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‘He crossed and re-crossed the way repeatedly’: Illegible Crossings in Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’

« He crossed and re-crossed the way repeatedly » : croisements illisibles dans « The Man of the Crowd » d’Edgar Allan Poe
Estelle Murail


Cet article se propose de relire la célèbre nouvelle d’Edgar Allan Poe, « L’Homme des foules », à travers le prisme du terme baudelairien « croisement ». On sait que cette nouvelle londonienne a traversé la Manche pour venir façonner l’imaginaire du Paris baudelairien, mais également que les influences textuelles sont sans cesse en mouvement. Ainsi, le mot croisement, enrichi par ses contacts avec les textes et contextes français, concentre plusieurs sens, et permet à son tour — et à rebours — d’éclairer le conte de Poe. Le terme croisement fait d’abord référence à une intersection, un carrefour, mais aussi à une façon d’occuper l’espace. Il désigne également l’idée de rencontre ou bien de rencontre manquée, condensant ainsi l’idée de connexion et de déconnexion. Il évoque par ailleurs l’idée d’intertextualité, ou tout du moins de son fonctionnement. Cet entrecroisement de connotations spatiales, sociales et textuelles en fait un outil particulièrement adapté à une lecture de « L’Homme des foules ». L’impression d’illisibilité qui imprègne ce texte énigmatique semble en effet être générée par ces multiples croisements. Le lecteur et le narrateur sont tous deux confrontés à la peur de ne pouvoir lire les différents croisements qui travaillent et traversent le texte urbain, effroi qui les embarque dans une course herméneutique aussi effrénée qu’infinie. En effet, le conte cherche constamment à impliquer le lecteur dans les croisements herméneutiques qui sous-tendent le texte, nous forçant ainsi à « sans cesse travers[er] et retravers[er] ses chemins ».

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1In this article, I would like to reread Poe’s 1840 short story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, through the prism of the word ‘crossing’ or its French equivalent, croisement. The idea for this paper came from my thesis, which examined the way the flâneur transformed and persisted in Paris and London throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. In this work, I argued that this seasoned urban observer emerged out of French and British print culture, and of crossings between them, and I used the Baudelairean word croisement to re-read the history of this polymorphous figure as one of crossings and crossovers. The idea of displacement and change is at the core of the word croisement, and perhaps even more obviously so in its English equivalent, ‘crossing’. Poe’s short story is a case in point, as his London-set text crossed the Channel and influenced Baudelaire’s visions of Paris, the ‘Fourmillante cité’, but this traffic of influences goes both ways. The word croisement, enriched by its crossings with French texts and contexts, condenses several meanings which can shed light on the workings of Poe’s tale.

2The word croisement appears in the preface to Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris, where he famously writes that his poetry finds its roots in the “criss-cross of innumerable interrelations” (my translation) which the city is made of:

Quel est celui de nous qui n’a pas, dans ses jours d’ambition, rêvé le miracle d’une prose poétique, musicale sans rythme et sans rime, assez souple et assez heurtée pour s’adapter aux mouvements lyriques de l’âme, aux ondulations de la rêverie, aux soubresauts de la conscience ? C’est surtout de la fréquentation des villes énormes, c’est du croisement de leurs innombrables rapports que naît cet idéal obsédant. (Baudelaire 275)

3The polysemy of the word makes it a useful heuristic tool to explore how the experience of the city is defined in many flâneurial texts. The word seems to condense several meanings. It is first and foremost a geographical term which designates an intersection between two streets, tracks, ways or lines—it is a crossroads or a crossing, or a spatial term which provides a way of talking about the occupation of space. Secondly, a croisement evokes the idea of two people or elements coming together by chance, but it also conjures up that of a missed encounter, a disconnection, or of two people inexorably moving away from each other. It is thus also a social term which provides ways to talk about relationships and connections, or lack thereof. To perform a croisement is also ‘to lay (a thing) across or athwart another, to set (things) across each other; to place crosswise’ (OED). It is the most basic gesture used in weaving—it is making a knot, entwining, intertwining, braiding, bringing together and thus complicating, constructing, composing and creating. This understanding of croisement as weaving is particularly useful since writing has been defined as the craft of weaving the threads of different texts together. Croisement is thus also a useful textual concept which may refer to the workings of intertextuality. This combination of spatial, social, and textual connotations makes the word croisement particularly relevant to ‘The Man of the Crowd’.

