by Edgar Allan Poe
Analysis: What’s Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
What say of it? what say of CONSCIENCE grim,
That spectre in my path?
– Chamberlayne's PharronidaYou won’t find these lines anywhere in Chamberlayne’s Pharronida. Scholar Kenneth Rothwell posits that Poe just got confused; he’s actually quoting (though not verbatim) from another work by the same author, a play called Love’s Victory and mixed up his sources. This would be an appropriate reference, since the lines in question from Love’s Victory belong to a man who is about to kill himself out of guilt (which may be why William Wilson stabs the other William Wilson, who may be in fact be the first William Wilson, which we discuss in “What’s Up With the Ending?”).
Sources aside, what the epigraph does tell us, in no subtle terms, is to be thinking about the CONSCIENCE. Poe gives us one interpretation of his tale on a silver platter: the second William Wilson is just the conscience of the first William Wilson. That’s why he stops him from sinning and dogs him all around the world.
Something you want to consider when you hit an epigraph in a Poe story is whether it belongs to the narrator or to the author. In this case, we’re arguing that the epigraph belongs to Poe, because it makes obvious the secret to the story that the narrator himself seems to miss. William Wilson never really puts two and two together and explains that his doppelganger (ghostly double) was his conscience.
Then again, maybe he does, and that’s precisely why he is so wrought with guilt at the start of the text. He realizes he has done the most horrible thing a man can do – murder his conscience all together. Can you feel guilt if you’ve destroyed your conscience? That’s a great question, and we address it in “Character Analysis.”