The story follows an unnamed narrator who seeks out the famous war hero John A. B. C. Smith. His becomes suspicious that Smith has some deep secret when others refuse to describe him, instead remarking only on the latest advancements in technology. When he finally meets Smith, the man must first be assembled piece by piece. It is likely that in this satire Poe is actually referring to General Winfield Scott, veteran of the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the American Civil War. Additionally, Poe is questioning the strong male identity as well as questioning where humanity falls as machines become more advanced.
The narrator wants to learn more about this heroic man. He finds that people do not seem to speak about the General when asked, only commenting on achievements of the "wonderfully inventive age." The narrator begins to believe there is some concealed secret he must uncover.
When he visits the General's home, he sees nothing but a strange bundle of items on the floor. The bundle, however, begins to speak. It is the General himself, and his servant begins to "assemble" him, piece by piece. Limbs are screwed on, a wig, glass eye, and false teeth and a tongue until the man himself stands "whole." The General has lost more than battles, it seems. The narrator realizes what the General's secret was - he "was the man that was used up."
Critics have identified John A. B. C. Smith as representing General Winfield Scott, one of the longest-serving generals in American history who had commanded forces in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the American Civil War. Scott was actually a close relative of the second wife of Poe's foster father John Allan. Scott had been injured in the Seminole and Creek Indian removal campaigns and would later run for President of the United States as a Whig candidate. Scott also served in the Black Hawk War, in which a number of Kickapoo Indians participated. At the time Poe wrote the tale in 1839, Scott was already considered a possible Whig candidate for the presidency, though he would lose the election in 1852. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Poe may have been referring to Richard Mentor Johnson, Vice President of the United States under Martin Van Buren.
Poe is critiquing the male military identity, which he knew well from his own military career and his studies at the United States Military Academy at West Point. It is a literal deconstruction of the identity of a military model of manhood that was given status after Indian removal campaigns of the 1830s. It seems to suggest that the war hero has nothing left but the injuries he has received in battle to make up his identity. Poe also is questioning technology, suggesting that it will soon be difficult to distinguish man from machine. The story also has minor critiques of racism; the war hero was taken apart by Indians but is put together with his "old negro valet" named Pompey (a name Poe also uses in "A Predicament"), undermining the power of white male dominance. Poe may also have been reacting to the popular "subversive" humor of the day, exaggerating the technique to the point of being inane.
The story bears a resemblance to "A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed," a satiric poem by Jonathan Swift from 1731. Both works depict grotesquely artificial bodies: Swift's poem features a young woman preparing for bed by deconstructing, while Poe's story features an old man reconstructing himself to begin his day.