4Poe’s short story opens on a scene in which the convalescent narrator is seen sitting behind a window observing the crowd walking down a busy London street. At the beginning of the text, we see him reading the crowd like a text and classifying it into discrete types. After a while, he spots a man he cannot read, and he decides to follow this illegible man through the crowd until morning. The heart of the story thus lies in the very physical experience of croisement—of crossing the path of others, of being jostled by the crowd—but also in the fear of illegibility which stems from it for both the narrator and the reader. In fact, the idea of illegibility frames the story: the German quote ‘es lässt sich nicht lesen’ both opens and closes the text. The switch of language here seems to highlight the idea that opacity of meaning will be central to the text.

5This article will argue that the sense of illegibility which pervades Poe’s text seems to stem from these different forms of crossings. It will first explain how the story can be seen as a croisement or as the bringing together of two different literary genres, and it will use the image of the diptych to illustrate the idea of a tale divided into two sections: the physiology and the detective story. Building on this image, it will then argue that the word croisement suggests a pattern of weaving which is more complicated than this, and that one might also look at the story as a canvas which intertwines these two traditions together rather than articulates them. Poe also weaves the thread of other intertexts into this canvas, thus adding in other croisements which complicate its pattern and contribute to the overall effect of undecipherability which emanates from this enigmatic tale.

The Tale As a Diptych: The Croisement/Meeting of Two Literary Genres

  • 1 See John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 1972).

6‘The Man of the Crowd’ can be seen as a croisement in that it connects two literary genres: it draws on the tradition of physiologies and contains the seeds of the emerging detective story. Physiologies were a hugely popular genre of illustrated sketches which depicted social types and which proliferated in the 1830s and 1840s. One might say, following the critic Matthew Beaumont, that Poe ‘reconstructs the story as a diptych’ (Beaumont 75), which illustrates the idea that the tale has two sections, the physiology and the detective story, which offer us two different ‘Ways of Seeing’.1

7The protagonist of ‘The Man of the Crowd’ is first seen reading newspapers, and then shifting his reading activity to the crowd streaming past his window. His position is curiously reminiscent of that of the diorama spectator, who is immobile in the centre of the building while the ‘world’ moves around him: the exterior is just an entertainment to be gazed at, leisurely and safely. The narrator declares that he feels ‘a calm but inquisitive interest in everything’ (Poe 229), and yet the text is pervaded by a sense of anxiety which appears to stem from the unknowability of the ‘tides of population . . . rushing past [. . . his] door’ (Poe 230). To counter this feeling of illegibility, the narrator starts dividing the crowd into isolated categories. From his detached position, he demonstrates, in a scientific manner, that the urban crowd can be classified, and thus mastered, as can be seen in the following passage:

The tribe of clerks was an obvious one; and here I discerned two remarkable divisions. There were the junior clerks of flash houses—young gentlemen with tight coats, bright boots, well-oiled hair, and supercilious lips. . . . They wore the castoff graces of the gentry; and this, I believe, involves the best definition of the class. The division of the upper clerks of staunch firms, or of the ‘steady old fellows,’ it was not possible to mistake. These were known by their coats and pantaloons of black or brown, made to sit comfortably, with white cravats and waistcoats, broad solid-looking shoes, and thick hose or gaiters. (230–31)

  • 2 Several critics endorse this view of things. See Dana Brand, James W. Werner, and Jonathan Auerbach

8The narrator’s all-encompassing epistemological mastery is underscored here with words such as ‘obvious’, ‘discerned’, ‘was not possible to mistake’, ‘were known by’. His method seems to prove that the crowd can be studied, known and understood. One could say, following Benjamin, that the first part of the text enacts ‘the phantasmagoria of the flâneur, [which is] to read from faces the profession, the ancestry, the character’ (Benjamin 2002, 429). Poe obviously draws on the taxonomical conventions of physiologies which were by then firmly established.2 The fact that he observes the crowd at a large bow-window, at a remove, reinforces the impression of a panoptic, disciplining gaze. Foucault’s words on panopticism could be applied to the narrator’s dissecting gaze: ‘Discipline fixes; it arrests or regulates movements; it clears up confusion; it dissipates compact groupings of individuals wandering . . . in unpredictable ways; it establishes calculated distributions’ (Foucault 219). The narrator’s method seems to prove that the crowd can be studied, known and understood. In this passage, he has all the characteristics of the flâneur-physiologist of the 1830s.

