Poe’s Short Stories – “William Wilson” (1839)

“In me didst thou exist—and, in my death,
see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered
thyself.”
(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary
An unnamed narrator announces that his real name shall
remain a mystery, for he wishes to preserve the purity of the page
before him. Instead, the narrator asks that we know him as “William
Wilson” throughout the tale of misery and crime that he is about
to tell. He explains that this tale will explain his sudden and
complete turn to evil.
The narrator believes that he has inherited an excitable
temperament from his otherwise dull-minded parents. As a young student, he
escapes from this environment, and his early memories concern a large
Elizabethan house in England where he attended school. He describes
the school as a Gothic prison, with a spiked iron gate that has
creaky hinges. The principal, who also acts as the pastor of the church,
enforces the severe rules of the school.
Despite the severity of his surroundings, the narrator
emerges as a colorful student and feels a certain superiority to
his classmates, with the exception of one student. According to
the narrator, this student bears exactly the same name: William
Wilson. This second William Wilson interferes with the narrator’s
mastery over his classmates, thereby becoming for the narrator an
object of fear and competition. This rivalry becomes only more pronounced
for the narrator when he learns that they joined the school on the
same day and that, because of the two William Wilsons’ identical
builds and styles of dress, many older students believe they are
brothers. The narrator’s rival even imitates his mode of speaking,
except he can never raise his voice above a whisper. Nevertheless,
the narrator rejects any connection between him and his rival. Despite
this antagonism, though, the narrator remains on speaking terms
with his competitor and admits, at first, to being unable to hate
him.
The relationship soon deteriorates, however, and a violent
altercation ensues between the two William Wilsons. The scuffle
evokes in the narrator memories of his infancy, which makes him
grow only more obsessed with William Wilson. On a night not long
after the scuffle, the narrator sneaks into his rival’s bedroom
to play a practical joke. Shining the light from his lamp on his
rival’s face, the narrator believes he sees a different William
Wilson, a face unique to the darkness. Terrified by the facial transformation
he imagines, the narrator rushes from the room.
After several months, the narrator becomes a student at
another school, Eton, and attempts to leave behind memories of the
other William Wilson. He abuses alcohol in this effort to forget
the past, and he recalls one debaucherous party in particular. In
the midst of the drunken revelry, a servant announces the presence
of a mysterious guest calling for the attention of the narrator.
Excited and intoxicated, the narrator rushes to the vestibule, only
to discover a youth of his same size and dress. The faintness of
the light prevents the narrator from discerning the visitor’s face.
Grabbing the narrator’s arm, the guest whispers “William Wilson”
in the narrator’s ear and quickly vanishes.
Changing schools again, the narrator moves to Oxford,
where he picks up the vice of gambling. Skilled at this vice, the
narrator chooses weak-minded classmates on whom to prey for extravagant monetary
gain. After two years at Oxford, the narrator meets a young nobleman
named Glendinning and makes him his next gambling target. Allowing
him to win at first, the narrator lures him with the prospect of
more success to a large party he has arranged. At this party, Glendinning
plays exactly as the narrator expects and quickly amasses large
debts. At the moment that he quadruples his debt, Glendinning becomes
ghastly pale, and the narrator realizes his triumph. Suddenly, however,
a stranger intrudes on the party with a rush that extinguishes all
the candles in the room. He reveals the narrator to be a scam artist
and promptly retreats. The announcement ruins the narrator, forcing
his departure not only from Oxford, but also from Britain.
Settling at last in Rome, the narrator attends a masquerade
ball in the palace of the duke Di Broglio. The narrator secretly
desires the wife of the duke, who has informed him of the costume
she will be wearing. As he searches for her, the narrator feels
a light hand on his arm and hears a whisper in his ear: “William
Wilson.” The whisperer wears the same costume as the narrator, a
Spanish cloak with a black silk mask. Drawn into a side room, the
narrator becomes enraged, drawing his sword and stabbing his rival.
To the narrator’s horror, the layout of the room mysteriously changes,
and a mirror replaces the body of his antagonist. He stares into
the mirror to find his own body stabbed and bleeding, and he hears
his rival speak as though with his own voice: “In me didst thou
exist—and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how
utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”
Analysis
“William Wilson” is Poe’s most sustained character study
of the doppelganger, or double, a theme explored in a similar way
recently by the popular film Fight Club. Poe doubles
the twins Roderick and Madeline Usher in “The Fall of the House
of Usher” and in “William Wilson.” While Poe focuses on Roderick
and Madeline’s physical relationship in “The Fall of the House of
Usher,” he is interested in the psychological self-splitting that
produces the two William Wilsons in “William Wilson.” Although Poe’s
focus is undoubtedly the alter ego—the part of the self that haunts
us against our will—he portrays this psychological condition through
the manifestation of another body. The final image of the murder-suicide
points to the ultimate inseparability of body and mind. The narrator
may be plagued mentally and intellectually by his rivalrous double,
but he can register his revenge only in physical, corporeal terms,
such as the thrust of his sword that carries with it the angst of
his tortured mind.
Poe’s study of psychology in “William Wilson” anticipates
the major theories of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and
one of the twentieth century’s most important psychologists. Poe’s
notion of the rivalrous double predates Freud’s concept of the repressed,
unconscious alter ego by at least half a century. Like Freud, Poe
associates the alter ego with a universal psychological condition,
unaffected by specifics of time or place. William Wilson’s double
follows him across Europe—from England to Italy—and from childhood
to adult life. It is clear that the narrator’s mental splitting
of himself into two William Wilsons does not result from aggravating
factors of a specific environment, since the narrator purposefully
moves to different environments in an attempt to elude his double.
The doppelganger represents the narrator’s attempt to project an
inner evil on the outside world. Whereas “The Tell-Tale Heart” shows
how the mad narrator internally fixates on something external—the
old man’s eye—“William Wilson” portrays the reverse of this psychological
trajectory.
Like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “William Wilson” thematically explores
the ambiguous doubling of love and hate. As much as the narrator
resists, he cannot help initially feeling affection for his rival.
In fact, the tale’s murderous resolution shows how necessary the
hated alter ego is for the sustenance of life. Because the long-awaited
murder of his double also constitutes the narrator’s suicide, Poe
suggests that we unwittingly thrive on those elements in life that we
most want to reject. The inclination to reject or repress a set
of emotions—like the hatred of a rival—indicates how important those
emotions are to the self.
As in “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Cask of Amontillado,”
the dramatic resolution of “William Wilson” occurs during a masquerade
party. Poe relies upon the motif of the masquerade to set loose
the homicidal impulses of the narrator. But he suggests that the
narrator’s original desire, though not murderous, is still less than
virtuous: he wants to make romantic advances toward the young and
beautiful wife of the aged duke. Poe connects lust with the narrator’s
obsession with his own identity. Poe exaggerates the rivalry by
dressing the men in identical costumes, intimating that the narrator
cannot escape his own demons, even when he dons a disguise. Only
in service to his desire for the duchess does the narrator act on
the animosity that has plagued him since childhood.