The Motif of the Doppelgänger in "William Wilson" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012
23 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Content

1 Introduction

2 William Wilson and the double as the super-ego
2.1 Wilson’s conscience
2.2 being society’s conscience

3 The Double in The Picture of Dorian Gray
3.1 Dorian Gray’s conscience
3.2 The Double as the keeper of Dorian’s secrets

4 Conclusion

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

1 Introduction

From ancient Folklore over children’s stories all the way to modern super heroes; the motif of the double seems to encounter us everywhere. Peter Pan, for example, was chasing his shadow, which had a mind of its own and managed to detach itself from Peter’s body.1 And modern superheroes, like Spiderman, tend to lead two lives to conceal their second identity. These two examples show that the motif of the double appears in more than one form. It can appear in the shape of a mirror or a picture, or it can be a physical person or a supernatural being. Whatever shape the double takes, it represents a division of the personality.2 This term paper focuses on two stories representing two different appearances of the double but the same inner conflict. Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson, as well as Oscar Wild’s The picture of Dorian Gray, were both written in the 19th century. Although the motive goes back many centuries, the 19th century is particularly interesting with regards to the motif of the double because it seems to mark both, the peak as well as the decline of this genre.3 It is rooted in the gothic novel of the late 18th and early 19th century, where it is used as a device to focus on split identities or the psychological evil of a person. It was during this time that authors had an increasing awareness of the psychology of evil, which seems to come from within.4 The development of the double-ganger is a very interesting one, which will, nonetheless, not be covered in this term paper. For further studies of this development, see Astrid Schmid, who gives a detailed description in her dissertation entitled The Fear of the Other. The only point that needs to be mentioned is that the gothic novel gave rise to the motif of the double. It is used by the authors as a device to “venture down, through the vein of the alter ego, to the dreaded taboo-zones within man and to explore this domain.”5 In other words, authors tried to address topics which were unpopular in those times.

Poe was a writer of gothic novels and the influences of it can be seen in William Wilson. There are of course many different ways to interpret this story but this term paper focuses on the idea that Wilson’s double functions as his own conscience as well as society’s conscience. In order to have a better understanding of this concept, Freud’s psychoanalysis will be used as a foundation to this analysis, which forms the first chapter.

The second chapter focuses on Oscar Wild’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In this novel, the double takes on a completely different shape but symbolises the same inner conflict. This novel was written in a time, when the motif of the double was already in decline and it will be interesting to see in how far these two stories differ. In order to compare the novel to Poe’s short story the focus will be similar to William Wilson in so far as the role of the double will be analysed. Does Dorian Gray’s portrait act as a conscience as well? Here again Freud’s psychoanalysis as well as his essay the Uncanny will be regarded as a source. The Picture of Dorian Gray can be analysed in many different ways. There is the topic of Art and aestheticism as well as a “cult of the senses”.6 It is, however, the topic of the double, realised through a portrait of the Self, which is the focus of this term paper. Other topics will only be discussed in connection to the main focus.

2 William Wilson and the double as the super-ego

“I often dwelt meditatively on the old philosophy of the Bi-Part Soul, and amused myself with the fancy of a double Dupin – the creative and the resolvent.”7

William Wilson was not the first story by Edgar Allan Poe where he used the motif of the double, nor was it his last. The above quote was taken from his first detective short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue, where the narrator of the story observes the main character. It shows the core element of the double motif, the division of the inner self. This division is usually a fight between good and evil, where the self is the good part, which is tempted by its evil double. Interestingly enough, Poe reverses those roles in his short story William Wilson. It is the self that tries to do evil but is always hindered by his double-ganger, who seems to act as his conscience. These elements of the double being Wilson’s conscience will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter. An analysis of the double representing society’s conscience will be following this chapter. The first focus, however, will be on Freud’s psychoanalysis to provide the background for the following chapters.

