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The narrator introduces himself with what he reveals to be a fake name, “William Wilson.” His real name is such an object of scorn that he doesn’t want to dirty the page with it. He calls himself an outcast and asks if he is forever dead to the world.
Men, he explains, usually become evil by degrees. But he became evil all at once. Now that death is approaching, he’s going to tell you his story.
William asks that you look for a degree of fatality in this story, in order to find some degree of sympathy for his character. Man has never been tempted, never suffered the way that he himself has, he claims. Before beginning his tale, he asks if he has been living in a dream…
To begin, William established that his family has always been people of overactive imagination and ungovernable passions. His parents tried to keep him in line, but gave up pretty quickly, and he was left to his own devices at a rather small age.
He recalls his childhood in a Gothic-looking town in England. He’s going to reveal all the details he can; though they seem trivial, they are actually the early signs of his ultimate fate.
His schoolhouse is old and irregular, with extensive grounds, and is surrounded by a tall brick wall that made it look like a prison. His school principal was also the pastor of his Church, and he finds this to be an unfathomable paradox (the principal was Draconian or excessively severe while the pastor was benign or harmless).
Wilson recalls the spiked, intimidating gate at the corner of the wall, as well as the playground. Mostly he remembers the dormitory building he lived in with other young boys. It is enormous and confusing, such that he never knows how many rooms there are or where exactly his is located in the grand scheme of the edifice.
Wilson was at school here between the ages of 10 and 15 with about 20 other boys. He remembers enjoying himself immensely, and remarks that his memory is vivid even though these events are so far back in his childhood.
He recalls that his energy and demeanor gave him mastery over most of the other boys at the school – except for one boy in particular, who, by some bizarre coincidence, shares the exact same name! Since he’s using the name “William Wilson,” for the purposes of this story, this other boy is also named “William Wilson.” Anyway, this other William is stiff competition both on the playground and in the classroom.
Secretly, William is afraid of this other boy. He fears that, if the other William can so easily match him, he must be secretly better than him. And yet, amazingly, none of the other boys seem to notice their rivalry! The second William doesn’t even have any motivation to do well, other than to compete with our narrator William. Oddly enough, William sometimes perceives an affection on the part of the second boy for him.
Another strange coincidence is that this second William Wilson entered school the same day as our William Wilson, and, amazingly, was also born on the same day.
Still, William finds that he can not hate this other boy completely. Perhaps, if they hadn’t had this competition, they would have been friends. Even as it stands, they are essentially inseparable.
He would describe their antagonism as more of the practical joke variety rather than the open hostility type. But this second William hates to be laughed at. He has a deficiency about which he is sensitive: he cannot raise his voice above a whisper.
The narrator pauses to reflect on his real name (remember that “William Wilson” is a made-up name for the purposes of this story). He hates his real name. He finds it to be commonplace. As such, he resents this other boy for doubling the frequency with which he has to hear his own name.
As if that were not annoying enough, the second William has taken to imitating the first William in appearance, dress, and mannerism. Though, strangely enough, the narrator seems to be the only one to notice this.
The second William also has a habit of interfering with the first William’s activities. He has a strong moral sense and often imposes it on our narrator in the form of advice.
At first, William maintains some affection for this other boy, but over the years his feelings grow to hatred. One night, after fighting physically with the other boy, he has the strangest feeling that he has known this boy some time very long ago, in his early years.
Shortly after, in his fifth year at the school, he decides to play a practical joke on the second William. The boarding house, as he has already mentioned, is full of nooks and crannies and odd little rooms. The second William Wilson, our narrator’s foe, lives in a very tiny room that is basically the size of a closet. The narrator creeps to his nemesis’s room and approaches him as he sleeps.
Except, as he peers at the sleeping face of his foe, William is suddenly possessed by horror. Is it really William Wilson at whom he stared? The face seems so very similar to his own. He trembles at the thought that this boy looks like him, was born on the same day, has the same name…
And so William Wilson leaves the academy, never to return again.
Some time later, he finds himself at Eton. With no second William Wilson around to gum up the works, he engages in vice to his heart’s delight. One night, while drunk and carousing at a friend’s place, a guy comes to the door and asks to see William Wilson. The visitor turns out to be exactly William’s height and wearing exactly the same clothes. He whispers “William Wilson!” in our narrator’s ear before departing (29).
For the next few weeks, William tries to figure out where this guy comes from, or what he wants, or really who he is. He finds no answer, though he does discover that the second William Wilson left their school the same day he himself did.
Soon enough William moves on from Eton to Oxford, where he gets to engage in vice with all of his privileged classmates. He takes up gambling as a way of increasing his own pocketbook at the expense of his friends.
Two years into this vice-fest, William makes the acquaintance of an extremely wealthy young nobleman named Glendinning. He gradually befriends Glendinning and earns his trust. William even lets Glendinning win at cards a few times so he’ll start to feel comfortable with gambling.
Then comes the sting: William gets the nobleman alone at a card table, surrounded by spectators, drunk, and eager to bet all of his fortune, which William gladly wins. At first he thinks, no big deal, this kid’s pockets are deep enough to cover it, but he soon finds out that he has utterly ruined the young nobleman, who is now completely broke.
At this moment, the doors to the apartment in which they were gambling are thrown open, and there stands a man in a cloak – exactly the same cloak that William Wilson was wearing that night. This mysterious fellow steps forward and tells the men in the room to examine the inner lining of William’s left sleeve.
The young men do, and of course find the treasure trove of cheating paraphernalia that William has been using for years to ensure his victory at cards.
The young men hand William Wilson his cloak and ask him to leave – the party, Oxford, and their friendship.
William Wilson flees. He travels all over the world trying to lose his double, but he is never able to do so. He tries to figure out what this man wants, but all he concludes is that this second William Wilson interferes with him every time he gets up to some mischief.
The second William Wilson never lets our narrator see the details of his face. But Wilson is sure that he is the same boy from his childhood days at school.
For a long time William is left with no option but to submit to his double’s will and stop doing mischief. But as time goes by, he begins to resist, to rebel.
In Rome, William is at a masquerade and attempting to meet up with a married woman for the purposes of an affair. He’s busy looking for her in the crowd when he hears a whisper in his ear. Wheeling around, William sees his double, the second William Wilson, wearing a costume exactly identical to his own, but with his face concealed. William drags his double into a small room and shuts the door behind him.
Now he’s really angry. William demands that his double draw his sword, and then runs him through with his own weapon. He turns around to lock the door, lest anyone come in, but when he turns back around finds that the scene has changed. Rather than face the second William Wilson, he now faces a large mirror.
As he steps forward to the mirror, he sees his nemesis or enemy William Wilson reflected in it, pale and bloodied and rather about to die. The reflection begins speaking, but not in a whisper as he usually does. The narrator fancies that he himself was speaking, in fact, as his nemesis spoke.
“You have conquered,” the reflection tells Wilson, “and I yield” (54). But he explains that William is now also dead, since he only existed through his double. “Thou hast murdered thyself,” he concludes (54).