A reading of a classic Poe story
‘William Wilson’ is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic stories, and, in its way, is the precursor to such later tales as Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Markheim’, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and perhaps even, more recently, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. But the precise meaning of the story remains unclear. Is ‘William Wilson’ a moral fable? How ‘moral’ a story is it? You can read ‘William Wilson’ here; below we offer a few words of analysis of this intriguing tale of doubling.
First, a brief summary of the plot of ‘William Wilson’. The narrator tells us that although the path to evil is commonly assumed to be a slippery slope, for him it was more of a steep and rapid decline – very suddenly, he found himself capable of acts of extreme depravity. This narrator – who assumes the name ‘William Wilson’ to conceal his real name – is recounting the events of the story from his deathbed. He recalls his childhood and schooldays in England, and how he commanded respect from his peers, with the exception of one boy, who, though no relation, bore the same Christian name and surname as him and had joined the school on the same day as the narrator. The narrator later learns that this other ‘William Wilson’ was also, spookily, born on the exact same day as him. They are also the same height.
As he gets to know this other William Wilson better, the narrator comes to dislike him more and more, because of their resemblance, and because his doppelganger is fond of offering the narrator advice and patronage in an insinuating and arrogant manner. He even feels that he must have known his double at some point in the past – though he cannot remember having made his acquaintance before.
The narrator later moves to Eton, having left his previous school following an unsuccessful attempt to inflict pain and torment upon his ‘rival’, which ended with him being disturbed by the appearance of his sleeping double and frightened off the idea. But his double shows up at Eton, just as the narrator is getting drunk on wine. Soon after this, the narrator goes up to Oxford to study, but proceeds to spend most of his time involved in dissolute activities, spending money extravagantly and foolishly. He also takes to cheating at cards, until he has become a dab hand at fleecing his gullible young peers of their money at the card-table. But, after one particularly heavy bout of card-playing, a stranger appears and reveals that he’s been cheating. He then tells the narrator that he must leave Oxford in disgrace, without delay. As before, this ‘stranger’ bears an uncanny resemblance to William Wilson, i.e. the narrator.
The narrator flees, but it’s no good. In Rome, while attending a masked ball during the carnival, his double turns up once again, and a confrontation ensues. They are dressed in the same costume. The narrator drags ‘William Wilson’ into a private room, and stabs him in a fit of rage. But suddenly, the room transforms, and the body of his double has turned into a mirror, in which the narrator sees that he is the one who has actually been stabbed. Then he hears his double speaking as if in the narrator’s own voice, telling him that the narrator only existed through his double, and now that he has killed his double, he has murdered himself.
How should we analyse this unsettling tale of doubling? Is Poe offering a fictionalised take on paranoid delusion, or is he writing a supernatural tale? Or – as with much great art – does he offer an exploration and analysis of the former through providing the latter?
‘Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson.’ These are the words with which Poe opens his story, with the wording pointing up the fact that ‘William Wilson’ is, right from the outset, a fiction, a construction, a pseudonym. (One wonders whether Herman Melville was inspired to create his famous ‘opening line’ for his novel Moby-Dick, ‘Call me Ishmael’, by reading ‘William Wilson’.) The narrator’s own real name, he suggests, is too infamous to be attached to the events of the story that follow. But it also means that Poe is offering a fiction inside a fiction: we know he, Edgar Allan Poe, is offering a fictional story, but within this framework his narrator, too, is playing a game of concealing and selecting, hiding and re-creating his own past in order to avoid scandal. His real name, he implies, will be too familiar to readers, but the events surrounding his life will not.
And in this respect, as well as numerous others, ‘William Wilson’ seems to anticipate one of Sigmund Freud’s concepts from nearly a century later: that of ‘the uncanny’, which Freud discussed and analysed in an essay of 1919. The uncanny is that strange sensation aroused in us by finding either the strange within the familiar, or the familiar within the strange. The clash of these two things – one known to us, the other new – creates a peculiar feeling of the ‘uncanny’. One of the features of ‘the uncanny’ is that of the double. The double, as Nicholas Royle discusses in his fascinating book on The Uncanny, is a prime example of uncanniness: few things can be more familiar to us than our own names, and so when we encounter a stranger bearing it, it can lead to an ‘uncanny’ feeling. ‘William Wilson’ seems to acknowledge as much:
I had always felt aversion to my uncourtly patronymic, and its very common, if not plebeian praenomen. The words were venom in my ears; and when, upon the day of my arrival, a second William Wilson came also to the academy, I felt angry with him for bearing the name, and doubly disgusted with the name because a stranger bore it, who would be the cause of its twofold repetition, who would be constantly in my presence, and whose concerns, in the ordinary routine of the school business, must inevitably, on account of the detestable coincidence, be often confounded with my own.
But does the other William Wilson represent the narrator’s conscience? Does he even exist at all, or is he a product of the narrator’s deluded imagination, a sort of nineteenth-century Tyler Durden? If he is, then he is a good angel rather than a devil or a sprite – somebody who turns up just as the narrator is beginning to slip into depravity again. But it’s difficult to know how to analyse ‘William Wilson’ in this respect, and opt for either an out-and-out ‘supernatural’ explanation of events, or a purely psychological interpretation. Poe’s narrative invites both readings, hovering between the two, like Tzvetan Todorov’s idea of ‘the fantastic’. We cannot be sure what precisely has happened to the narrator at the end of the story – whether he is the victim of retributive angels or demons, or whether he has merely succumbed to his own delusional belief in ‘William Wilson’ and has inadvertently committed suicide. But the ambiguous nature of the conclusion does nothing to deprive the story of its power.
Image: Arthur Rackham’s illustration for Poe’s ‘William Wilson’, via Wikimedia Commons.