Today I want to talk to you about one of the slightly lesser-known stories by Edgar Allan Poe, and by lesser known I do not mean unknown, I just mean that it isn’t referred to as much as say The Raven or The Tell-tale Heart.
I am talking about William Wilson. The story of a man who encounters his doppelganger and was inspired by Washington Irving’s “An unwritten Drama of Lord Byron” which was also about a doppelganger.
I personally feel that this short story is underrated, especially as Poe himself labelled it as his best effort.
It was published in the Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840. It has since been adapted many times across many different countries in both film, comic, and radio play. It is also referenced in various modern creations, for example by one of my favourite modern authors Stephen King who’s novel The Outsider draws a parallel between the situation faced by the main character and Poe’s story of William Wilson. The Outsider has been said (by King) to have been inspired by the story William Wilson.
The story’s main character has named himself William Wilson to escape, or denounce, his past, though he is not at all apologetic regarding it. William then goes on to recount some of his past, talking about his boyhood days in a school where he met another boy of the same name, who looked similar and even shared a birthday with our main character. The boy does however have one difference, he can only speak in a whisper.
Our main character is irritated on meeting this boy, as he dislikes his own name and claims that he is now miffed because he must hear it twice as often.
The boys spend time together and the doppelganger advises William, though William dismisses the advice, claiming the doppelganger as arrogant. One night William goes into the doppelganger’s bedroom while he sleeps and is horrified to see that the doppelganger’s face no longer looks kind of like his own but is an exact copy of it. William flees the school.
William goes on to attend prestigious schools such as Oxford and lives a life of indulgence, and petty criminality. However, his shenanigans are stopped when a man with a covered face arrives and reveals William’s petty actions and legs it with no one seeing who he was. This type of behaviour continues for years, with William being a professional asshole and the double turning up and being a nark.
William eventually loses all patience with his double messing up his terrible life and on one occasion when the doppelganger thwarts his attempt to seduce a married woman, William fights and kills him. Immediately after the double’s death William is placed before a mirror and he sees himself reflected and covered in blood, much like the dead doppelganger. The reflection/doppelganger speaks, for the first time not in a whisper, and says how William has murdered himself.
It is worth mentioning that the setting is often referred to as relating to Poe’s residence in England when he was young. In particular Stoke Newington, which is now part of London. The school is also probably the one Poe attended as the headmaster of the school while Poe was in attendance and the headmaster in the story share a name. The school has long since been demolished in the ‘real world’, but the church referred to in the story is by all accounts still present.
This short story can be interpreted in a few different ways.
It can be considered a commentary on how threatened we can feel when we perceive that our uniqueness is attacked. Poe himself has acknowledged that the story is a reflection on how one might feel on discovering someone has the same name as you, you lose your feeling of uniqueness. William lashing out and pursuing a life of carnality and petty criminality could very well have been his desperate way to distance himself from his double. He only turns to this lifestyle after the double tried to advise him, deliberately going against it to show that he is other, that he is different from this boy with whom he shares everything.
But it has also been said that this ‘second self’ can represent the protagonists conscience. He might not even be physically real, but rather just the way William perceives that little voice in the back of his mind telling him not to be an asshole. This doppelganger is the manifestation of William’s guilt or conscience. Which would mean that William is deliberately giving himself away in later life, or deliberately self-sabotaging his attempts at theft, and seduction because he feels guilty.
Ultimately this story could be seen to be about the division of the self, the part of you that is you and the part of you that is not always you. We’ve all had that little voice in the back of our minds telling us to do or not do something, many of us argue with ourselves regularly.