9However, once the lonely man of the crowd comes into his field of vision, the narrator’s seemingly flawless classifying paradigm dissolves in a flash. The sudden irruption of this mysterious man on the scene is the fulcrum of the text—or of the diptych. The fear of illegibility forces the narrator into action, or rather movement—he feels compelled to chase after him. This is the moment when the physiologist transforms into the detective. ‘Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view—to know more of him. Hurriedly putting on all overcoat, and seizing my hat and cane, I made my way into the street, and pushed through the crowd in the direction which I had seen him take; for he had already disappeared’ (Poe 233). All the paraphernalia of what has become the archetypal detective story is here: the overcoat, the hat, the handkerchief tied about the narrator’s mouth, and the ‘pair of caoutchouc overshoes, [which enables him to] move about in perfect silence’ (Poe 234; 235). Like any detective worth his salt, the narrator also meticulously lists all the clues he can ratiocinate from:

I had now a good opportunity of examining his person. He was short in stature, very thin, and apparently very feeble. His clothes, generally, were filthy and ragged; but as he came, now and then, within the strong glare of a lamp, I perceived that his linen, although dirty, was of beautiful texture; and my vision deceived me, or, through a rent in a closely buttoned and evidently second-handed roquelaire which enveloped him, I caught a glimpse both of a diamond and of a dagger. These observations heightened my curiosity, and I resolved to follow the stranger whithersoever he should go. (Poe 233–34)

10The precise and exhaustive description draws our attention to potentially significant details, such as the diamond and the dagger. The tale also presents all the elements of the detective hunt. The chase is the spine of the tale—its twists and turns sustain the readers’ interest: ‘I resolved to follow the stranger whithersoever he should go’ (Poe 234). ‘I was obliged to follow him closely’ (Poe 234). ‘He turned and retraced his steps. Still more was I astonished to see him repeat the same walk several times—once nearly detecting me as he came around with a sudden movement’ (Poe 234–35). Finally, the moment of resolution brings the story to a close: ‘The old man . . . is the type and the genius of deep crime’ (Poe 237). All these elements led Benjamin to say that ‘Poe’s famous tale “The Man of the Crowd” is something like the X-ray picture of a detective story’ (Benjamin 1973, 48). The narrator’s irresistible urge to track down the man of the crowd might also reflect the public’s desire to move away from the monotony of physiological classification and signal its appetite for a new genre. According to Benjamin, the year 1841 was the high point of the fashion for physiologies, after which they rapidly declined (Benjamin 1973, 35).

11For Walter Benjamin and many critics, physiologies and their classifying methods quickly became obsolete because the urban crowd could not be reduced to comfortable transparency. The detective story took over, because the detective had the ability to follow the criminal’s traces in the crowd, and was therefore more powerful than his predecessor, and could better assuage the bourgeois fears of the anonymous and threatening masses. ‘The Man of the Crowd’ thus seems to show us a neat transition from the ascendency of the physiologist to that of the detective. However, I would like to show that this distinction between the two parts of the tale is not as clear-cut as it seems.

From the Diptych to the Canvas: Crossing the Threads or Blurring Categories

  • 3 Roland Barthes, ‘Théorie du texte’, Encyclopedia Universalis, 1973.

12I would now like to use the word crossing to show how the short story actually blurs categories, and move from the image of the diptych to that of the canvas. As stated in the introduction, crossing also refers to a gesture used in weaving—it is bringing together, composing and creating, and is thus also a useful textual concept. Etymologically, the word text stems from texere (to weave), as Barthes has pointed out: ‘L’analyse textuelle demande en effet de se représenter le texte comme un tissu, comme une tresse de voix différentes, de codes multiples, à la fois entrelacés et inachevés’ (Barthes 1985, 358). In his article on intertextuality,3 Barthes explains that each text is a patchwork weaving other texts together, a rereading and a reconfiguration of other texts.