In his psychoanalysis Freud divides the human psyche into three parts: the superego, ego and id. The superego represents society insofar that it holds the cultural and social norms. It is also recognised as the conscience and will be the main focus point of the following chapters. The ego is the self, which constantly tries to bring the social norms of the superego and the id together. The id represents the “drives,” such as personal desires.8 The ego is mostly influenced by the individual’s childhood, where he or she lives through several stages to develop his or her identity. Freud states that there will only be a problem when the individual remains in one of these stages, like a narcissistic self-love, instead of moving on.9 In the following chapters the character of William Wilson will be analysed according to this theory. How far does Wilson’s double represent his superego, serving, not only as his but also as society’s conscience?

2.1 Wilson’s conscience

In order to understand how the second self can act as Wilson’s conscience, it is important to analyse how and why this double-ganger appeared in Wilson’s life. The first time we encounter Wilson’s double is when he relives his school days. He says that he was above every one of his schoolmates but then has to admit that there was one exception.

“This exception was found in the person of a scholar, who, although no relation, bore the same Christian and surname as myself [...] My namesake alone, of those who in school phraseology constituted “our set,” presumed to compete with me in the studies of the class [...] to refuse implicit belief in my assertions, and submission to my will – indeed, to interfere with my arbitrary dictation in any respect whatsoever.”10

At this point in time, Wilson realises that there is another person who is not like everyone else in the sense that he cannot control him. What is even worse for Wilson is the fact that this person, despite their physical resemblance, seems to be the opposite of him, because he is neither competitive nor ambitious.11 Although Wilson was not keen about the fact, that there was someone he could not control, he did not really know what to think of him. On the one hand, he hated him because he “secretly felt that [he] feared him”12 but on the other hand, he “could not bring [himself] to hate him altogether.”13 Bär argues that at this point in time, the two Wilsons could have become friends but their constant rivalry hindered it.14 Wilson himself says that there “were many points of strong congeniality in our tempers, operating to awake in me a sentiment which our position alone, perhaps, prevented from ripening into friendship.”15

There are several reasons why they did not become friends. One reason was that Wilson feared his double’s superiority. The other reason, which is closely connected to this, was his constant rivalry with his other self when it came to practical jokes and banter.16 It is imperative to take Wilson’s background story into account in order to understand this rivalry. Before Wilson entered school, he developed a very dominant character. This was uncommon for his age, as he was “left to the guidance of [his] own will, and became, in all but name, the master of [his] own actions.”17 In other words, he was free from discipline and not even his parents were able to restrict him. Wilson was used to getting his own way and when he entered school, it seemed like he was able to continue in his “ill-directed”18 way. In Freudian terms, he developed a very narcissistic self-love, which he did not lose once he entered school because he used it as a “buffer against the destruction of the ego.”19 Schwarz argues that the double was created because Wilson’s uncontrolled childish side suddenly encountered a controlled adult environment, namely the school.20 This narcissistic identity was suddenly questioned by this other Wilson who was just like him, only that he did not share his love for making fun of others. The reason why Wilson grew annoyed of his other self was the constant rivalry between them.21 The more similarities the narrator saw in the other Wilson, the more he hated him. “The feeling of vexation thus engendered grew stronger with every circumstance tending to show resemblance, moral or physical, between my rival and myself.”22 The fact that none of his schoolmates observed the striking similarities between the two Wilsons introduces the motif of the double.23 The only difference between the two was their voices. Wilson’s double was only able to talk in a whisper and when the narrator states that “his [the other self’s] singular whisper, it grew the very echo of my own24 the reader starts to realise that it is probably only a voice in his head.25

The first obvious sign of the other self, being Wilson’s conscience, is given by the narrator himself when he talks about the constant advice that he received by the superego.

