Thursday, January 17, 2013

Poe's Doppelganger

William Wilson 

"In truth, the ardor, the enthusiasm, and the imperiousness of my disposition, soon rendered me a marked character among my schoolmates, and by slow, but natural gradations, gave me an ascendancy over all not greatly older than myself; --over all with a single exception. This exception was found in the person of a scholar, who, although no relation, bore the same Christian and surname as myself; --a circumstance, in fact, little remarkable; for, notwithstanding a noble descent, mine was one of those everyday appellations which seem, by prescriptive right, to have been, time out of mind, the common property of the mob. In this narrative I have therefore designated myself as William Wilson,"  -  Edgar Allan Poe

The German word ‘Doppelganger' meaning ‘double walker' is derived from the German word ‘doppel' meaning ‘double' and ‘ganger' meaning ‘walker'. Doppelganger is, therefore, an apparition of oneself or someone whom we are aquainted with and even someone whom we have never met before.  In literature, dream analysis, or archetypal symbolism, the Doppelganger is often figured as a twin, shadow, or mirror-image of the protagonist. The Doppelganger characteristically appears as identical to (or closely resembling) the protagonist; sometimes the protagonist and Doppelganger have the same name. 

The use of the doppelganger in this tale portrays better than any other the divided personality of Edgar Allan Poe. The sharp inward division between the strength of Poe's rational mind, he possessed enormous erudition, and the force of his irrational apprehension was reflected not only in his poems and stories but also in his conflict with authority, his anxious welcome of personal disaster and his compulsion to destroy his own life. In this autobiographical tale the narrator, like Poe himself in certain moods, has an "imaginative and easily excitable temperament" and is "self-willed, addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions." He is tormented and pursued by his double--an inseparable companion in Dr. Bransby's school, at Eton and Oxford, and on the Continent--who mimics all his actions. Finally, unable to escape his tiresome other self, he stabs him to death. Only then does he realize that he has destroyed his conscience, or the finer part of himself. He has become dead to the moral world and no longer has a meaningful existence. The story demonstrates Poe's dual impulses: to act destructively and to censure his own irrational behavior.  Beyond that it contains signature aspects of Poe's writing, the building of atmosphere, suspense, and delineation of character through subtle and always important details.

This is one of Poe's finest tales, and has been recognized as such as can be seen through its influence on subsequent writers from Dostoevsky in The Double to Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Daphne Du Maurier's The Scapegoat, and in Chesterton's The Man Who was Thursday.  In the cinema Alfred Hitchcock's use of the doppelganger was magnificent.  Poe's tale, like so many of his other works, may be the quintessence of this type of tale.  


Amy said...

Have you read The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg? I was just looking at this on Amazon the other day. It's very similar to the Poe story--a man kills his doppelganger--but written in 1823 by a Scotsman. And Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde appeared in 1886. Did this theme suddenly become popular in the nineteenth century?

James said...

Thanks for your comment bringing James Hogg's fine novel to my attention. As to the interest in doppegangers, it may be part of the rise of literary modernism and, as with many trends, Poe was the first to explore it.