In Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd,’ which character(s) could be considered the Flaneur and why? Refer to at least 4 academic texts to support your argument. In the ‘The Man of the Crowd’ the narrator, an educated man in convalescence observes the city and its occupants. Through his observations we can identify various traits in the narrator himself, an unusual old man and perhaps a few other minor characters, the ways of a flaneur. However, none of these characters are explicitly called a flaneur and depending on the interpretation of what a flaneur is the characters could be considered flaneurs or not.
To comprehend to what extent each of these characters are essentially flaneurs, the essay is going to analyse the actions of the characters in the story as well as the different opinions of what a flaneur actually is. The characters that will be taken into consideration in the essay will be solely male, The flaneur’s freedom to wonder at will through the city is an exclusively masculine freedom, (Wilson, E. 2001, p. 79). Women in the nineteenth century would have arose suspicion if they loitered, as a woman wondering on the streets would have been considered a flower girl or a prostitute.
Therefore, it will be assumed that the narrator is a man and not a woman in disguise, otherwise the narrator would be a flaneuse and not a flaneur. In the nineteenth century cities like Paris and London quickly expanded creating new classes and ways in which people interacted. These phenomenon appealed the curiosity of various writers, anthropologists, sociologists and so on who started to observe people in cities. These spectators of modern life, the flaneurs, were: A detached observer.
He caught the fleeting, fragmentary quality of modern urban life, as a rootless outsider he also identified with all the marginal that urban society produced. (Wilson, E. 1992, p. 54) Poets such as Baudelaire begun to actively observe people in the streets and arcades by loitering and strolling with the sole aim of observing and recording the new ways of life occurring in the city. The narrator not only observes how people interact and distinguish themselves from others and other ‘tribes’, but also of how the environment variables may influence people and their behaviour.
For instance the ‘change of weather had an odd effect upon the crowd. ’ Moreover, the narrator notices how depending on the time there would be a ‘gradual withdrawal of the more orderly portion of the people, and its harsher ones coming out,’ and how depending on the location the attitude of people and crowds changed. The person whose experience epitomizes the fragmented and anonymous nature of life in the modern city, observing the fleeting and ephemeral aspects of urban existence, (D’Souza, McDonough. 2006, p. 19)
Therefore, the experiences the narrator went through and observations he derived from them seem to be exactly what a flaneur would be searching for and noticing. Moreover, the narrator writes as a consequence of his experience, The flaneur is, in fact, the critic – the writer, artist, sociologist – whose detached observations might well be reported in literary or visual texts. (D’Souza, McDonough. 2006, p. 24) Although the narrator is not conscious of the fact that he is being a flaneur the fact that he is telling what he has experienced makes him one.
Trough out the first part of the story the narrator is observing from inside the cafe, simply sitting and observing out into the street. The public streets and the cafe’s became a kind of salon for the flaneurs. (Wilson, E. 1992, p. 58) Loitering in the nineteenth century was illegal, therefore, many flaneurs must have often used cafes as their workspace and research ground, just like the narrator is doing. However, a flaneur is not a static observer and would probably want to slowly move or at least change location from which to observe.
The only time it occurs to the narrator that he can observe people further if he were outside, is when he has his attention captured by the old man, who is moving away from his sight. The narrator leaves the cafe to follow one particular man and not to continue observing the crowd. The flaneur possesses a power, it walks at will, freely and seemingly without purpose, but simultaneously with an inquisitive wonder and an infinite capacity to absorb the activities of the collective. (Jenks, C. 1995, p. 146)
The narrator does not walk at will, but closely follows the old man, with the sole purpose of understanding him and not the “collective” or how people react to the old man as an outsider of society. Therefore, the narrator can be considered a flaneur only until he starts shadowing the old man. That is how flaneur is to be appreciated. He is to be watched, not spoken too. To understand him, you must learn ‘the art of seeing’ which is to become paralytic. (Sennet, R. 1977, p. 213) The narrator’s curiosity for the way the old man walks through London is just an observation of the ways of a flaneur but he is not being one.
Although the narrator is in his ‘peculiar mental state’ he seems to have somehow absorbed and learnt the: Double vision that Benjamin calls ‘dialectical’ and which allows you to see the prosaic as at the same time the strange. (Tonkiss, F. 2005 p. 124) The narrator does see the ‘prosaic’ and ‘strange’ but still he cannot understand the old man. What attracts the narrator to follow the old man is the “idiosyncrasy of its expression” and the unusual detachment from any social class. Possibly the expression of the old man could be the ‘male gaze’: The gaze of an alienated man.
It is the gaze of the flaneur. (Tester, K. 1994, p. 84) Unlike anybody that has been observed by the narrator from the cafe the man cannot be categorised: the contrast in his appearance is exceptional, for instance the man is wearing a diamond ring which symbolises wealth, leisure, eternity, perfection, beauty as well as a dagger which conveys danger, crime, poverty, death but perhaps that is to go unnoticed in any crowd that the old man might find himself in, especially if he actually is a flaneur. Baudielair displayed himself in different identities- now flaneur, now whore, now rag picker, now dandy. Buck-Morss, 1991, p. 187) On the other hand, the story begins with an analysis of the behaviour of people on their deathbeds, and of how sometimes ‘the conscience of man takes up a burthen so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave. ’ Perhaps this is what is happening to the old man: the dagger he is carrying may indicate that he has committed a vicious crime, and now, being in a dazed state of mind he keeps roaming the city desperately trying not to think of what he has done, to erase the memories of the crime by never being truly alone with himself.
Continuous and necessary contact with the anonymous multitude. (Wilson, E. 2001, p. 76) The reader is not able to decipher whether the old man’s necessity to be in a crowd is to observe the people around him or simply trying to escape reality, but the way he walks and moves accurately resemble the ways of a flaneur: he slowly walks round the park various times, goes in and out of shops in the bazar and moves from the centre of London where the upper and middle classes are the majority to poorer areas of London where even at night there is a buzzing of life.
There are other characters described by the narrator that to an extent could be considered flaneurs: the pick-pockets, gamblers and the ‘Jew pedlars’, who ‘prey upon the public’. The flaneur is not truly a person of leisure. Rather, loitering is his trade. (Buck-Morss, 1991, p. 306) They make a living out of observing people and interpreting them quickly.
Of course this is not what a genuine flaneur would do, but exploiting this ‘trade’ and becoming an ‘hawk’ most probably makes them the most accurate interpreters of the crowds. Moreover, they have little interaction with the people surrounding them as they are outsiders of the middle and upper classes that they steal from and observe daily, just like a flaneur would be in any class or society. Therefore, the narrator can be considered a flaneur even if he does not know he is being one, until he starts following the old man.
As for the old man himself, the motivations that drive him to act as a flaneurs are so concealed that it could be anything from actually being a flaneur to madness, having lost someone or something, perhaps having committed a crime and feeling guilt or even grieving and walking through the city to evoke memories. To a certain extent we can consider the pick-pockets, gamblers and pedlars, to be flaneurs but since they have a lucrative aim and not one of research and to experience the crowd they seem to merely be very acute observers who use the skills of a flaneur to survive.