“[...] his moral sense, at least, if not his general talents and wordly wisdom, was far keener than my own; and that I might, to-day, have been a better and thus happier man, had I less frequently rejected the counsels embodied in those meaning whispers which I then but too cordially hated and too bitterly despised.”26

It is however the narrator of the story looking back on his life after experiencing the tragedy of the final battle between the two Wilsons. The young Wilson attending school at that time did not yet recognise his double as the superego. According to Forderer, Wilson is incapable of seeing this advice of the superego and therefore, sees it as a usurper. As a result, he separates the good in himself and starts to hate it.27 What he did however realise was the interference of his double, whenever he tried to do something evil. Shiloh argues that because of his narcissistic character, Wilson was driven by fear to transfer his responsibility to his other self.28 Only shortly before he leaves school did Wilson get a glimpse at the true nature of this other Wilson. One night, the narrator decides to play a prank on the other Wilson. He sneaks into his bedroom und sees him in his sleep. Looking at the double’s face Wilson was so shocked that he fled the school at once and never returned.29 This fear was created by the sudden realisation that his double was his better self. Seeing it almost lifeless was shocking for him. He saw his better self, an ideal, but rejects it and therefore flees.30

So far, the double has been an annoyance in William Wilson’s life, because he interfered with his narcissistic ego. When the double reappears during Wilson’s time at Eton, Wilson starts to feel threatened by it. At first, he did however feel relieved by the absence of his double and even starts to question the existence of the superego thus, going back to his former evil self. “I could now find room to doubt the evidence of my senses.”31 Three years passed until one evening, when Wilson was about to insist on “toast of more than wonted profanity,”32 he was called to the hall to meet someone. Although Wilson could not see the stranger’s face, he immediately recognised him when he whispered “William Wilson” into his ear. In this one instant, he became aware that what he was doing was wrong. His double-ganger even lifts a finger to Wilson’s face as a sign of warning, but before Wilson was able to reply or even move his double, he had already vanished.33 Schwarz states that Wilson’s ego, which is his evil side, can only be stopped by his conscience, which only appears when a psychogenic drug dulls his senses, in this case, alcohol. Only then can his superego take over.34 Another significant fact is that the double’s face is always hidden. In this scene, Wilson could not see it because it was too dark. Here again, Wilson fails to see the double as part of himself. He could not see his face and as such, was not able to see himself reflected in his double’s face.

Wilson left the University of Eton and went to Oxford, where he not only continued his lifestyle but he even became a professional gambler.35 One night, Wilson managed to steal a large sum of money from a nobleman by cheating at poker. He even admitted that he “had effected his total ruin”36 The narrator described the atmosphere in the room as very tense because, once everyone noticed the nobleman’s ruin, they had pity on him. Even Wilson felt his “cheeks tingle” and an “intolerable weight of anxiety”37 and so, felt relieved to be interrupted by a stranger entering the room. As soon as Wilson heard his whisper, he recognised this stranger to be his double. He reveals Wilsons cheating and then disappears. Here again it becomes quite obvious that Wilson’s wrong behaviour can only be stopped by his double.38 In this case, where he once was not sure about whether Wilson liked his double-ganger or not, he now starts to hate him. He even starts to feel that there is more to this other Wilson than what meets the eye. In a “perfect agony of horror and shame,”39 Wilson noticed that the stranger had the exact same, very rare, and expansive cloak. In his fear of his double, he tried to flee. Wilson develops a persecution complex, where he thinks that his double wants nothing else but to destroy him.40 Still Wilson fails to identify his double as a part of himself and that he cannot realise the double’s true intention.41 Therefore, because he fears him he tries to flee. “From his inscrutable tyranny did I at length flee, panic-stricken, as from pestilence; and to the very ends of the earth I fled in vain.42 When he finally realises that he cannot flee from his double-ganger, he tries to free himself by killing him. During Carnival in Rome when Wilson was about to commit adultery, he felt his double’s hand on his shoulder. Deciding to free himself once and for all from his persecutor, he drags him into a room. Here during his last fight against his double, Wilson observes his own destruction in a mirror. And only then, after stabbing his other self, is he able to recognise his double is a part of himself.43 Schwarz states that Wilson suddenly realises that the double is not “the double who imitates, but the narrator who exists in me.”44 Suddenly, when Wilson finally realised what he has done, the double loses his whisper and speaks in a voice that was Wilson’s own. And by killing his better half, he also killed his own hope of becoming a better person.45

