30 pages 1 hour read

Edgar Allan Poe

The Man of the Crowd

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1840

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Man of the Crowd”

“The Man of the Crowd” (1840) is a short story by American author Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) that follows an unnamed narrator as he pursues a mysterious man through London's streets. Like many of Poe's stories, "The Man of the Crowd" is Gothic horror fiction and explores themes of secrets and mystery, the psychology of crime, and the horror of the unknown. The story was originally published simultaneously in the December 1840 issues of two different literary magazines, Burton's Gentleman's Magazine and Atkinson's Casket.

Poe is a central figure of 19th-century Romanticism, which focuses on themes of doomed love, emotions, and psychology. His short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) is considered the first work of detective fiction with the character of C. Auguste Dupin as the first literary detective. Poe primarily wrote poetry and short stories. His major works include his narrative poem “The Raven” (1945) and the short stories “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846).

This guide refers to the version of the text that is freely available from Project Gutenberg.

In “The Man of the Crowd,” Poe uses a first-person point of view, giving readers access to the unnamed narrator’s thoughts as he observes the London streets and eventually pursues the old man. In the opening lines, the narrator reflects that there are some secrets that can never be divulged, and that many men have died unable to confess their deepest burdens. This leads him to the conclusion that an element of all crime remains secret.

The narrator is sitting in a London café after recovering from a long illness when he finds himself in a state of clear-minded curiosity. Ever since his illness, he says, he finds pleasure in the smallest things. This leads him to peer out the window at the city street outside, where he observes a bustling crowd of people making their way through London.

The narrator takes a deep interest in the scene and contemplates the various types of people in the crowd. While he first observes them as a large group, he soon begins to focus on smaller details, such as their facial expressions, clothing, styles of movement, and general attitudes. Most of the people seem to be concerned only with navigating the crowd; they pay no attention to the other people traversing the street and instead are focused only on their own purpose. Others seem to completely ignore the crowd around them, rushing about and talking to themselves as if they are alone. Both categories of people are well dressed and seem to belong to the upper and middle classes.

As the narrator continues to observe the crowd, he begins to focus more on the darker and more criminal aspects of city life. He observes men dressed like gentleman whom he immediately recognizes as pickpockets, as well as nicely dressed men whom he identifies as gamblers by their gold and velvet clothing and accessories. Looking still further, he sees peddlers, beggars, sex workers, street merchants, and working-class laborers, as well as people with disabilities, leprosy, and alcoholism.

As night falls over London, the narrator becomes even more intrigued by the crowd and imagines that he can easily read and understand each individual as they pass by. At this point, his eyes fall upon an old man with a strange and unreadable expression. Captivated, the narrator leaves his table at the café and wanders outside into the street, hoping to find out more about the mysterious man.

The narrator follows the man closely, making sure to remain out of sight. The narrator observes his appearance: he is old and seems extremely frail, and he is wearing beautiful clothes that are very dirty. Through a gap in the old man’s cloak, the narrator notices that the old man has both a diamond and a dagger, and he is so intrigued by these items that he decides to continue following the man until he can find out more about him.

It begins to rain, and the narrator walks close to the stranger so that he does not lose him in the darkness. The stranger turns down a less crowded cross street, slowing his pace and moving more carefully, until he turns into a bustling square and returns to his original pace and demeanor. The old man retraces his steps several times, nearly catching the narrator following him as he turns around, and then continues down another less crowded street into a congested marketplace. While the old man ducks into various shops, never buying anything or speaking to anyone, the narrator continues to follow, making sure to remain out of the old man’s sight and hearing. The man’s behavior in the shops further fascinates the narrator, who reiterates his intention to keep following him until he has learned more.

As the clock strikes 11, the crowd begins to clear. A shopkeeper accidentally bumps into the old man, who appears disturbed and runs anxiously down several deserted streets before arriving back at the main road outside of the café where the narrator’s chase began. The old man quickly rushes into a crowd coming out of a theatre, where the old man seems more comfortable, and the narrator is once more baffled by the old man’s actions. When the crowd from the theatre begins to dissipate, the old man seems to become agitated again. He turns down a path that leads to the poorest area of the city and perks up as he nears the crowds of impoverished Londoners.

Morning begins to break as the narrator follows the stranger to a crowded pub. The old man seems overjoyed when he joins the crowd inside, but when the establishment closes, the old man goes back outside and returns to the heart of the city with the narrator following behind. They arrive back outside of the café, and the street is now bustling just as it had been the evening before. The narrator continues to follow the old man through the city for another day, and as it begins to grow dark again, he finally stops in front of the stranger and looks him in the eye. The old man does not notice the narrator and continues walking just as before. Still contemplating what he has seen, the narrator concludes that the man “is the type and genius of deep crime” (Paragraph 20) and that he will never learn anything more about him.