top of page

The "Self and the Other" in the Tale "William Wilson", by Edgar Allan Poe

Figure 1: RACKHAM, A. (1935). William Wilson [Illustration].

Since ancient times, the phenomenon of the double - a psychic phenomenon in which an individual can split into two or more different personalities - has been explored in many stories. The first appearance probably occurred in the myth in which Zeus takes the form of Amphitryon to lie with the Greek's wife; an argument taken up again in the 17th century by Molière, in the play Amphitryon, and to the biblical twins Esau and Jacob, physically alike but morally different, recreated by Machado de Assis in the 18th century.

This phenomenon, however, reaches its apogee in literature in the 19th century, in the middle of Romanticism. Preceded by a period of strong dehumanization caused by the Industrial Revolution (LIMA, 2008), it is at that time that the term doppelgänger[1] appears, created by Jean-Paul Richter in 1796, to designate the double as a "second self", or even "people who can see themselves" (RICHTER, 1959, quoted by ŽIVKOVI, 2000). Moreover, according to Ralph Tymms, the phenomenon still usually implied the existence and development of a spiritual affinity that connected the Identical pairs (TYMMS, 1949).

By placing the individual at the center of its issues, the 19th century favored the development of the theme of the duplicity of the self and this caught the attention of writers of the time. According to Nébias (2011, p. 13), other phenomena contributed concomitantly to the evolution of the theme: the study of provoked sleepwalking, hypnosis, second personalities, and hysteria, which illustrate the possibility of man manifesting himself in different aspects - when not multiple ones. Therefore, according to Ana Maria de Mello, even though the theme is old, it gains a special coloring and emphasis from Romanticism, a moment in which the inquiries about the subject become acute and are projected in the artistic creation, at the same time that they become the object of studies undertaken in the area of Psychology (MELLO, 2000, p. 120).

This was followed by the publication of works of the Fantastic genre such as The Devil's Elixir, a text by the German E. T. A. Hoffmann, in 1815; the short story William Wilson, by Edgar Allan Poe, in 1839; The Double, by Dostoyevsky, in 1846; Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, in 1886; The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, in 1890, among others.

According to Tzvetan Todorov (2012), the Fantastic is present when an event that is impossible to explain by the laws of our world as we know it, occurs. When someone perceives this episode, this person must choose one of the two possible solutions: either it is an illusion of the senses, a product of imagination, and the laws of the world remain as they are, or the event has really occurred, it is part of reality, and then this reality is governed by laws that we do not know. (TODOROV, 2012, p. 30-31)

Returning to the term of Germanic origin (doppelgänger), it is interesting to point out that it, although conceived in the 18th century, refers to a monster or a fantastic being from ancient Teutonic legends that would have the ability to reveal itself to be a copy of the person it will accompany; working, according to Carlos Ceia, as "a kind of soul mate or even a ghost that haunts an individual, confusing itself with its own personality" (DOPPELGÄNGER, 2009). Still, one of its most disturbing characteristics is the fact that it imitates the original in everything, both in physical and psychological terms, behaving like "a malignant figure, able to pry into the hero’s innermost thoughts and interfere with his most urgent schemes." (TYMMS,1949, 103)

There is a clear presentation of the characteristics mentioned above that exemplify the double in Edgar Allan Poe's short story, William Wilson. Already in the third paragraph of the text, the first-person narrator states that he descends from a family of "imaginative and easily excitable temperament" and that from an early age he proved to have a very fertile imagination - and that, as the years went by, it became more and more creative, which caused serious disquietude for his friends and injury to himself (POE, 2006, p. 314-315).

Figure 2: YOSHIDA, N. (2015, May 26). William Wilson [Illustration]. DeviantArt.

When of school age, he met his namesake who, coincidentally, was born on the same date as him (January 19, 1813) and entered the school on the exact same day. However, the relationship of the two was conflictual, for they were of opposite extremes in everything. This duality is reinforced throughout the length of the tale, as the narrator's defiance grows inversely proportional to the good sense of his enemy. From the beginning to the end of the narrative, we are informed that William Wilson's namesake was trying to interfere in every way with the narrator's unnoble attitudes.

From time to time, the narrator seems to reinforce the idea that no one noticed that there were two William Wilson competing against each other. It is presented that one reason is that the rival "had a weakness in the faucial or guttural organs, which precluded him from raising his voice at any time above a very low whisper (emphasis in original)." (POE, 2006, p. 319). Another cause is pointed out by the person who tells us the story: his opponent was like a copy of him, and there would only be room for the original - that is why people did not notice him (POE, 2006, p. 320).