  • 4 ‘warp, n.: Weaving. The threads which are extended lengthwise in the loom, usually twisted harder t (...)
  • 5 ‘weft, n.: Weaving. The threads that cross from side to side of a web, at right angles to the warp (...)

13Building on Matthew Beaumont’s visual metaphor of the diptych, I would like to use the metaphor of the canvas to illustrate how Poe’s aesthetics of croisement functions in ‘The Man of the Crowd’. One could see physiologies and detective stories as the warp and woof of Poe’s tale, as two genres which become so intertwined as to create a radically new pattern. One might see physiologies as the warp of the canvas. In weaving, the warp is tied and stretched onto the loom before the weaving process begins.4 By 1840, the tradition of physiologies had become a convention, and Poe uses it as the starting point of his tale. However, Poe also subverts this tradition and complicates the pattern of the tale by drawing the weft5 containing the seeds of the detective story through the warp of the tale, and by weaving in other literary references which draw on former literary traditions.

  • 6 ‘peer, v.: To look narrowly or closely, esp. in order to make out something indistinct or obscured’ (...)

14First of all, the flâneur-narrator of the tale himself can be said to be a cross, a hybrid literary creation displaying some of the characteristics of the physiologist and some belonging to the detective, since he is one and the same person. Similarly, on a structural level, the threads of both genres are so inextricably woven together as to make them indistinguishable. Many critics have emphasized the similarities between the two parts of the tale. For Werner, for example, ‘in Poe’s formulation the detective and the flâneur[-physiologist] are closely aligned in characteristics and methodology’ (Werner 25). The uneasiness stemming from the illegibility of the crowd does not only pervade the second half of the text—the sense of epistemological mastery is everywhere precarious and incomplete. At the beginning of the text, the narrator’s ‘peering through the smoky panes’ may hint at the opacity of the crowd and at the futility of his attempt to classify it. The verb ‘to peer’6 underlines both the arduousness of the task at hand and the unintelligibility of the object under scrutiny. Thus, even before the man of the crowd comes into sight, the narrator’s visual acuity is compromised. Other problems also come to light with this type of classifying gaze. As Auerbach points out, ‘the narrator’s systematic binary differentiating turns his fellow humans into a set of exaggerated caricatures, the price he must pay to signify order, and see things whole’ (Auerbach 29). This caricaturing tendency is especially striking when the narrator describes the members of the crowd belonging to the lower classes:

Drunkards innumerable and indescribable—some in shreds and patches, reeling, inarticulate, with bruised visage and lack-lustre eyes—some in whole although filthy garments, with a slightly unsteady swagger, thick sensual lips, and hearty-looking rubicund faces—others clothed in materials which had once been good, and which even now were scrupulously well brushed—men who walked with a more than naturally firm and springy step, but whose countenances were fearfully pale, and whose eyes were hideously wild and red; and who clutched with quivering fingers, as they strode through the crowd, at every object which came within their reach. (Poe 232)

15In this extract, the colours are heightened (‘bruised’, ‘rubicund’, ‘red’), the features are enlarged and distorted (‘thick lips’, ‘hearty-looking’, ‘hideously wild’) and human bodies are fragmented (‘visage’, ‘lips’, ‘fingers’). The passage thus undermines physiognomical practice by showing how it hyperbolizes and deforms the crowd. Moreover, from the outset, the opening words ‘innumerable and indescribable’ hint at the fact that this categorizing task is doomed to failure. The physiological chart the narrator is trying to establish cannot contain this ‘tumultuous sea of human heads’ and is literally bursting at the seams (Poe 230). His portraits become increasingly sketchy as he tries to ‘encompass darker and deeper themes’. Indeed, cracks appear in the surface of his analytic model as soon as the narrator attempts to describe lower social categories. Even before the man of the crowd appears, the breakdown of this physiognomical model is reflected in a change in aesthetics. The orderly vision of the beginning of the text is progressively replaced by a set of Gothic images:

