Poe, Edgar Allan
Genre: Short Story
- Coulehan, Jack
- Date of entry: Dec-19-2001
As the narrator, an "outcast among outcasts," begins to recount his story, he cautions the reader that "William Wilson" is not his real name; he doesn't want the page to "be sullied with my real appellation." The miserable man tells of his childhood and his life at school, where he encountered another boy who looked exactly like himself and had the same name and birthday.
All the children at school recognized the narrator's preeminence among them, except for this strange double. While the first William Wilson was aggressive, witty, and imperious, the double presented himself as quiet, gentle and wise--but unthreatened. In the end their feelings towards each other "partook very much of positive hatred."
Many years later, as the narrator was busily engaged in cheating at a game of cards, the second William Wilson suddenly appeared out of nowhere and revealed Wilson's scam to everyone present. Subsequently, time after time, just as Wilson was about to achieve some nefarious end, this anti-Wilson unerringly stepped in and destroyed Wilson's chances.
The last straw occurred in Rome during Carnival; just as Wilson was about to seduce a married woman, his double arrived to squelch the affair. Wilson flew into a rage and killed his nemesis, only to discover he had stabbed a mirror--but the dying image in the mirror whispered, " . . . How utterly thou hast murdered thyself."
Poe. Selected Prose and Poetry
Holt, Rinehart & Winston
W. H. Auden
In this tale of twin-selves, the surviving William Wilson represents man-without-morality. His troublesome double, who constantly interfered with Wilson's schemes by whispering caution or truth, represents everything that was wholesome or positive in his personality. Poe externalizes his character's internal struggle. Virtue finally succumbs to vice. However, in murdering his conscience, Wilson failed to achieve the liberation he sought. Instead, his life turned into a living death.
It is interesting to compare this doppelgänger story with Dostoyevsky's The Double: Two Versions (see annotation in this database). The Russian story lends itself to a purely medical interpretation. Its protagonist suffers progressive deterioration, perhaps a paranoid psychosis, and winds up being escorted to an insane asylum. However, in Poe's tale the double is more than a projection of mental pathology; rather, the William Wilson doppelgänger represents the protagonist's ethical or moral sense. In The Double the double represents a pathological state. In "William Wilson" the double is a projection of the normal human self (conscience) that, in this case, is systematically rejected and eventually destroyed.