However, the narrator himself admits that the more he perceived himself to be similar to the other, the angrier he became: besides being born on the same day, entering school on the same date, and sharing the same name, they were of the same height and "singularly alike in general contour of person and outline of feature." (POE, 2006, p. 319). Beyond the physical traits, he points out: “His cue, which was to perfect an imitation of myself, lay both in words and in actions; and most admirably did he play his part." The same way he continues: "My dress it was an easy manner to copy; my gait and general manner were, without difficulty, appropriated; in spite of his constitutional defect, even my voice did not escape him.” (Emphasis in original) (POE, 2006, p. 320)

Faced with the situations presented, the following doubt arises: Was the other William Wilson a figment of his imagination? Was he his double, his doppelgänger?

Figure 3: EICHENBERG, F. (1944). William Wilson [Illustration]. Ebay.

An excellent writer in the art of Fantastic Literature, Edgar Allan Poe approaches the theme of the double with mastery in this tale, mainly by the choice of a first-person narrator. According to Tzvetan Todorov (2012), the stories of Fantastic Literature are narrated in the first-person singular, which leaves room for the reader's doubt whether what the character tells is true or a lie, since, "as a narrator, his speech does not have to undergo the test of truth; but as a character, he may lie" (TODOROV, 2012, p 91).

Moreover, this type of narrator is the one that "most easily allows the reader to identify with the character, since, as is known, the pronoun 'I' belongs to everyone" (TODOROV, 2012, p. 92). Thus, from the moment the reader identifies with the narrator, the reader does not distrust the narrator's testimony, but searches together with the narrator for a rational explanation for the supernatural facts presented.

With all the technical writing knowledge used by the master of mystery, there is no way to prove if there was really another William Wilson or if this double was just a figment of the creative imagination of the character with the same name. It will depend only on the reader to be carried away or not - by the narrative - and from that to draw his or her own conclusions.

[1] Although the problematic of the double did not exist yet in an identified form, its origin is not literary. According to what Milica Živkovi states in the article The Double as the 'Unseen' of Culture: Toward a Definition of Doppelgänger, the double has its origin in a cultural construction linked to myth, legend, and religion (ŽIVKOVI, 2000), going back to the most ancient popular traditions, with diverse geographical origins, referred to by Rank in his study, The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study (1971), in which the author relates it to multiple concepts such as the shadow, the soul, and the fragmentation of the Self. According to Cristina Martinho, in her essay Articulations of the Double in 20th-century Fantastic Literature, the double, constantly linked to the terror of death, thus belongs to the darkest side of the world of mythology and folklore, representing duality in its most disturbing and sinister aspect (MARTINHO, 2003).

Bibliographic References

DOPPELGÄNGER. 2009. In E-Dictionary of Literary Terms by Carlos Ceia.

LIMA, M. A. 2008. Terror in North American Literature. (Original Title: Terror na Literatura Norte-Americana) (Vol. 1). Universitária Editora.

MARTINHO, C. M. T. 2003. Articulations of the Double in 19th Century Fantastic Literature. (Original title: Articulações do duplo na Literatura Fantástica do século XIX). VII CONGRESSO NACIONAL DE LINGÜÍSTICA E FILOLOGIA (VII NATIONAL CONGRESS OF LINGUISTICS AND PHILOLOGY), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

MELLO, A. M. L. 2000. The Faces of the Double in Literature. (Original title: As faces do duplo na literatura). In F. INDURSKY & M. C. CAMPOS (Eds.), Discourse, memory, identity. (Original title: Discurso, memória, identidade) (pp. 111–123). Editora Sagra Luzzatto.

NEBIAS, M. M. R. 2011. “Self is Another”: Manifestations of the Double in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza. (Original title: “Eu é um outro”: manifestações do duplo em Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza) (Master’s dissertation).

POE, E. A. 2006. William Wilson. In The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (pp. 314–329). Barnes and Noble.

RANK, O. 1971. The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study. The University of North Carolina Press.

TODOROV, T. 2012. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre/Introdução à Literatura Fantástica (Translated by Maria Clara Correa Castello). (Original title: Introduction à la Littérature Fantastique) (4th ed.). Perspectiva.

TYMMS, R. 1949. Doubles in Literary Psychology. Bowes & Bowes.

ŽIVKOVI, M. 2000. The Double as the “Unseen” of Culture: Toward a Definition of Doppelgänger. Linguistics and Literature, 2(7), 121–128.

Image Sources

Figure 2: YOSHIDA, N. (2015, May 26). William Wilson [Illustration]. DeviantArt. Retrieved from

Figure 3: EICHENBERG, F. (1944). William Wilson [Illustration]. Ebay. Retrieved from


Author Photo

Simone Carlesso

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia has an extensive catalog of articles on everything from literature to science — all available for free! If you liked this article and would like to read more, subscribe below and click the “Read More” button to discover a world of unique content.

Let the posts come to you!

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page