Peril of the Short Story
“William Wilson” by Edgar Allan Poe
From comparatively trivial wickedness I passed, with the stride of a giant, into more than the enormities of an Elah-Gabalus.
This is my first reading of this story. I haven’t come across too many doppelganger tales. Poe does this one up pretty well although without the uncanny terror I expected. Instead, we have the tale of William Wilson—not his real name—and the double that seems to haunt him through life.
Wilson first encounters his double in boarding school. They are not friends; the original Wilson plays pranks on the second while the second offers advice (presumably on better living). The two boys share the same name and after some time, the second Wilson seems to take on the look and mannerisms of the first. Unnerved, Wilson leaves school. The second Wilson continues to dog the first, ruining the first Wilson’s plans over and over again. Finally, in Rome, first Wilson accosts second Wilson, stabbing him fatally. But is the second Wilson the only one “murdered”?
Obviously, this tale can be taken as allegory. The second Wilson can be seen as the first’s conscience, stolidly foiling plans to do immoral and illegal things. But it’s also a Poe story full of Gothic architecture, creeping around sleeping people, and Roman fetes. Even before the doppelganger shows up, Wilson seems to suffer from a great deal of self-loathing, which makes it really hard to be confronted with one’s double. I also found Poe’s mentions of race and environment interesting in relation to Wilson’s behaviors—both are important. Other crunchy bit: details on cheating at cards.