31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 1: “William Wilson” by Edgar Allan Poe

May 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Selected Tales

Poe did not invent the short story, but he arguably perfected it. Although he thought of himself primarily as a poet, it is for his tales of terror and the macabre that he will be forever remembered. Never before in American letters had a writer so thoroughly and obsessively plumbed the depths of the subconscious to reveal the creeping terrors that lurk under the liminal surface of everyday life. While Poe anticipated both H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, he also prefigured the theories of one particularly influential thinker: Poe wrestled with the notion of an unconstrained id years before Freud ever put pen to paper.

“William Wilson,” first published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in October 1839 (47 years before Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), is an examination of the doppelgänger motif that has been recapitulated in American fiction by writers as diverse as Flannery O’Connor (Wise Blood) and Stephen King (The Dark Half). But unlike O’Connor’s novel, in which Solace Layfield represents a comic replication of protagonist Hazel Motes, and King’s, in which Thad Beaumont’s pseudonym comes to life as a malevolent killing machine, the shadowy figure who trails the eponymous protagonist of Poe’s story is a symbolic manifestation of that character’s conscience. This is apparent before the story even opens; the epigraph from Chamberlayne refers to conscience as “That spectre in my path.”

Wilson, a self-confessed “object for the scorn – for the horror – for the detestation of [his] race,” is bedevilled by a whispery figure bearing his own countenance and sharing both his name and his birthday – January 19, 1813. Although at school Wilson and his reflection are “the most inseparable of companions,” Wilson is nevertheless troubled by the resemblance between the two, and plagued by an ineffable feeling of unease whenever his double is around. We are told that Wilson’s “feeling of vexation … grew stronger with every circumstance tending to show resemblance, moral or physical, between” the two of them. A card cheat and general ne’er-do-well, Wilson is tracked from Eton to Oxford, then to Paris, Rome, Naples, and Egypt. He flees, but he flees in vain: “My evil destiny pursued me as if in exultation, and proved, indeed, that the exercise of its mysterious dominion had only begun.” Wilson’s identification of his doppelgänger as his “evil destiny” is ironic, of course, since Wilson himself is the venal cheat and liar; it is his double who unmasks his duplicity at Oxford after he fleeces the guileless Lord Glendinning in a rigged card game, resulting in “a hurried journey from Oxford to the continent, in a perfect agony of horror and shame.”

Indeed, the other William Wilson is unflinchingly moral, mocking the narrator’s ego and bringing to light the narrator’s cruelties and misdeeds. If we remained in any doubt about the relationship between the two figures, Poe makes it explicit at the story’s close, when Wilson stabs his alter ego, shouting “scoundrel! impostor!” Having dealt what he expects is the killing blow against his antagonist, he eyes catch sight of a “large mirror” and sees his “own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood.” The story’s final words – spoken by Wilson, or his doppelgänger, or some combination of the two – give the game away: “In me didst thou exist – and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.” Wilson’s final act, then, is not an act of murder, but of suicide, for the two figures are ultimately inseparable: they are indeed the same person. The cry of “impostor!” is ultimately revealed as a wishful fantasy on the part of a man “addicted to the wildest caprices” and distinguished by “evil propensities.”

“William Wilson” is an examination of ontology and identity, but it questions the notion of self-knowledge, suggesting that complete understanding is illusory, or at least evades grasp until it is too late. Significantly, the narrator’s name is not William Wilson; this is a pseudonym that he adopts at the beginning of his narrative, which finds him near death as a result of his self-inflicted wound. The moniker in which he drapes himself is noteworthy: this figure, who “grew self-willed” and “was left to the guidance of [his] own will,” embodies in his chosen name the very characteristic he attributes to himself. He becomes “Will’s Son,” which is clearly ironic, given that this man of will is unable to outrun the moral conscience that dogs him throughout the story.

The themes that Poe was exploring continue to inhabit the imaginations of writers to this day, and as Philip van Doren Stern points out in his introduction to The Portable Poe, the 19th century Bostonian was among the most modern of early American writers:

He is the most often read of all his contemporaries, but this is no accident, for this neurotic and unhappy artist is strangely modern, oddly in keeping with our own neurotic and unhappy age. He knew what the death wish was long before Freud defined it. He was in love with violence half a century before Hemingway was born; he knew how to create suspense before the psycho-thriller was thought of; he used the theme of the double self before the term “split personality” was invented. And, most important of all, he was endlessly concerned with inner conflict – the major theme of present-day literature.

“William Wilson” is about inner conflict made manifest. In its awareness that a divided psyche cannot exist perpetually without one side destroying the other, it prefigures another iconic American anti-hero, the owner of a Gothic house overlooking a motel with “12 cabins, 12 vacancies.” William Wilson, like many of Poe’s tormented protagonists, is haunted to the grave by his divided – and divisive – self.

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