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"Such a great misfortune, not to be able to be alone," declares the opening line of Edgar Allan Poe's "Man of the Crowd." Surrounded by a city full of people, the narrator is indeed not alone in that sense. "Alone," though, may be viewed in another light: to be unique, to stand alone against the chaos and homogeneity of the crowd. The relationships the narrator has with and the observations he makes about the people of London give insight regarding the nature of urban relationships generally. Though the narrator does not in reality have any direct communication with the people in this story, he observes and reports on each of them, and these observations substitute for his lacking personal relationships. It is his observations of the city of London itself, of the crowd, and of the old man that reveal Poe's distaste for the isolation and loss of individuality that city life fosters.
The city is mostly only described at night, and we see almost nothing of the daylight hours. The audience, therefore, is left with a dark and gloomy image of the city. By providing this sole nighttime portrait of the city through the narrator, Poe automatically creates a depressing outlook on city life that pervades the story and provides the backdrop for the entire commentary.
To reinforce the depressing outlook, Poe has the narrator enumerate the features of the "verge of the city" in more detail than any other part of London (220). He states that this place "[wears] the worst impress of the most deplorable poverty, and of the most desperate crime" (220). The poverty and crime reveals 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.
People are isolated from, and apathetic towards, their fellow city dwellers. To give a further impression of the impoverishment and apathetic nature of the city, he describes the beggars, poor girls returning from their demanding work, and sick people wandering about the streets. From the descriptions of these people it is evident that the city is a cold, uncaring, and unforgiving place: the sick were "in search of some chance consolation" and the young girls had to return to "careless homes" (217). The lack of concern for others in the city highlights Poe's notions that the urban environment creates isolation amongst its inhabitants.
While describing the crowd, the narrator is seated behind a window, separated from the people. Putting him behind the glass isolates him from those whom he is so meticulously observing. One would think that after being sick and inside for months on end, the narrator would want some kind of personal, human relation, yet he is perfectly content to sit alone indoors and ponder the pedestrians from afar. His willingness to be alone further contributes to the sense that people are truly isolated in the city. This isolation is also seen in the pedestrians, who "[talk] and [gesticulate] to themselves, as if feeling in solitude on account of the very denseness of the company around" (216). Here the narrator explains that because there are so many people around and since no one knows each other, these people feel like they are alone.
Poe suggests, through the narrator's observations, that while one may be in extreme proximity to others in the city, he is not truly connected with any of them, except in the sense that he may share some general attributes with a large group of others that causes him to be seen as part of the whole.
The narrator states that he at first looks at the people "in their aggregate relations" but then moves into observing the details of which there were "innumerable varieties" (216). Herein lies a contradiction: he points out there are "innumerable varieties," yet he does exactly the opposite by enumerating 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 say that while you may think that you are a distinct person in the city, you have already lost your individuality by being part of the "crowd." The narrator tells himself that everyone is different, but in pointing out their differences, he makes sweeping generalizations, thus making many people the same as one another.
Furthermore, when the narrator classifies and describes the "crowd," he does so in a very scientific manner, looking at each of them through their "figure, dress, air, gait, visage, and expression of countenance" (216). While these traits should make each person different at least
in some way from another, they are all treated as exactly the same within each group. The classification of the people in the crowd makes them lose their individuality by generalizing and putting each person into a pre-labeled group.
When a person comes along, the "man of the crowd," that cannot be classified, the narrator is "startled" (218): he doesn't know how to think about this man since he cannot put him in a well-defined category. He is so intrigued by this man that he leaves the coffee shop where he has been meticulously scouring the people of the crowd. He purposefully hides among the
pedestrians so as not to be seen and, in doing so, loses his individuality and becomes just another undistinguishable face amid a sea of others, suggesting that his quest to classify this man is futile. If the narrator himself is indistinguishable, how is he able to individualize and ascribe specific attributes to someone else? Also, the way in which he describes the passages that the old man takes causes him to become intertwined with the old man's identity: the narrator says that "he hurried into the street [...] until we emerged" (220). He has to do exactly as the old man does in order to stay close and observe him. Again, this mixing of identities emphasizes the loss of individuality in the city that Poe wishes to point out. A person starts to lose his identity when he starts behaving like other people.
The narrator eventually abandons his pursuit, saying that this man "does not permit [himself] to be read" (215). He points out that he can learn nothing else about him. The narrator here seems to just ignore someone that does not fit into he predetermined classifications. This eventual disregard for the peculiarity of the old man again shows that there is no true individuality in the city. If other people like this man cannot be classified, they are probably simply ignored; in effect they do not exist. So, in essence there are no individuals.
The tale opens by saying that it is "a great misfortune, not to be able to be alone." The narrator in "Man of the Crowd" is surrounded by a city full of people, unable to be alone, though is truly isolated from them. Through the observations made by this narrator, it is evident that the same isolation applies to every other member of society in London; no one knows anyone else and, in that sense, everyone is isolated. Though, these people are not alone in that none of them are distinguishable from a larger group. Each person is defined as being part of a group within the crowd and as a part of the crowd generally. It is this loss of individuality that gives meaning to the vagueness title "The Man in the Crowd."