The Study of the Gothic Element of Double in Poe’s Selected Works

The Study of Doubles in Poe’s Works

General Background


An important and innovative re-interpreter of the Gothic in the literary world was Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) who asserted ‘that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul’. His stature as a major figure in world literature is primarily based on his highly acclaimed short stories, poems, and critical theories, which established an influential rationale for the short form in both poetry and fiction. Poe is also famous for his Gothic style of writing. Fisher affirms that: “Few would hazard a challenge to long-standing opinion that Poe was a master of the Gothic horror tale, although many might not as readily be aware that he did not invent Gothic fiction” (p.72). Indeed Poe turned the Gothic fiction of the eighteenth-century to the internal cries and desires of human being. Aside from a common theoretical basis, there is a psychological intensity that is characteristic of Poe’s writings, especially the tales of horror that comprise his best and best-known works.


A significant element of Gothic genre is the theme of double. In Gothic (1996), Fred Botting writes that “at the end of nineteenth century familiar Gothic figures-the double and the vampire-reemerged in new shapes with a different intensity and anxious investments as objects of terror”(p.135). It seems so terrible when one looks at everywhere and sees his own image and likeness. The presence of the double, thus, could be interpreted as an explanation for the alienation of human being in the modern world. Botting expresses that “the loss of human identity and the alienation of self from both itself and the social bearings in which a sense of reality is secured are presented in the threatening shapes of increasingly dehumanized environments, mechanic doubles and violent, psychotic fragmentation” (p.157).

Doubles are seen in different forms and shapes in Gothic texts. The mostly used forms are doppelgangers, mirror images, shadows and even mandrakes. In most of Gothic fictions the theme of doubles and mirrors exist. Dealing with their doubles, characters come to know those aspects and facets of their personality which have been alien and unknown to them. Doubles appear in various forms; doppelganger, alter ego, shadow, twins, mirror images and even mandrakes. As Botting asserts, in Poe’s fiction: “Doubles and mirrors are used to splendid effects…” (p.120). However what seems essential to notice is that the meaning which the doubles convey is the same; they are used to show the concept of self-estrangement and self-destruction of the main characters to the readers. This lack of self-knowledge which in many cases leads to self-destruction is emphasized by both authors in their works like “William Wilson”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Fall of House of Ushers” by Poe. The writer’s use of the idea of ‘The Double’ implies that all people can be misled by appearances through their emotional tendencies, just as everyone can be reassured by knowledge through the operation of his/her rational functions. The term doppelganger which has been remarkably used by Poe will be defined first.


According to the Merriam Webster’s Dictionary (2004) doppelganger means “a ghostly counterpart of a living person.” In German it derives from Doppel (double) and Gänger (goer), meaning “double goer”, in German folklore, a wraith or apparition of a living person, as distinguished from a ghost. The concept of the existence of a spirit double, an exact but usually invisible replica of every man, bird, or beast, is an ancient and widespread belief. To meet one’s double is a sign that one’s death is imminent. The doppelganger is a popular symbol of horror literature, and the theme took on considerable complexity.

Some stories offer supernatural explanations for doubles. These doppelgängers are typically, but not always, evil in some way. The double will often impersonate the victim and go about ruining them, for instance through committing crimes or insulting the victim’s friends. Seeing is the primary category here; the doppelganger, as it appears and reappears in literary and other cultures, is above all a thing of visual fascination and terror. Thus notions of doubling involve not only replications of identity, but also transformations in identity, where the self appears to be in the wrong body. A case which combines the two possibilities would be Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray.” The idea of a phantom ‘double’ has existed throughout recorded history, and still flourishes in superstitions, fairy tales, and folklore throughout the world. It is taken seriously by some psychologists as an example of an out-of-body experience. It figures in many primitive religions, where the ‘double’ is assumed to be the person’s soul. But the doppelgänger concept has also schemed sophisticated people, and induced in them a dread of the unknown and a morbid assumption of doom akin to the responses of primitive groups.

Poe and the Double

One of the best examples of Edgar Allen Poe’s obsession with the theme of the double can be found in his extremely strange story “William Wilson”, the tale of two souls who actually seem to become one. The story begins with a foreshadowing of cryptic reality when the narrator immediately states, “Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson”. As the story opens, the narrator, a schoolboy, finds himself in the same class with another boy who shares his name. This is not so unusual, except that the narrator feels the other boy takes a perverse delight in copying his “gait, [his] voice, [his] habits, and [his] manner,” thus making himself a virtual copy of the narrator. Eventually the two boys actually take on the same facial features.

