Monday, October 1, 2012

"William Wilson" Published 1839

"William Wilson" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1839, with a setting inspired by Poe's formative years outside of London. The tale follows the theme of the doppelgänger and is written in a style based on rationality. It also appeared in the 1840 collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, and has been adapted several times.

Plot summary

The story begins with the narrator, a man of "a noble descent" who calls himself William Wilson, denouncing his profligate past, although he does not accept blame for his actions, saying that "man was never thus [...] tempted before." After several paragraphs, the narration then segues into a description of Wilson's boyhood, which was spent in a "large, rambling Elizabethan" schoolhouse, "in a misty-looking village of England." The house was huge, with many jumbled paths and rooms, and situated on extensive grounds; the students were kept on site perpetually, however, hemmed in by a fence surmounted by broken glass, only being released for short, guided walks and church service.

William describes meeting another boy who shared the same name, who had roughly the same appearance, and who was even born on exactly the same date — January 19 (which was also Poe's birthday). The other William represents his only competition in academics, sports, and popularity. The boy seemed to compete with him so easily, however, that William thinks it "a proof of his true superiority; since not to be overcome, cost me a perpetual struggle." William's name (he asserts that his actual name is only similar to "William Wilson") embarrasses him because it sounds "plebeian" or common, and he is irked that he must hear the name twice as much on account of the other William.

The boy gradually begins copying William's mannerisms, dress and talk; although, by a "constitutional defect," he could only speak in a whisper, he imitates that whisper exactly. He begins giving William advice of an unspecified nature, which he refuses to heed, resenting the boy's "arrogance." One night he stole into the other William's bedroom and saw that the boy's face had suddenly become exactly like his own. Upon seeing this, William left the academy immediately, only to discover that his double left on the same day.

William eventually attends Eton and Oxford, gradually becoming more debauched and performing what he terms "mischief." For example, he steals exorbitant amounts of money from a poor nobleman by cheating him at cards and trying to seduce a married woman. At each stage, his double eventually appears, his face always covered, whispers a few words sufficient to alert others to William's behavior, and leaves with no others seeing his face. After the last of these incidents, at a ball in Rome, William drags his "unresisting" double—who was wearing identical clothes—into an antechamber, and stabs him fatally.

After William does this, a large mirror suddenly seems to appear. Reflected at him, he sees "mine own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood": apparently the dead double, "but he spoke no longer in a whisper". The narrator feels as if he is pronouncing the words: "In me didst thou exist—and in my death, see [...] how utterly thou hast murdered thyself."


The setting of "William Wilson" is semi-autobiographical and relates to Poe's residence in England as a boy. The "misty-looking village of England" of the story is Stoke Newington, now a suburb of north London. The school is based on the Manor House School in Stoke Newington which Poe attended from 1817 to 1820. Poe's headmaster there, the Reverend John Bransby, shares the same name as the headmaster in the story, though, in the latter, he acquires the dignity of being a "Doctor."[1] This school has since been demolished. The church mentioned in the story is based on St Mary's "Old" Church, the original parish church of Stoke Newington. This building is still extant.

Additionally, Poe acknowledged that the idea of a story about the irritation one feels by meeting someone with the same name, thereby ruining a feeling of uniqueness, was inspired by an article by Washington Irving. At the end of Irving's tale, the main character kills his double with his sword, only to see his own face behind the mask.[2]


"William Wilson" clearly explores the theme of the double. This second self haunts the protagonist and leads him to insanity and also represents his own insanity.[3] According to Poe biographer, Arthur Hobson Quinn, the second self represents the conscience.[4] This division of the self is reinforced by the narrator's admission that "William Wilson" is actually a pseudonym. The name itself is an interesting choice: "son" of "will." In other words, William Wilson has willed himself into being along with the double which shares that name.[5]

Poe wrote the story very carefully and with subtlety. Sentences are balanced, with very few adjectives, and there is little concrete imagery beyond the description of Wilson's school. Pacing is purposely set as leisurely and measured using a formal style and longer sentences. Rather than creating a poetic effect or mood, as Poe recommends in "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe is creating a tale based on rationality and logic.[6]

Publication history

"William Wilson" was published in the October 1839 issue of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, though it appeared earlier that year in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present dated for 1840.[7] The tale was later translated into French in December 1844, printed in the Paris newspaper La Quotidienne in two installments. This was the first translation of Poe's work to a language other than English and marked Poe's introduction to France.[8]

Critical reception

When Poe wrote to Washington Irving asking for a word of endorsement, he specifically requested a response to "William Wilson," calling it "my best effort."[9] Irving responded, "It is managed in a highly picturesque Style and the Singular and Mysterious interest is well sustained throughout."[10] Thomas Mann said of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Double: A Petersburg Poem, which explores a similar doppelgänger theme, "by no means improved on Edgar Allan Poe's 'William Wilson,' a tale that deals with the same old romantic motif in a way far more profound on the moral side and more successfully resolving the critical [theme] in the poetic."[3]


In 1913, "William Wilson" was freely adapted into The Student of Prague, a German film directed by Stellan Rye. A 1926 version was also made in Germany and directed by Henrik Galeen and starred Conrad Veidt. A third German adaptation, made in 1935, was directed by Arthur Robison and starred Anton Walbrook. In 1943, "William Wilson" was adapted as a radio play for The Weird Circle on the Mutual Broadcasting System.[11] A French-Italian collaboration came out in 1968 called Spirits of the Dead or Histoires extraordinaires. The film is composed of three vignettes, directed by Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Federico Fellini and starring Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda, and Terence Stamp.[12] The other two segments adapt Poe's "Metzengerstein" and "Never Bet the Devil Your Head."


1.^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson Quinn. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998: 75.
2.^ Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York City: Harper Perennial, 1991: 149–150. ISBN 0060923318
3.^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992: 287. ISBN 0815410387
4.^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson Quinn. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998: 286–287.
5.^ Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. p. 209. ISBN 0807123218
6.^ Stauffer, Donald Barlow. "Style and Meaning in 'Ligeia' and 'William Wilson'", from Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe's Tales, edited by William L. Howarth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1971: 82.
7.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001: 256. ISBN 081604161X
8.^ Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York City: Harper Perennial, 1991: 233. ISBN 0060923318
9.^ Neimeyer, Mark. "Poe and Popular Culture", collected in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge University Press, 2002: 207. ISBN 0521797276
10.^ Jones, Brian Jay. Washington Irving: An American Original. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2008: 334. ISBN 978-1-55970836-4
11.^ Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs: The Weird Circle
12.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York City: Checkmark Books, 2001: 256–257. ISBN 081604161X

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