. . . all full of a noisy and inordinate vivacity which jarred discordantly upon the ear, and gave an aching sensation to the eye. As the night deepened, so deepened to me the interest of the scene; for not only did the general character of the crowd materially alter (its gentler features retiring in the gradual withdrawal of the more orderly portion of the people, and its harsher ones coming out into bolder relief, as the late hour brought forth every species of infamy from its den), but the rays of the gas-lamps, feeble at first in their struggle with the dying day, had now at length gained ascendancy, and threw over every thing a fitful and garish lustre. All was dark yet splendid. (Poe 232–33)

16The way Poe paints the interplay of dark and light engenders uneasiness in both narrator and readers and throws an uncanny light on the tableau. The play of light and shadow caused by the rays of gas-lamps distorts familiar objects and casts a shadow of uncertainty over them, or throws ‘over every thing a fitful and garish lustre’ as the street is slowly becoming cloaked in obscurity (‘the night deepened’, ‘the dying day’, ‘all was dark’). The aesthetics of the scene translates the narrator’s state of intellectual and cognitive uncertainty. An impression of dissonance dominates the scene, which is filled with ‘noisy’, ‘jar[ring]’ sounds and indistinct shapes which give ‘an aching sensation to the eye’. The aesthetics used throughout the scene—which is very similar to that of the Gothic sublime—seems to be encapsulated in the concluding sentence: ‘All was dark yet splendid’. Through its use of Gothic aesthetics, the passage exposes the limitations of the rational physiological approach to reading the crowd.

17What this passage also highlights is the unreliability of the narrator himself. The narrator evokes his recent illness at the beginning of the text and indicates that ‘the film from the mental vision’ has been lifted to leave his ‘intellect, electrified surpass[ing] greatly its everyday condition’ (Poe 229). However, the text casts doubt upon this statement, since his words cast a fantastic, uncanny veil over the crowd. The narrator’s peculiar frame of mind itself might be a ‘smoky pane’—which obfuscates meaning. What this passage highlights is as much the lack of legibility of the crowd as the unreliability of the narrator’s systematic method of observing the crowd. The narrator evokes his recent illness at the beginning of the text and indicates that ‘the film from the mental vision’ has been lifted to leave his ‘intellect, electrified surpass[ing] greatly its everyday condition’ (Poe 229). However, the text casts doubt upon this statement, since the narrator’s analytical method quickly falters and instead of shedding light on the nature of the crowd, seems to cast a fantastic, uncanny veil over it, as was seen in the above-quoted example. This suggests that the narrator’s peculiar frame of mind itself might be a ‘smoky pane’—which obfuscates meaning.

The wild effects of the light enchained me to an examination of individual faces; and although the rapidity with which the world of light flitted before the window prevented me from casting more than a glance upon each visage, still it seemed that, in my then peculiar mental state, I could frequently read, even in that brief interval of a glance, the history of long years. (Poe 233)

18There is something slightly troubling and ‘wild’ about the narrator’s obsessive urge to read and categorize the crowd. This ‘mood of the keenest appetency’ might be described as hypervigilance—an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity, the purpose of which is to detect threats. The narrator’s speculations are thus already spiralling out of control in the first part of the tale. One might suggest, following Matthew Beaumont, that urban life is the cause of this pervasive malady which engenders ‘a state of delirium so habitual as to be almost unnoticeable’ (Beaumont x).

19But uncertainty seems to take an even greater hold on the narrator in the second part of the story, in which he immerses himself into the crowd and dons the attributes of the detective. I would like to show that the second part of the text undermines the would-be detective even further, thereby also undermining Benjamin’s claims about the superiority of the detective’s cognitive powers. This process of unravelling of the detective’s powers echoes the text’s undermining of the physiologist’s powers and links both parts inextricably: the sense of epistemological anxiety shrouds both analytical reading and ratiocination.

