"William Wilson" was first published in October 1839 in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. The story is written by Edgar Allan Poe, an American writer famous for his works of short fiction and of poetry, both in the horror genre. The story tells the tale of a man and his doppelganger, or ghostly double, who pursues the man around the world trying to keep him away from vice.
We might suspect that there is an autobiographical element to this story, since Poe gives his narrator (and his narrator’s doppelganger) Poe's own birthday (January 19th), and much of the narrator’s description of his boyhood days resembles that of Poe’s, right down to the name of the school William Wilson attends as a child (Dr. Bransby’s). (See a Poe biography as a source, such as Edgar Allan Poe by Arthur Hobson Quinn.) But the question of whether Poe is personally invested in the themes and psychology of the work is certainly subject to debate.
“William Wilson” is significant among Poe’s work for being less Gothic, less horrific, and less melodramatic than most of his other stories or poems. It is a bit of a departure, both in style and in plot, from the theatrical horror of stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart" or "The Fall of the House of Usher."
While it is missing much of the Poe gore, it does have all of the Poe psychological suspense. So feel free to really get into the story.
Why Should I Care?
One way of describing the central theme of “William Wilson” is to use the word doppelganger, a fancy term for a person’s ghostly double. And yet another way is to talk about Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. Yes, we are talking about Fight Club, which shares some major thematic content with Poe’s work. Both tell the story of a man and his other half – “good,” in one case, “bad” in the other. Both protagonists are convinced that their alter ego is his own person until in some moment of revelation discovers the truth – he is his own worst enemy.
What makes these stories so compelling is that they are just extreme versions of what we all experience on a daily basis. Who hasn’t felt himself split in two (or more) under the pressure of some weighty decision? In Fight Club, the protagonist is tempted by his rebellious half, with which we can certainly all identify. In “William Wilson,” the narrator is restrained by his moral half, to which, once again, most of us can relate.
In creating entirely new alter egos out of these factions of a personality, both texts raise some interesting questions about the nature of identity. Is identity the composite of competing factions, or does it exist as something distinct from, only influenced by, each alter ego? Is it possible to kill off one of these factions of our personality? And if we do so…what is left of ourselves afterward? After you read “William Wilson,” you can probably justify an umpteenth viewing of Fight Club. Strictly for purposes of thematic comparison, of course.