Here, we have a man who is described to us as a “peddler” by a nameless narrator. Although he is a peddler and therefore, one might presume to be of the lower-class, he is dressed in the uniform of the bourgeoise: buttoned-up white collared shirt, nice jacket, manicured mustache, and so on and so on.
Our narrator gives this peddler no other identity than that of “peddler,” that of businessman. He is a pure synecdoche of the capital-obsessed upper-class. Symbolizing this is the audacious manner in which our peddler transports his wares, his hats. He wears them all upon his head.
Now, what does this mean? Whereas the traditional peddler, and our narrator points this out as well, carries his wares in a bag or a cart, a thing the traditional peddler interacts with, almost at some level of equality — I and the material are on the same level and so on — our peddler situates himself under his wares. He is overcome with what is Material. He is completely submissive to the material ideology of his world. We see this as well in his obsessive compulsion to check his hats — perversely taking inventory of every color.
The book’s inciting event is the peddler’s lack of lunch money. This leads him to take a nap under a tree and when he awakes all of his hats have been stolen by a band of monkeys. Now, how are we to make sense of this? It is obvious from the illustrations that this peddler is not in Africa or Asia. This is not a place where one will find monkeys. The sparsity of leaves on the tree and the man’s clothing suggest that this is a temperate region and that this story is set in autumn or spring.
So now it should be obvious that these are not monkeys but a symbol of the lower-class. The reason the peddler cannot sell his hats and therefore has no money to buy his lunch is because the lower class cannot afford to purchase them and so, they rebel.
This infuriates the peddler. He gesticulates an angry finger at them and shouts, “You monkeys, you!” — signifying a predisposed bias against these figures. The statement illustrates, quite plainly, that the peddler has no respect for the monkeys and in some way, had expected such a rebellion beforehand.
After a long and violent exchange, the monkeys eventually dispose of the peddler’s hats and allow him to collect them. This, like so many revolutions, despite the initial success, ends up devolving back into normalcy — for extreme disruption of the current system is something even the oppressed fear. Like Zola’s Germinal, despite all of the violence and all of the revolution, despite the seemingly meaningful progress, by the last page the miners are back in the mines and the peddler is back on the street with his caps.