The ‘Woman’ of the Crowd: Exploring Female Flânerie

Rudrani Gangopadhyay

Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


Modernist literature is rife with figures of the flâneur, strolling down the city. When Edgar Allan Poe wrote ‘The Man of the Crowd’, arguably one of the best depictions of this spectator figure, he names this figure the ‘man’ of the crowd, leaving one to wonder if there ever was a woman of the crowd? Or if at all there could be such a figure – a female flâneur in a man’s world. This paper tries to explore this elusive female counterpart to the man of the crowd by examining their course in literary and artistic works born out of early twentieth century Europe.

Keywords: Gender Studies, Modernism, City, Urban, Flânerie

While cities were by no means a phenomenon of the nineteenth century, the advent of industrialization meant a gradual relocation of more and more people from the rural areas to urban centres. As the cities grew, they became the new focus of civilization, a fact that was reflected in the works of nineteenth century European writers and artists. By the arrival of the twentieth century – and of the modernist movement – cities were the focus of all arts, and indeed life itself. A new form of urban lifestyle came to be, which became the subject of most modernist works.

While some modernists “perceived urban living in terms of decay and degeneration … for others, the city was a source of inspiration and beauty”(Kjattansdottir, 2012). Amidst this culture emerges the figure of the flâneur as a “key figure in understanding the modern, urban living brought about by industrialization in Europe” (Kjattansdottir). While the french noun ‘flâneur’ means ‘stroller’ or ‘saunterer’, Walter Benjamin first turned the scholarly focus onto the flâneur. Describing him as the iconic figure of the modern existence, Benjamin portrayed the flâneur as an urban spectator of the society, but one who is alienized from it. This flâneur as “the quintessential figure of modernity, a figure linked to modernity’s changing modes of observation, subjectivity, spectatorship and literary production and illustrative of urbanization, industrialization and technologization of the modern era” (Coulthard, 1999). Serving as both an emblem for the modernist city as well as the modernist writer, the flâneur moved through the crowd of the city by himself, observing and noting the details of passers by and events around him, but carefully remaining anonymous to the crowd. Baudelaire describes the flâneur in the following words in The Painter of Modern Life:

“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.” (Baudelaire, 1995)

The figure suggests the contradictions of life in the modern city, exploring the relationship between people, modernity and the urban environment within and without himself, “caught between the insistent mobility of the present and the visible weight of the past” (Ferguson, 1994).

In many ways, the unknown man from Poe’s famous short story, “The Man of the Crowd”, whom the author pursues as he remains at the centre of the crowd in London, himself unnoticed, moving through the city relentlessly is the archetypal flâneur figure. However, it goes to show much about the contemporary gender roles that he is a ‘Man’ of the crowd. Traditionally, the flâneur is a man. The very fact that he is a man who ambles along the city all day long and manages to sustain himself – perhaps even devote time to the arts that he gathers inspiration for in the streets – would it make safe to identify a flâneur as a gentleman stroller, thus limiting him from the perspectives of both class and gender. Even if there could have flâneur been a certain amount of flexibility in the class situation, the public sphere of the city would always, without any exception, belong to men. Kevin Milburn illustrates this further:

“throughout history, the city in western society has tended to be a gender bound space; women have traditionally had less opportunity to engage in indulgent practices such as … urban strolling, principally due to gendered conventions concerning the expectation of looking after children, as well as safety concerns, concerns often propagated by men” (Mulburn, 2009).

Benjamin himself has been subject to fierce feminist criticism. His flâneur “has been repeatedly accused of being shaped by his masculine subject position” (Ivanchikova, 2006). There are very few women in the world of Benjamin’s flâneur. Leslie Kathleen Hankins accuses Benjamin’s analysis of being limited by his misogyny…Full Text PDF

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