BY Vrinda Garg
Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd”, keeps the reader hooked on the mystery and the imagery created with the detailed storytelling. However, it makes one wonder how a woman narrating this story would’ve changed the story, through her dynamic with the public realm. Through this paper, I aim to look at this short story, through a feminist lens and attempt to answer what it means to be a woman of the crowd.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Man of the Crowd is a story of a man who has just regained strength after a period of illness and is observing life from the windows of a cafe in London. He is “of” the crowd more than he is “in” the crowd as, despite the proximity, he views everyone from a distance and tries to uncover their stories. He puts people into various categories and takes a keen interest in their demeanour, clothes, where they’re headed and so on. His very idleness has a purpose which is termed “flanerie”- the art of wandering or observing aimlessly. As he watches keenly, an old man catches his attention, who seems to be going into every shop but buying nothing. The narrator follows him through the market through the evening, trying to understand this old man, only to be left with a bunch of questions unanswered. “The Man of the Crowd” ends with a tone of secrecy, mystery and “es lasst sich nicht lesen”. (that which is inscrutable). However, in this somewhat bizarre story, what particularly piqued my interest is the position of women in the world created by Poe. His description of the public domain becomes a window into the role, space and agency women exercise in this domain. Through the lens of this story, I will attempt to map the relationship between women and the public domain. Further, I’ll trace the evolution of flanerie from an activity largely dominated by privileged men to a tool used by feminists as a form of activism.
The Male Gaze in ‘The Man of the Crowd’
In ‘The Man of the Crowd’ we see the world, quite literally, through the male gaze. Poe’s observations of men revolve around the clothes they are wearing, their gait, mannerisms and interactions with others in the crowd. For instance, he identifies the upper clerks from their drab, business-like attire, steady gait and gilded vintage watches. However, very rarely do we find Poe talking about the man’s family, the women in their lives or even their lives beyond their profession. This stands in stark contrast to his descriptions of the women he encounters. Modesty becomes the dominant concern and women are polarised into two categories- “modest young girls” and “prostitutes”. One section of women is reduced to being helpless in front of men with ill motives. In Poe’s words, they “shrink” or become less worthy as they are met with objectification through the male gaze. Poe’s patriarchal conditioning dilutes his objectivity as he engages in the victimisation of women instead of holding the perpetrator accountable. According to the flaneur’s observations, these women toil through the day, only to go back to a home that lacks cheer. He goes on to assert that prostitutes, on the other hand, look vastly different from each other at the surface but their only purpose in the public domain is to satiate the desires of men. He believes that these are the immodest women who have inherited the ‘vice’ of prostitution. While describing these women, every aspect of their persona is sexualised. The attribute of being ‘sexual’ has been conveniently transferred from the male gaze to the lips of the women being talked about. Their bodies are compared to Parian marble. However, Poe treads carefully as he reiterates his stance on the importance of modesty by simultaneously using words like ‘loathsome’ and ‘filled with filth’ for these women. The women accessing the public domain are either thought of as coming from broken homes and therefore, destitute or there’s an undertone of everything deemed filthy by society and/or to be shunned from the public domain—sexuality, disease and womanhood. These descriptions take away the agency of women to define or choose not to define their presence on the streets. Their mere access to the public space leads them to be pitted against the ‘norm’.
Rebecca Solnit, in her work Wanderlust: A History of Walking, highlights how women stepping out in public often becomes an intrusion into their privacy. Their stepping out of their homes raises questions about their homes- familial and sexual lives. In Poe’s world, it seems there can never be a ‘Woman of the Crowd’ for such a woman will be pushed away from the crowd. The reading, thus, gives us a vivid picture of how women’s access to the public domain has been closely governed over the years.
Flanerie as a Form of Protest
Even today, as a girl living in Delhi, it isn’t uncommon to feel alien to the place I was born in and have lived in for the past 18 years. As a safety tip, I was told to call my father or brother, telling them where I am, loud enough for perpetrators on the streets to know my presence is being overlooked. Thus, my place on the streets continues to be threatened by some men and validated, and reaffirmed by others. It is almost as if I, a woman, am stepping out into a man’s world. While this has been normalised as unavoidable, reading texts like these makes one realise how the notion of being helpless and vulnerable has been deeply ingrained within us. In the guise of protection, women’s rights to liberation are silenced. Despite everything, the burden of proving their modesty continues to lie on women as we can see in “The Man of the Crowd” as well.
Then, it isn’t surprising that being a woman of the crowd and rising out of obscurity is in itself a form of resistance. When the concept of flanerie from the 1800s seems like a concept too removed and distant from our context, Begum Rokeya’s Sultana’s Dream stands as a relevant commentary on flanerie in India. It is a story of a feminist utopia which talks about women’s access to the public domain, their agency and their ability to access opportunities as well as the inherent shame associated with accessing these in the same breath.
The role of the flaneur in the modern city has been to unlearn this shame inherited through years of conditioning and resist male dominance over the public space. Flanerie in the modern city has quite literally taken the shape of activism. There have been a series of movements across India that have endeavoured to reclaim women’s access to public space. #WhyLoiter was one such movement started in Mumbai which strived to empower women to demand their place on the streets, without reason, justification, permission, and importantly, without fear.
A similar movement was started in Delhi by women students who strove to shatter the restraints on their mobility, imposed by hostels and paying guest accommodations. Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage) not only calls for the removal of restrictions and curfews in these accommodations but also to make the public space safer for women by demanding stronger redressal mechanisms on university campuses. Similarly, Blank Noise is a public art project that aims to use art as a mode to talk about and take action against street harassment and sexual/ physical violence that many women across the country face. It mobilises support for survivors and emphasises the role each and every individual has in creating a safer public space for all. It aims to end the shame associated with women showing up authentically in public spaces and seeks to reverse this mindset of victim blaming through the #INeverAskForIt movement.
As the battle to reclaim our public space goes on, I am reminded of Virginia Woolf’s words: “For most of history, anonymous was a woman”. The mystery in Poe’s Man of the Crowd isn’t limited to the plot but has been imposed on women over and over again. Being mysterious has been romanticised and deemed desirable as a feminine trait. Women, throughout history, have been told, both by social structures and the law, to ‘reveal’ less of themselves. While these ideas of anonymity are largely associated with women, the need to define and scrutinise them continues. As I step into the women’s bogey of the Delhi metro, I wonder if my right to the public space is being acknowledged, established and “protected” or if I am once again being boxed away from the crowd, the crowd of men.
Author’s Bio: Vrinda Garg is a second-year student of Economics and International Relations at Ashoka University. Through her writing, she attempts to rethink and challenge commonplace notions that permeate our everyday life, our institutions and the way we see the world.