20From the moment the man of the crowd appears, the narrator feels compelled to chase after him. However, his frantic pursuit does not shed light on the mystery. The plot actually seems to thicken as we plunge deeper into the city. The arrival of the man of the crowd confirms the breakdown of the physiological model:

With my brow to the glass, I was thus occupied in scrutinizing the mob, when suddenly there came into view a countenance (that of a decrepit old man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age)—a countenance which at once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute idiosyncrasy of its expression. Any thing even remotely resembling that expression I had never seen before. I well remember that my first thought, upon beholding it, was that Retszch, had he viewed it, would have greatly preferred it to his own pictural incarnations of the fiend. As I endeavored, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense—of supreme despair. I felt singularly aroused, startled, fascinated. ‘How wild a history’, I said to myself, ‘is written within that bosom!’ Then came a craving desire to keep the man in view—to know more of him. (Poe 232)

21The accumulation of contradictory terms the narrator uses to delineate the man’s nature mirrors his state of epistemological anxiety. The old man can be construed as a synecdoche of the crowd, or even the city, since he engenders the same ‘state of delirium’ in the narrator. The image of paradoxical ideas jostling each other within the narrator’s mind foreshadows his imminent physical and metaphorical descent into the crowd, which is also an experience of jostling and confusion: ‘If jostled, they bowed profusely to the jostlers, and appeared overwhelmed with confusion’ (Poe 230). The illegibility of the man of the crowd forces the narrator to leave his position of safety behind the pane of glass to experience this confusion. He is compelled to go through the looking glass to participate in the ‘aggregate relations’ which he had previously only observed from a distance. To explore the indecipherability of the man of the crowd, I would like to borrow Dana Brand’s expression, who points out that ‘the old man is a gap in the urban text, a gap that threatens to unravel the narrator’s sense of imaginative control over that which he has reduced to a text’ (Brand 221). I would like to take up the metaphor of the gap, or the blank, which suddenly accelerates the fall into illegibility which the text hints at from its opening lines. The narrator-turned-detective relentlessly tracks down the old man to close the gap (physical distance) between them, but this feverish pursuit is fuelled by the great anxiety which the illegibility of the man of the crowd—this gap, this blank page—engenders. The man of the crowd—and the crowd itself—can thus both be construed as blank pages, which the narrator feels compelled to fill with the above-mentioned logorrhoea of descriptive terms (terms which might also apply to physiologies), or as pages so darkened with scribblings and croisements of all kinds as to be completely obscured and illegible.

22The ‘detective’ part of the tale, despite comprising all the elements of the detective story, does not shed light on the nature of the man, the crowd or the city, but has quite the opposite effect. The text seems to be a gradual descent into literal and metaphorical obscurity. All the potentially significant observations the narrator makes seem to put him on the wrong track, or lead him into interpretative dead ends. ‘The Man of the Crowd’ may actually be perceived as the parody of a comforting detective story. It takes us on a convoluted interpretative journey which goes through the motions of the detective hunt, but does not yield any reassuring result. The hunt literally takes the form of a prolonged zigzagging, criss-crossing pursuit across the city, whose trajectory forms intricate interlacing patterns on the London map—croisements. The impression the text gives is one of terrifying fluidity. Interestingly, the narrator’s increasing sense of geographic disorientation mirrors his growing confusion concerning the nature of his prey: ‘I was surprised, however, to find, upon his having made the circuit of the square, that he turned and retraced his steps. Still more was I astonished to see him repeat the same walk several times’, ‘I was now utterly amazed at his behaviour’, ‘upon the whole, I was at a loss to comprehend the waywardness of his actions’. ‘I followed him in the wildest amazement’ (Poe 234; 235; 236; 237). The gradation used to reflect his increasing bewilderment as the tale unfolds and climaxes in the tale’s concluding words:

‘This old man,’ I said at length, ‘is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds. The worst heart of the world is a grosser book than the “Hortulus Animae”,* and perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of God that “es lässt sich nicht lesen”’. (Poe 237)

  • 7 This reading of Poe’s tale was first put forward by Baudelaire and was then taken up by Walter Benj (...)

