While I have made use of traditional notions of the doppelganger, it should be obvious that I am also using the notion of doubling in a more general sense, referring to the oppositions and comparisons which structure the play of the text.

(10) William J. Sheick’s reading of “The Oval Portrait” as a structural embodiment of Poe’s philosophical idealism and view of art has interesting similarities to this interpretation: the portrait has a “geometrical structure” of “circular layers” at the center of which lies an eye which suggests both art and ‘.life itself”; within the center of the portrait the “spirit” of the lady “flickers,” as does that of the old man at the end of “The Man of the Crowd.” See “The Geometrical Structure of the Oval Portrait,” Poe Studies, 11 (1978), 6-8.

(11) “Novels: Recognition and Deception,” Critical Inquiry, 1 (1974), 103-121.

(12) See Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1976), pp. 59-76.

(13) F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (1941; rpt. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968), p. 543. Matthiessen’s contrast between Whitman’s and Baudelaire’s attitude toward the city seems equally applicable to Whitman and Poe.

(14) Poe and the British Magazine Tradition (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), esp. pp. 19-39.

(15) See Eagleton; also Benjamin, pp. 155-200, 217-252; and Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero ( London: Cape Editions, 1967), pp. 74-88.


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[S:0 - PS, 1979]