The Man of the Crowd
The Man of the Crowd, a short story by Edgar Allan Poe begins with the words about the book that does not permit itself to be read. In this case, the only thing the reader can do is to try and interpret (understand) its contents by using his knowledge and analytical skills. However, Edgar Allan Poe applies this statement to the people – their inner world is full of mysteries that are not meant to be revealed – not to the outside observer. And, as in the case of a book, one may only interpret their looks and behavior, by using the knowledge of the surrounding world and the nature of men as a basis for the observation, analysis, and examination. This process is a central topic of the story. Therefore, the following essay is dedicated to the definition of the role of interpretation in The Man of the Crowd, as well as the limitations imposed on it and the one’s ability to cognize by the surrounding environment – the society and the individuals.
The story begins with the nameless narrator sitting in a London coffee shop in the autumn evening. He is recovering from a long illness, and, therefore, feels a special state of the so-called acute sensitivity. The crowd passing before his eyes triggers a sense of genuine interest within his mind. Thus, he is readily immersed in the contemplation of the street. At first, the nature of his observations is rather abstract and generalizing as he views the passers-by as a crowd and thinks of them collectively. However, after some time passes, he reconfigures the process of analysis, thus proceeding to the next – more specific – step of his observation.
In particular, he started paying attention to details, focus on the people’s figures, their clothes, statures, gaits, faces, and facial expressions. At first, the spearhead of his analysis is aimed at the two different types of people, depending on their behavior in the crowd. The first type, being subject to the inevitable pushes, is focused on getting through the throng. The second type, more distracted, does not move so well. Then the narrator-observer switches his attention to the definition of social and professional stratification of the people in the crowd. The basic feature is their clothes. The narrator identifies people in decent clothes, deducting that they are noblemen, merchants, lawyers, and stockbrokers, and all the others. Among the latter, he identifies clerks and pickpockets. Then, the narrator finds more deep subjects for reflection, such as Jewish peddlers, beggars, fallen women, and drunkards.
Thus, it is obvious that interpretation plays a central role in The Man of the Crowd. The nameless narrator observes the people passing him by. By observing, examining, and analyzing what he sees, he is capable of identifying the people’s position in the society, occupation, and even nationality. He gathers information about them and interprets it in accordance with his knowledge of the surrounding world. In other words, he resorts to the use of stereotypes – the samples of perception, filtering, and, most importantly, the interpretation of the information that are accepted in the particular society. They are the ways of the cognition of the world, which are based on the previous social experience.
As a result, these stereotypes are common knowledge for the members of such society, namely the narrator of the story. This knowledge is used as a basis for the interpretation of the information he gathers. For example, a person dressed in the decent clothes is bound to be a nobleman or a merchant. At the same time, the mentioned methods observation that are being used on the personal level, are closely related to the one of the main problems of information gathering – subjectivity, and, therefore, inadequacy of the acquired data. Indeed, the narrator does not know the reality behind the looks of the people he observes but rather interprets what he sees in a way he is used to. As a result, there may be a distinction between the personal interpretation of the gathered information and the objective reality.
The story progresses, and, after some time has passed, the nature of the crowd, the lighting, and, therefore, the atmosphere of the observed objects have changed. This change has affected the general character of the crowd as its decent characteristics have disappeared with the departure of a decent part of the public. These changes have resulted in the emergence of the next stage of observation – the narrator has started studying the individuals. His special state allows him reading the history of many years of people’s life only by looking at their faces in the crowd. Suddenly, his vision gets a face of a decrepit old man, which has instantly attracted and absorbed his attention due to its completely unique expression. However, in this case, the instant analytics fails being faced with such a unique object as the narrator is unable to structure the contradictory impressions he has obtained.
The stereotypical approach did not work – there were the notions of prudence, the vast mind, poverty, malice, cheerfulness, terror, and despair on the old man’s face. Such object required more than a glance to know it while the life of the other people observed by the narrator has succumbed to the analytical effort immediately. The challenge, a mystery that is embodied by the old man interests the narrator. He begins to stalk him, with this surveillance lasting for almost a day. It turns out that the old man is constantly on the move, he looks for crowded places as if gaining strength from them. Finally, the narrator comes to the conclusion regarding the old man, perceiving him as a genius of crime that refuses to be alone – the man of the crowd.
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Thus, the narrator’s interpretation of the lifestyle of the nameless old man is based on the results of his observation and analysis, which, in turn, are guided by certain stereotypes. However, his true motives and life story has remained undisclosed, and there is no guarantee that he is indeed a criminal genius. In the other words, the narrator was unable to read him. In general, it is possible to say that the episode with an old man is a perfect example of how the stereotypes may be the way of the society to impose certain limitations on the one’s ability to cognize the surrounding world. Indeed, the narrator knows absolutely nothing about the old man, but he labels him as a criminal genius only because his behavior is rather unusual.
In other words, it differs from that of all the other people he has observed. In accordance with the unwritten laws of the society, all that is not inherent in the crowd is considered strange or even evil. For example, mentally ill people are automatically perceived as strange by the others just because they do not behave like everyone else. In this regard, being called strange is an assessment. By labeling someone as a strange person, the people do not have to deal with him/her, and such behavior is often perceived as normal by the society. Indeed, it is easier to call someone strange rather than try to understand the reason for such deviation. As a result, the people’s ability to know and interpret the world around them becomes limited. The nameless narrator also chooses the easy way, giving up his pursuit of the old man and claiming that the further observation is pointless.
The same limitations may be imposed on the level of an individual. For example, the average person lies at least four times a day. The most common lie concerns one’s personal affairs. As a result, the other people remain oblivious to such person’s problems and do not try to delve deeper and understand what is going on, which can also be considered a limitation of the ability to cognize. Finally, even the text may impose the above mentioned limitations. For example, it may present even the contradictory information as an axiom, the truth that does not require proof. From the logical point of view, the reader should not waste his/her time trying to understand it. As a conclusion, it is possible to say that the interpretation, including the one described in The Man of the Crowd, is rather subjective.
Basically, by interpreting something, a person describes its own state of mind rather than the observed object, which may be influenced by the limitations imposed by the society and the other people. As a result, the true nature that which was observed often remains undisclosed. The narrator’s conclusion concerning the personality of the old man’s symbolizes the return to the theme of secrets that do not allow themselves to be disclosed. After outlining the paradoxical and unknowable objects of the inner world of a man, the narrator is eventually faced with the unique and complex object of knowledge and is convinced of the inviolability of its borders and impermeability. This conclusion corresponds to the thought expressed at the very beginning of the story. Indeed, the majority of people are like the books that do not permit themselves to be read.