23The circuitous physical and hermeneutic journey, however, has led us into a dead end and yielded no result—the man of the crowd remains a blank. The narrator concludes the tale by equating ‘the man of the crowd’—and the human heart—to a bulky, illegible book. His specious conclusion aims at giving us the impression that the mystery has been solved, but it is no more than empty rhetoric. What the narrator admits to is that he cannot make sense of the man of the crowd. By the end of the tale, we have literally come full circle: on a geographic level, the narrator finds himself on the exact same street as at the beginning of the tale, and on an interpretative level, has learnt nothing more about the enigmatic man of the crowd. This spurious sense of resolution and uncanny circular structure thus redoubles our sense of uncertainty and anxiety. This walk through the city has shattered the narrator’s sense of epistemological mastery by showing him that no human being can be read as he had presumed. The blurring process between the old man and the crowd is complete by the end of the tale: the old man, this synecdoche representing the crowd, appropriately vanishes into it. His identity seems to disintegrate into the city which has itself turned into a mysterious entity. Poe’s illegible (man of the) crowd seems to contain and physically embody the problems and contradictions of urban modernity.7

Croisements As Intertextual Weaving

24Moreover, as the tale unfolds, Poe weaves the conventions of the Romantic double into his tale to create parallels between the man of the crowd and the narrator himself, which is another form of blurring or croisement.

25The fact that both characters remain unnamed makes them virtually interchangeable and increases the indeterminacy of their identity. The text clearly establishes the man of the crowd as the narrator’s double. The man of the crowd, for instance, ‘refuses to be alone’, but this pressing need to be ‘among the throng’ only mirrors the narrator’s craving desire to keep the man [of the crowd] in view’ (Poe 237; 237; 233). Both men feel the urge to be at ‘the heart of mighty London’ (Poe 237). Yet, what the tale tells us is that the insoluble mystery of human identity—and of the human heart, which ‘does not let itself be read’—is crystallised most potently in the figure of the man of the crowd, as the closing words of the tale remind us: ‘es lässt sich nicht lesen’. What follows is that the uncertainties concerning the man of the crowd’s identity only mirror the narrator’s own wavering sense of self. Poe draws on the conventions of the Romantic double to reinforce the text’s aesthetics of indistinctness and heighten the sense of ontological malaise which pervades the text. The Romantic double, as Clément Rosset explains, points to the subject’s sense of ontological anxiety. The creation of the double is an attempt to ward off the ‘lack of being’ felt by the subject. While the subject perceives himself as a mere shadow whose very existence is uncertain, the double’s corporeal existence firmly grounds him in reality. However, creating a double is nothing but a tragic and temporary escape from the subject’s state of ontological anxiety. The false sense of security created by the figure of the double is a trap, and the double inevitably leads the subject to perdition, because choosing the double is choosing an image of oneself rather than oneself. Rosset’s comments about the nature of the Romantic double are particularly enlightening with regards to Poe’s tale. First of all, the Romantic intertext—along with the numerous intertexts which the text calls forth—brings out the unstable nature of the tale. The shifting form of the tale mirrors and reinforces the uncertain sense of identity which suffuses the text. Secondly, his observations suggest that the old man is a subject on whom the narrator can focus his attention, and who possesses a corporeal identity which he finds missing in himself. Seen in this light, the double is no more than a feeble attempt at counterbalancing the subject’s ‘lack of being’. Auerbach deftly uses the image of the window, which is also a mirror, an instrument of self-reflection as well as vision, to connect the two figures (Auerbach 30). The man of the crowd thus becomes the narrator’s only hope for self-understanding, hence his desperate attempt to keep him in view. In Auerbach’s words, having a double to follow ‘permits the “I” to construct some structure of cause and effect, a plot, that could help give the narrator some objective sense of himself’ (Auerbach 27). The narrator’s obsessive pursuit of the man of the crowd thus clearly hints at an anxious desire to make sense of himself. According to Dryden, the theme of identity is central to the literary double, but becomes more pressing for nineteenth-century subjects, who have to face the dilution of their individuality into the emergent mass of people gathering in expanding metropolis (Dryden 16). The text develops the idea that the narrator, the man of the crowd and the crowd itself form an interchangeable, undecipherable triad. What is at stake here is self-definition. However, the man in the crowd refuses to recognize the man of the crowd—‘the type and the genius of deep crime’—as his double, and concludes that he is essentially inscrutable, thus preventing the tale from coming to a close. Poe’s use of doubling thus fuels the uncanny feeling of ontological undecidability which the concluding words imprint upon us. The thread (and threat) of illegibility which runs throughout the canvas of Poe’s tale both links up and blurs the limits between identities.