Reluctant to reveal his true identity, the narrator leaves the reader wondering if the claim is a lie or perhaps the result of a “conflict within the soul. Further disclosing his inner conflict, the narrator admits “William Wilson [is] a fictitious title not very dissimilar to the real”. Acknowledging the similarities between himself and the other William Wilson, the narrator, points to the first hint of doubles in the story. There are, however, two areas in which the other William Wilson does not resemble the former. Due to some sort of physical defect, the “other” William Wilson’s voice can scarcely be raised above a whisper; and the “other” William Wilson’s every instinct is good. The narrator, on the other hand, proceeds from schoolboy mischievousness to a life of crime, primarily through an addiction to drinking and gambling.

Here, nevertheless, the “other” William Wilson persistently intrudes into the narrator’s life, either warning the narrator that he is going beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior, or warning others that Wilson is going to hurt them. He feels that he is being conquered by his double: “…a proof of his true superiority; since not to be overcome cost me a perpetual struggle”. Finally revealing the conflict between the two William Wilsons, the narrator addresses the other William Wilson as “Scoundrel! Impostor! Accursed villain!”.

Regarding the narrator’s point of view, at first glance it seems that he is addressing a doppelganger; since everything that this double does sounds unpleasant to him: “although there were times when I could not help observing, with a feeling made up of wonder, abasement, and pique, that he mingled with his injuries, his insults, or his contradictions, a certain most inappropriate, and assuredly most unwelcome affectionateness of manner”. He continues to challenge the double, “You shall not-you shall not dog me unto death! Follow me, or I shall stab you where you stand”. He often calls his double as “my tormentor” or “my antagonist” and “my evil destiny”, since he always annihilates his plans. Eventually the narrator can stand it no longer, and fatally stabs his opponent to get him out of his life. The story ends with both of them covered in blood, and both of them apparently dying.

The “other” Wilson finally finds his voice: “You have conquered me, and I yield. Yet, henceforward art thou also dead — dead to the World, to Heaven, and to Hope! In me didst thou exist — and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself!”. However, in arguing “Homely Gothic” Botting believes that what happens in “William Wilson” is that: “his mortal foe has been his inverted image, an alter ego that, unlike the doppelganger, is a better self, an external image of good conscience.” This statement is true when the reader recalls that in the course of the story the hero of the tale leads an immoral life; from the time he grows up as he confirms: “I grew self-willed, addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to most ungovernable passions.” while he finds, wherever he travels, his illegitimate scheme let down by the figure that haunted him at school.

“This interference often took the ungracious character of advice; advice not openly given, but hinted, or insinuated”. Thus, in this tale of twin-selves, the surviving William Wilson represents man-without-morality. His troublesome double, who constantly interfered with Wilson’s schemes by whispering caution or truth, represents everything that was wholesome or positive in his personality. Poe externalizes his character’s internal struggle. Virtue finally succumbs to vice. However, in murdering his conscience, Wilson failed to achieve the liberation he sought. Instead, his life turned into a living death. The climax turns the tale around; what appeared to be an account of some external haunting is seen as the subjective alteration of a hallucinating individual. “It was Wilson; but he spoke no longer in a whisper, and I could have fancied that I myself was speaking while he said…”

In “The Fall of House of Usher”, doubling spreads throughout the story. The tale highlights the Gothic feature of the doppelganger and portrays doubling in inanimate structures and literary forms. The narrator, for example, first witnesses the house as a reflection in the tarn, or shallow pool that lies alongside the front of the house. The mirror image in the tarn doubles the house, but upside down, an inversely balanced relationship that also characterizes the relationship between Roderick and Madeline. The theme also appears in the metaphor of a mind infected with madness, suggested by Roderick’s poem “The Haunted Palace.”

Also, while Roderick’s declining mental condition is echoed in the collapsing house, overgrown with parasitic plants and wrapped in a sort of unpleasant swamp gas, the fissure which finally destroys the Usher mansion literally brings the theme of dualism to a crashing climax. Roderick’s extreme sensitivity to Romantic literature and his inordinate desire to preserve Madeline’s corpse hint at other important themes, those of decadence and decay. Beside doppelgangers, Poe uses another form of doubles in the story; that of mirror imagery. The House of Usher is also similar to Roderick in their description. The house’s facade, as the narrator describes, resembles a giant face or skull with its eye-like windows and the hair-like fungi that hangs on the house’s facade. The stonework that covers the Usher house is in decay. This stonework reminds the narrator “…of old wood-work which has rotten for long years in some neglected vault”. The Usher House seems so fragile that it seems its instability will cause it to fall. Roderick’s complexion mirrors the house’s facade. Roderick’ large and luminous eyes are a mirror image of the house’s “eye-like” windows. Roderick’s soft and web-like hair resembles the house’s hair-like fungi that hang on the façade. The stonework on the facade looks old just like Usher does. In addition, Usher’s trembling resembles the house’s instability which will cause it to fall. One can see how the Usher house and Roderick Usher mirror each other.

