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William Wilson was first published in the October 1839 issue of Burton Gentleman’s Magazine. Later in 1844 it was translated into French and published in the Paris newspaper La Quotidienne. This marked the first introduction of Poe’s work into France, where it has been highly regarded ever since.
The story has surprisingly autobiographical elements. During his youth Poe spent some time at Manor House School in Stoke Newington in north London, on which the ‘academy’ in the story is based. However, he did not go on to either Eton or Oxford University – which he describes in the tale as ‘the most dissolute university in Europe’.
William Wilson – critical summary
This is an early and now-famous example of the double in literature – sometimes known by its German term the ‘Doppelganger’. The elements of a double in the story should be quite clear from the start. William Wilson is confronted by another schoolboy at the academy who has the same name as himself. They have the same birthday; they are the same height; they wear the same clothes; and they both join the academy and leave it on exactly the same day.
Wilson is exasperated by the appearances of what he perceives as a ‘rival’, and yet the double gives him ‘advice’ which Wilson, writing in retrospect, now wishes he had heeded. It is also significant that nobody else in the story seems to be aware of the double; he ‘appears’ only to Wilson himself.
“Yet this superiority — even this equality — was in truth acknowledged by no one but myself; our associates, by some unaccountable blindness, seemed not even to suspect it.”
It is one of the common features of the double in literature that it appears only to the protagonist of the story or the novel. The double figure acts as ‘another self’ to the protagonist which acts as the embodiment of good, evil, or ‘otherness’. It is for this reason that stories featuring a double are often seen as studies in psychological aberration or what is often called ‘the divided self’.
It should be fairly clear that William Wilson’s double is a manifestation of his conscience. The double appears at crucial moments when Wilson is about to commit a morally dubious act. Because the story is narrated from Wilson’s point of view, there is a strong tendency for the reader to be sympathetic to the account of events he gives us. He sees the double as a source of irritation and interference. But the double, the conscience, is merely giving him advice, and warnings – always in a low tone of voice.
The epitaph to this story provides an unmistakable clue to Poe’s intended meaning.
What say of it? what say Conscience grim,
That spectre in my path?
The essential conflict is between Wilson who wishes to do wrong, and his conscience which is warning him against himself. The two finally clash at the Roman ball, where Wilson finally kills off his double, only to discover that he is killing himself. The double tells him – no longer in a whisper – “In me didst thou exist—and in my death, see … how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”
William Wilson follows all of Poe’s own rules for the constituents of a successful short story. It strikes its distinctive tone from the opening sentence – ‘Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson’. And the story deals with that one topic alone – the inner identity (and conflict) of the protagonist.
Poe also claimed that a story should have a ‘unity of effect’. That is, all the elements of the story should be directed towards the point it is trying to make. This means in its turn that there should not be any digressions or the inclusion of unrelated material. William Wilson certainly does follow this rule. The story begins with Wilson’s anguish over his personal identity, and the focus of attention remains on that topic until the story’s dramatic finale.
The striking image of ‘self’ destruction at the conclusion of the story was echoed famously by Oscar Wilde in the conclusion to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Wilde’s is another story of moral decline, in which the protagonist becomes progressively degenerate yet remains amazingly youthful in appearance. He finally confronts a portrait painting of himself which has aged in an attic to reveal his corruption. In a rage he stabs the painting with a knife and is found dead with the knife in his own heart – and the portrait has become young once again.
The idea of a portrait hidden in an attic which reveals the unpleasant truth about someone’s behaviour and age has become a commonplace image and figure of speech – often humorously applied. It is rightly attributed to Wilde, but it has its origins in Edgar Allan Poe.
William Wilson – study resources
Poe: The Ultimate Collection – Amazon UK
Poe: The Ultimate Collection – Amazon US
Poe: Collected Tales – Penguin – Amazon UK
Poe: Collected Tales – Penguin – Amazon US
Tales of Mystery and Imagination – Kindle illustrated – UK
Tales of Mystery and Imagination – Kindle illustrated – US
William Wilson – plot summary
William Wilson’s reputation has been ruined, and as death approaches him he wishes to make a record of his descent into wickedness.
Believing that he has inherited a ‘remarkable’ nature, he recalls his youth as a schoolboy in England. His academy school is like a Gothic prison, and its ethos is disciplinarian. Another boy with the same name becomes a competitor and a rival.
Wilson is worried by the other boy’s easy superiority, but it is not noticed by anybody else. The two boys have the same birthday, they are the same height, and they join the school on the same day.
They become inseparable companions. The rival can only speak in a very low voice, but he dresses in the same clothes as Wilson. He also takes pleasure in his superiority – though this is noticed only by Wilson himself.
The rival patronises Wilson and gives him advice, which Wilson now wishes he had heeded. Wilson visits the rival’s bedroom at night whilst he is asleep – but he does not look the same.
Wilson leaves the academy and goes to Eton where he plunges himself into a life of folly and vice. One drunken night he is visited by the rival who raises a warning finger then disappears.
Wilson moves on to Oxford University where he uses his wealth to gamble and take advantage of others. On the occasion of completely ruining a young nobleman he is visited again by the rival, who reveals to the company that Wilson has been cheating at cards. Next morning he leaves the university in disgrace and flees to the Continent.
The double figure pursues him throughout Europe, thwarting his plans for ‘bitter mischief’. Finally at a masked ball in Rome, the figure appears when Wilson is about to seduce a young married woman. Wilson draws a rapier to kill the figure, but finds himself confronting his own image in a full length mirror, spattered with blood, and saying ‘thou hast murdered thyself’.
© Roy Johnson 2017