Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Purloined Letter” (1844), ends by revealing who stole the compromising letter from the unnamed female and thus provides a resolution to the immediate mystery of the letter. In, “The Man of the Crowd” (1840), the ending is far more obscure because of the narrative’s subjectivity. The only revelation about the old man, the subject of the mystery, depends on the unnamed narrator. The narrator, however, is not only the primary observer of the old man, he is also the person who determines that the old man is at all mysterious. Although Poe exposes neither the character of the old man nor the contents of the compromising letter, the contrasting narrative perspectives of these stories is what makes them so different from one another, framing not only the mystery of the story but also the perspective from which the mystery is even considered.
In each story, an unnamed first-person narrator is the perspective from which the reader receives information about the mystery plot and about the characters involved. The effect of this perspective, however, varies in each story. In “The Man of the Crowd,” the first-person reader gives the mystery of the old man an immediacy for the reader. The narrator is the primary observer of the old man who spends his time moving through the London crowd. It is even from the narrator’s perspective that the old man is a mystery at all. Poe establishes the narrator’s perspective, too, at some length, through the first person. They are sitting “at the large bow – window of the D—Coffee-House in London” and Poe alludes to the narrator’s mental state through summation of their health and their sudden delight in life. They mention that “[f]or some months [they] had been ill in health, but was now convalescent, and, with returning strength, found [himself] in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui-moods of the keenest appetency” (“The Man of the Crowd”). The narrator’s “mental vision” is also suggestive, with their sense that “the intellect, electrified, surpasses as greatly its everyday condition.” Poe suggests, then, that their narrator has a particular mental state or perspective when they happen to observe the old man. Their fascination, not only with the old man but also, in its more “abstract and generalized turn” is suggestive of some underlying mental condition, apparently generating the narrator’s strange interest in observing.
In ‘The Purloined Letter,” the narrator is an indirect observer and their mental state has far less significance to the narrative perspective. They do not so much observe as hear an account of the investigation by Dupin and the Prefect. The dialogue between Dupin and the Prefect, overheard and reported by the unnamed narrator, is what conveys the pertinent information to the reader about the mystery of the letter. The dialogue or conversation is central to the development of the narrative, in fact, as the narrator situates. The narrator is in conversation with “my friend C. August Dupin” and they have a particular interest in hearing about Dupin’s work: “For myself, however, I was mentally discussing certain topics which had formed matter for conversation between us at an earlier period of the evening; I mean the affair of the Rue Morgue, and the mystery attending the murder of Marie Roget.” The narrator’s perspective thus concentrates on distinct mysteries, unlike the narrator in “The Man of the Crowd.”
Whereas “The Man of the Crowd” is somewhat of a mystery, the problem of reading the old man derives not from external circumstances or anything that the man is necessarily doing. The old man is a mystery to the unnamed narrator; the narrator defines the mystery and likewise controls it. In the end, they also control how the man is read. The reader has little context to either accept or reject the narrator’s conclusions but the conclusion in itself supports the mystery. In “The Purloined Letter,” on the other hand, the mystery emerges independent of the narrator in the circumstances of the plot. The story takes the form of a detective story in that the narrative allows the reader to follow along as the details unfold to the narrator, through the conversation of Dupin and the Prefect of the Parisian police.
The notion of reading within these two stories depends on the narrative perspective. Although the reading is rather obscure and the narrator suggests that they, in fact, cannot read the old man, the conclusion of “The Man of the Crowd” is still a reading of the old man. The narrator reads the old man by concluding that he “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 narrator’s journeying through London in pursuit of the old man is also a reading of the community to which the old man appears to belong. The title of the text, situating the man as “Of” the crowd, is a further reading still, connecting the man and the community through which he travels. What the narrator does not read is rather more the intention of the old man, the reason why he moves through neighborhoods of London as he does, but this, in itself, is perhaps an irrelevant degree of reading. In “The Purloined Letter,” however, the narrator understands the intention of the letter thief from the beginning, even though the narrator never discovers the read. It is clear from the beginning of the story, from the circumstance of the mystery, even the title of the text, that someone steals the letter because it contains compromising, scandalous information. Although, again, the scope of reading is still limited, the limit is different and a reflection primarily of the narrative emphasis on a deconstructive, procedural approach to mystery.
- Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Man of the Crowd.” University of Virginia. 1850. Web.
—. “The Purloined Letter.” University of Virginia. 1845. Web.