top of page

British Gothic Literature 101: The Doppelgänger


The British Gothic Literature 101 series aims to offer an in-depth analysis of the literary conventions recurrently encompassing most British novels written between 1760-1900. It will draw on spiritual insights and psychological themes correlated with the Gothic Psyche to reveal that there is more subtext in Gothic fiction than meets the reading eye. The British Gothic Literature 101 series aspires to pinpoint the defining elements of its genre, in order to provide a vehicle for the reading audience to explore considerations of the darker side of human nature with greater ease. Another reason it will strive to break down the literary tropes is to offer a breeding ground of inspiration to the modern aspiring writers of the genre.

British Gothic Literature 101 will be divided into the following table of contents:

1. British Gothic Literature 101: The Doppelgänger

2. British Gothic Literature 101: Horror & Terror

3. British Gothic Literature 101: The Sublime

4. British Gothic Literature 101: The Supernatural

5. British Gothic Literature 101: The Damsel in Distress

6. British Gothic Literature 101: The Anti-Hero

British Gothic Literature 101: The Doppelgänger

Alter ego, clone, evil twin – most of us are familiar with the denotation of the doppelgänger, showcasing a human being bearing a striking physical resemblance to another human being. The concept of doppelgänger in Gothic literature, however, exceeds far beyond the literal meaning of being the biologically unrelated look-alike of a living person. The nineteenth-century Gothic treatments of the double are based on the idea of “soul and body being conceived as separate entities joined in subtle and indiscernible ways; to separate them through death or to suppress one or the other, is to destroy the essential self” (Slethaug, 1994, p. 101). This article seeks to analyse the symbolic significance of the imagined double in Gothic fiction, as conveyed in various notable literary pieces of the genre. It will consider critics’ views on the psychological dimensions of this conventional element by drawing attention to the importance of the doppelgänger in exploring human duality.

Fig. 1. René Magritte. (1937). Not to be Reproduced. [Oil on Canvas]

Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. Rotterdam.

Gothic Stories Featuring the Doppelgänger

The concept of a character “as two joined but separable halves rest upon a certain binary/ unitary formulation” became central in nineteenth-century Gothic storytelling (Slethaug, 1994, p. 101). The term doppelgänger was coined about the same time the Gothic genre emerged, mentioned for the first time in Johann Paul Friedrich Richter’s "Siebenkäs" (Paul, 1796). In "Siebenkäs," the doppelgänger element is presented as “so heissen sie Leute die sie selbst sehen” (meaning that this is how “people who see themselves are called”) (Paul, 1796, p. 175). The essence of doppelgänger refers to the duality of the Self in which an alter-ego repeatedly presents itself to the original subject. The subject, then, experiences “a simultaneous consciousness of being both his present Self and the external Other observing himself” (Marquette University).

Numerous reputable Gothic literary compositions have incorporated various shades of the theme of the double. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde,” (1886) Mr Hyde is the grotesque “Other” haunting the rational “Self” of Dr Jekyll while being its psychic counterpart, because in his own words: “It was Mr Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty” (Stevenson, 1886, p. 63). As Dr Jekyll loses control of the transformation and Mr Hyde starts intruding into Dr Jekyll's public sphere, the annihilation of Mr Hyde becomes imperative. However, both characters are two sides of the same coin, with the elimination of one part meaning the elimination of the other. Dr Jekyll was left with no choice but to “bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end” (Stevenson, 1886, p. 74).

Fig. 2. National Printing & Engraving Company. (ca. 1880). Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. [poster for a theatrical adaptation showing the moment of transformation]. Chicago.

Similarly, in Oscar Wilde’s “Portrait of Dorian Gray,” (1890) Dorian sacrifices his sense of self. By gradually becoming absorbed by his own image depicted in his portrait, he essentially generates his own psychological double. In contrast to what Dorian thought, the segregation of body and soul is not straightforward. The portrait records and manifests both Dorian’s internal and external reality, pointing to the fact that “doppelgängers traditionally haunt and torment each other whilst providing a sense of fascination, their dual nature providing an unstable but inescapable relationship” (Dunning, p. 3).

The double also recurs as a motif in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”(1818) Victor Frankenstein creates the monster as he aims to create a being that transgresses nature’s creation rules. However, the creature is so hideous that he ends up escaping from it rather than nurturing it. The usurpation of Frankenstein results in devastation. The monster, in this regard, becomes the psychic projection of the human being and “the evil effects of the monster are the externalisation of Frankenstein’s psychic instincts” (Bhandari, 2022, p. 104).

In these Gothic stories, the doppelgänger is simultaneously duplicate and opposite. It exhibits how contradictory forces can coexist within a single being. In this way, it forces us to confront our divided selves by tapping into “the notion of irreconcilable dualistic oppositions” (Slethaug, 1994, p. 102). The recognition of seeing oneself from an external position is accompanied by a horrific realisation: the distressed figure the main character had been observing is, in reality, his own. It becomes evident, then, that “the persistence of doppelgänger brings into question the reliance upon a concept of an indivisible and unified identity that is continuous and fixed over time” (Slethaug, 1994, p. 100).

Fig. 3. Universal Pictures. (1931). Victor Frankenstein meets his Creature. [film]. United States.

