An Analysis of Poe’s “William Wilson”


Commentary by Karen Bernardo


One of the best examples of Edgar Allan Poe’s obsession with the theme of the “Doppelganger” or double can be found in his extremely peculiar story “William Wilson”—the tale of two souls who actually seem to become one.


As the story opens, the narrator, a schoolboy, finds himself in the same class with another boy who shares his name. This is not so unusual, except that the narrator feels the other boy takes a perverse delight in copying his “gait, [his] voice, [his] habits, and [his] manner,” thus making himself a virtual clone of the narrator. Eventually the two boys actually take on the same facial features.


There are, however, two areas in which the other William Wilson does not resemble the former. Due to some sort of physical defect, the “other” William Wilson’s voice can scarcely be raised above a whisper; and the “other” William Wilson’s every instinct is good. The narrator, on the other hand, proceeds from schoolboy mischievousness to a life of crime, primarily through an addiction to drinking and gambling.


Here, however, the “other” William Wilson persistently intrudes into the narrator’s life, either warning the narrator that he is going beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior, or warning others that Wilson is going to hurt them. Eventually the narrator can stand it no longer, and fatally stabs his nemesis to get him out of his life. The story ends with both of them covered in blood, and both of them apparently dying. The “other” Wilson finally finds his voice: ‘You have conquered me, and I yield. Yet, henceforward art thou also dead—dead to the World, to Heaven, and to Hope! In me didst thou exist—and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself!” So, Poe asks—which one was really the “other” William Wilson?


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