26The persistence of ancient texts whose threads become interlaced with new texts complicates the pattern of the diptych and destabilizes the shape of the tale further. ‘The Man of the Crowd’ is thus a patchwork weaving different texts together, a reconfiguration from which new meaning can emerge. Paradoxically, the overall effect produced by this tale is precisely that of a meaning which constantly escapes us.

27The sense of illegibility which pervades Poe’s enigmatic short story seems to stem from the spatial, social, and textual crossings which are at the heart of the text. This article has mainly explored the intertextual croisements which contribute to creating the tale’s overall effect of indecipherability. However, other forms of croisements are at work in the short story. One cannot help but notice the croisements or mirroring effects between the narrator’s and the reader’s experience of deciphering the urban text. The narrator regularly draws parallels between his reading activities and his readers’, as he does most explicitly in the following example: ‘With a cigar in my mouth and a newspaper in my lap, I had been amusing myself for the greater part of the afternoon, . . . in poring over advertisements’ (Poe 229). This description playfully mirrors Poe’s readers’ situation as they discover the tale for the first time in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. The text thus highlights its fictional status, but also makes a point of re-presenting the hermeneutic process on which the narrator/reader has embarked. Both the narrator and the reader are confronted with the fear of not being able to read and interpret the many crossings which are at work in the (urban) text. These crossings turn both the narrator and the reader into detectives and send them on an endless hermeneutic journey. Indeed, the tale constantly seeks to involve us in hermeneutic crossings which shape the text, and thus forces us to ‘cross and re-cross the way repeatedly’.

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1 See John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 1972).

2 Several critics endorse this view of things. See Dana Brand, James W. Werner, and Jonathan Auerbach.

3 Roland Barthes, ‘Théorie du texte’, Encyclopedia Universalis, 1973.

4 ‘warp, n.: Weaving. The threads which are extended lengthwise in the loom, usually twisted harder than the weft or woof, with which these threads are crossed to form the web or piece’. OED.

5 ‘weft, n.: Weaving. The threads that cross from side to side of a web, at right angles to the warp threads with which they are interlaced: = woof’. OED.

6 ‘peer, v.: To look narrowly or closely, esp. in order to make out something indistinct or obscured’. OED.

7 This reading of Poe’s tale was first put forward by Baudelaire and was then taken up by Walter Benjamin and a substantial group of critics. See Dana Brand, Robert H. Byer, and Monica Elbert.

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Estelle Murail, « ‘He crossed and re-crossed the way repeatedly’: Illegible Crossings in Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 83 Printemps | 2016, mis en ligne le 29 juin 2016, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.2440

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Estelle Murail

Dr. Estelle Murail is a Junior Lecturer in English Language and Literature at the Université Paris Diderot-Paris 7 and also teaches at Sciences-Po Paris. She completed a jointly-supervised PhD in English Literature at the Université Paris Diderot and King’s College London in 2013. Her PhD dissertation is entitled ‘Beyond the Flâneur: Walking, Passage and Crossing in London and Paris in the Nineteenth Century’.

Estelle Murail a obtenu son doctorat effectué en co-tutelle à l’Université Paris Diderot-Paris 7 et à King’s College London en 2013. Sa thèse, intitulée « Au-delà du Flâneur: marche, passage et croisements à Paris et à Londres au dix-neuvième siècle », suggère que cet observateur urbain est né de croisements entre les productions écrites des deux capitales. Elle a enseigné la littérature et la traduction à l’Université Paris Diderot-Paris 7, l’Université Paris Est Marne-La-Vallée et à Sciences-Po Paris. Elle co-organise le séminaire ‘Victorian Persistence: Text, Image, Theory’ avec le Professeur Sara Thornton pour le LARCA et enseigne actuellement en classes préparatoires au Lycée Saint-Jean de Passy à Paris.

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