Psychological Interpretations of the Double

The unsettling drive to comprehend the depths and complications of the human psyche led Gothic writers to vehemently “explore disruptions of the delicate balance between the id and the ego, the conscious and the unconscious, or what has recently been referred to as Self and Other” (Slethaug, 1994, p. 102). Heavily influenced by speculations in Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny” (1919) and Otto Rank’s “The Double” (1914), nineteenth-century Gothic writing contains by no means “predictable outcomes which argued implicitly for social responsibility over individual drives” (Slethaug, 1994, p. 102). Instead, Gothic stories acknowledged “the power of the unconscious and the tragic consequences of ignoring or attempting to suppress it” (Slethaug, 1994, p. 102).

With an extensive analysis of the doppelgänger concept, one can extract complex psychological undertones intertwined with notions of “psychic duplication and division, psychological decomposition, disintegration, regression, progression, repression, and primary narcissism” (Slethaug, 1994, p. 102). By breaking down the symbolic connotations of the duplicate personas that characterise Gothic storytelling, it becomes evident that the Freudian and Rankian psychological theories of the double are aptly infused and incarnated in Gothic tales.

In Otto Rank’s “The Double”, one can draw psychological insights that resonate more closely with Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Dorian Gray.” In this Gothic story, the double of Dorian Gray, represented by its painting, constitutes “both a narcissistic fantasy of youthful immortality and the corresponding fear of the alienated self to which this irrational wish gives rise” (Fritz, 2013, p. 299). Rank believes that the double was “originally, created as a wish-defence against a dreaded eternal destruction” (Rank, 1971, p. 18) and situates Dorian Gray in the context of the “doppelgänger tales which involve a deal with the devil” (Fritz, 2013, p. 299).

Fig. 4. Alliance Films. (2009). Dorian Gray facing his portrait. [film]. United Kingdom.

In “The Uncanny” (unhomelike) Freud describes the Uncanny as "a complex psychological experience wherein something encountered is simultaneously hauntingly beautiful and terrifying, that is, at once familiar and alien” (Posadas, 2018, p. 7). When the familiar thing turns out to be unfamiliar, it creates the uncanny, resulting in “a strange experience that the words cannot relate, but just makes one feels awe” (Bhandari, 2022, p. 104).

Additionally, Freud argued that the Uncanny could refer to a person’s most hidden desires, which deviate from societal norms. Under this scope, he examined the utopian dimension of the double, which becomes the shadow of “all the unfulfilled but possible futures to which we still like to cling in fantasy, all the strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed, and all our suppressed acts of volition which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will” (Freud, 2003, p. 63). Freud, however, considers that this aspect of the doppelgänger’s essence does not explain its origin sufficiently. For him, even though the perception of the double is, on the one hand, intertwined with the emergence of the conscience or superego, on the other hand, it can also be interpreted as an archaic residue from “a time when the ego had not yet marked itself off sharply from the external world and from other people” (Freud, 2003, p. 64).

Fig. 5. Princess Eugenie of Greece. (1937). Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in his office, in Vienna. [Photograph]. The British Library.


A common thematic denominator in many Gothic tales is undoubtedly the depiction of their protagonist’s psychological duality. In the above-mentioned novels, the theme of the double is incorporated either in an obvious manner, as in the duality of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or in a more suggestive way, as in the case of Frankenstein. What emerges as a pattern in all these stories, however, is the gradual merging of opposing aspects, as their boundaries become gradually blurred. Duality serves as a way for the modern reader to explore the differences in their own public and private selves. Furthermore, it makes them reflect on the opposing powers of evil and good, showcasing that characters are more than black or white. In a way, it proves that they are not either/or but rather both/and. Like most literary conventions, the handling of the doppelgänger is defined by psychological interpretations expressed through an artistic lens. For that reason, both psychoanalytical and philosophical approaches must be considered to clarify the dualism the main characters undergo. These complex perceptions paved the way for the psychological double to become a fundamental theme in Gothic fiction.

Bibliographical References

Bhandari, S. R. (2022). The projection of the double in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Pursuits, 6 (1), 102-108.

Dunning, M. (n.d.) In what ways does the double figure in 'Dorian Gray' and 'Carmilla.'Academia edu.

Freud, S. (2003). The ‘uncanny’. Penguin Classics.

Fritz, M. (2013). Utopian experimentation and Oscar Wilde’s the picture of Dorian Gray. Utopian Studies, 24 (2), 283-311.

Paul, J. (1892). Flower, fruit and thorn pieces or, the wedded life, death, and marriage of Firmian Stanislaus Siebenkaes, parish advocate in the Burgh of Kuhschnappel. (A genuine thorn piece). George Bell & Sons. University of California, Berkeley.

Posadas, B. T. (2018). Double visions, double fictions: The doppelgänger in Japanese film and literature. The University of Minnesota Press.

Rank, O. (1971). The double: A psychoanalytic study. The University of North Carolina Press. North Carolina.

Raynor Memorial Libraries of Marquette University (n.d). Glossary of the Gothic: Doppelgänger. E-publications Marquette.

Shelley, M. (1998). Frankenstein, or the modern Prometheus: The 1818 text. Oxford University Press.

Slethaug, G. E. (1994). Doubles and doubling in the arts. Journal of the fantastic in the arts, 6, 100-106.

Stevenson, R. L. (1886). Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Penguin Classics. Penguin Group. London. England.

Visual Sources

Author Photo

Anny Polyzogopoulou