What Is A Flaneur?

As described by James Wood in How Fiction Works, the flaneur is

the loafer, usually a young man, who walks the streets with no great urgency, seeing, looking, reflecting.

Flânerie describes aimless behaviour.

In French it’s spelt like this: flâneur, though not if you’re writing in English.

Wood also uses the great phrases ‘porous scout’ and ‘Noah’s dove’ to describe this authorial stand-in.

We know this type from Baudelaire, from the all-seeing narrator of Rilke’s autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Briggs, and from Walter Benjamin’s writings about Baudelaire.


The flaneur hangs around cities. There’s not so much for him to do in the country. You won’t find Jane Austen’s characters wandering around aimlessly. But these guys aren’t actually aimless: they wander around with the purpose of deconstructing social life in order to form a critique.

The flaneur is a wandering narrator who is at once an outsider and native to a particular urban environment.

For more on the flaneur, see the Wikipedia article


Middle Grade Novels

Since the flaneur loves busy, interesting cities like New York, some critics have made a subcategory of American children’s literature set in New York where we might find the kidlit version of the flaneur. Eric L. Tribunella finds the flaneur in:

Although Tribunella published that paper in 2010, he cites examples from the Second Golden Age of children’s literature, which started after WW2 and ended around 1970.

Picture Books

Do modern young audiences have any time for the flaneur? When it comes to picture books, there is a subcategory designed to take the reader through a city, as an armchair tourist. Some critics have said that this is the picturebook version of the flaneur, in which the reader is the flaneur, not necessarily a character inside the story. Again, look out for American picture books, particularly those set in New York or Los Angeles.

Young Adult Novels

In modern teen fiction, consider the mall instead of the city as a place where young flaneur hang out.

In stories where teens hang out in malls — and often in real life too — teens are not welcome. The mall has the feeling of a safe, cloistered space and mall designers go out of their way to make shoppers feel as comfortable as if they were at home: modern malls are carpeted and warm and play calming music. Comfortable big furniture is provided as islands of refuge. Yet when teenagers congregate in malls they are not genuinely welcome unless they happen to have the disposable income of adults. Therefore, the mall in young adult literature is a setting which functions as a symbol of teenage-hood itself: that liminal space between childhood and adulthood.

weetzie bat covers

Some critics describe the ‘postmodern flaneur’. For example in Weetzie-Bat (1989), the debut punk-rock fairytale novel by Francesca Lia Block, we have a narrator who is both part of her urban environment but also narrates as if she’s an outsider. By this interpretation, the flaneur in children’s literature is unlikely to go away, since the entire category of YA makes heavy use of that feeling of being an outsider trying to find your place.

For more examples of young adult novels with a flaneur quality, see The Flaneur Goes To The Mall at The Millions