There are other “objects” that can be found in the story that mirror each other. These two “objects” are Madeline Usher, Roderick’s twin sister, and Roderick. Roderick projects his own morbid self-absorption onto the figure of his dying sibling, in effect turning his twin into an external mirror image of his deteriorating mental state. One might say that Madeline is the reflection of Roderick’s mind and the Usher house of which will “fall.” This “fall” might be physical and/or mental. In Roderick’s case, he fits both categories. The similarities and links between Roderick and Madeline are too obvious to be emancipated. One of Roderick Usher’s paintings features a burial vault lit from within, as if he knows about a life-force coming from inside a coffin. Roderick loves his sister like no other. Their birth and death occur at the same time. Both siblings release feelings of gloom and doom.

Madeline appears ghostly, as if she is just an apparition. Roderick too appears deathlike and feels his sister’s every move and presence; when he announces that she is outside the door and has come for him, she appears exactly as he predicts. The elimination of one sibling thus spells the end of the other. Indeed, after entombing his sister, Roderick becomes more disturbed, wild, and fearful, realizing fully that his death time has also arrived. If the two siblings are in fact one in spirit, then their actions may also be interpreted as suicide rather than murder. What seems clear is that Poe does not concern himself with the moral actions of the characters in “The Fall of the House of Usher”; therefore the narrator feels no guilt for having assisted in the entombment of a person who may possibly be alive. The story seeks primarily to stir fear in the reader, with the issue of morality marginalized. The characters operate in an enigmatic universe where all of them, particularly the protagonist and the doppelganger, are equally amoral. These two can be defined as doppelgangers that are of opposite sexes; together they form a unity, of body and mind.

The identification of the narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” with the old man is a primary theme of the story. The narrator and the old man are on such equal balance that they seem almost like the same person. Many times throughout the story, the narrator says that he knows how the old man feels. He claims to know the groans of the old man, and that he too had experienced the same moaning – not of pain or sadness but of mortal terror. It is a terror which “arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe”. The narrator says: “I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when the entire world slept, it has welled up from my bosom, deepening, with its echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I know what the old man felt…” The narrator is familiar with such terrified aggravation quite well: “He (the old man) was still sitting up in the bed, listening; – just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall”. Apparently, the protagonist has no rational reason for wanting to murder the old man.

Definitely, he claims the old man has never done him wrong and that he loves him and does not want his money. Why, then, is there a need for murder? “Object there was none. Passion there was none”, says the narrator. The narrator never explains how or why exactly the old man’s “pale blue eye, with a film over it” bothers him so greatly. Indeed he only thinks it was the eye that first prompted him with murderous thoughts: “I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this!”. If one interprets the “eye” not as an organ of vision but as the homonym of “I.”, thus, what the narrator ultimately wants to destroy is the self, and he submits to this urge when he could no longer contain his irresistible sense of guilt. Thus, the murder becomes an act of suicide and that the protagonist and the antagonist are moral equals; In fact it could be suggested that the two characters are the same person. One clue for this argument could be this fact that the police find no trace of an old man in the house. The narrator has hidden him so well that the old man may exist only in the narrator’s mind. Consequently the beating heart can be interpreted as the sound of the narrator’s own heartbeat.

From what was discussed it can be concluded that the element of double in some short stories by Poe is significantly used, but in rather different forms. The similarity is that the element of double in all its forms is used to convey the act of self-estrangement of the characters that finally leads them to their self-destruction.

Works Cited:

Botting, F. (1996). Gothic. London: Rutledge

Botting, F.(2000). In Gothic Darkly: Heterotopia, History, Culture. In D. Punter (ED.), A Companion to Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell. (pp.3-15)

Brennan, M.S. (1997), The Gothic Psyche: Disintegration and Growth in Nineteenth-Century English Literature .Columbia: Camden House, Inc.

Fisher, B. F. (2002). Poe and the Gothic Tradition. In K. J. Hayes. (ED.), The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (pp.72-92)

Massé, M.A. Psychoanalysis and the Gothic. . In D. Punter (ED.), A Companion to Gothic Oxford: Blackwell. (Pp.229-242)