As was established above, Wilson’s double can be recognised as the superego because he functions as his conscience. It became an independent part because the narrator did not want to deal with the moral consequences of his bad behaviour. At first, he realised their similarities and thus, liked him. In time, Wilson started to hate his double because he interfered with all his plans. Here the function of the superego is most obvious because he prevents Wilson to do evil. Only during the last moment did Wilson recognise his conscience for what it was.


1 cf. J.M. Barrie, “Peter and Wendy”, in: Anne Hiebert Alton, ed., Pter Pan (Toronto: 2011), 62.

2 Cf. Herdman, John, The Double in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (London: 1990), 1.

3 Cf. Herdmann, 17-18.

4 Cf. Astrid Schmid, The Fear of the Other: Approaches to English Stories of the Double (1764 – 1910) (Bern et al.: 1996), 13; 15.

5 Schmid, 15.

6 Cf. Astrid Schmid, The Fear of the Other: Approaches to English Stories of the Double (1764 – 1910) (Bern: 1996), 134-135.

7 Poe, Edgar Allan, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, in: Smith, James R., Detective Fiction (Dubuque, Iowa: 1996),

8 Cf. Michael Meyer, English and American Literatures (Tübingen: 2005), 131.

9 Cf. Meyer, 131.

10 Edgar Alan Poe, „William Wilson“, in: The Complete Tales and Poems by Edgar Allan Poe (New York: 1938), 629.

11 Cf. Herdman, 95.

12 Poe, 630.

13 Poe, 630.

14 Cf. Gerald Bär, Das Motiv des Doppelgängers als Spaltungsphantasie in der Literatur und im deutschen Stummfilm (Amsterdam, New York: 2005), 292.

15 Poe, 630.

16 Cf. Poe 631.

17 Poe, 627.

18 Poe, 627.

19 Ilana Shiloh, The Double, the Labyrinth and the Locked Room: Metaphors of Paradox in Crime Fiction and Film (New York: 2011), 13.

20 Cf. Heike Schwarz, Beware of the Other Side(s): Multiple Personality Disorder and Dissociative Identity Disorder in American Fiction (Bielefeld: 2013), 212.

21 Cf. Bär, 292.

22 Poe, 631.

23 Cf. John Herdmann, The Double in 19th Century Fiction (London: 1990), 96.

24 Poe, 632.

25 Cf. Schwarz, 210.

26 Poe, 632.

27 Cf. Forderer, Christof: Ich-Eklipsen. Doppelgänger in der Literatur seit 1800, Stuttgart, Weimar, Metzler 1999.

28 Cf. Shiloh, 13.

29 Cf. Poe, 633-634.

30 Cf. Bär, 293; also Herdmann, 97.

31 Poe, 634.

32 Poe, 634.

33 Cf. Poe, 635.

34 Cf. Schwarz, 212.

35 Cf. Poe,636.

36 Poe, 637.

37 Poe, 637.

38 Cf. Schwarz, 211.

39 Poe, 639.

40 Cf. Shiloh, 13.

41 Cf. Forderer, 93.

42 Poe, 639.

43 Cf. Bär, 293.

44 Schwarz, 211.

45 Cf. Bär, 294.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


The Motif of the Doppelgänger in "William Wilson" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray"
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Anglistik)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
William Wilson, Doppelgänger, Dorian Gray, Motif of the double
Quote paper
Lucia Vitzthum (Author), 2012, The Motif of the Doppelgänger in "William Wilson" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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