We refer to him as William Wilson throughout this Shmoop Guide, but it’s important to remember that we don’t actually know the narrator’s name. This is a great hallmark of the old classic Poe unreliable narrator – we talk all about the implications of such unreliability in “Point of View,” which you should definitely check out.
Now onto the juicy stuff. “William Wilson” explores the theme of the doppelganger, or ghostly double. The second William Wilson is the doppelganger of the first William Wilson; he looks just like him, talks just like him, has the same name, birthday, and tags along behind him all across the world. The mystery and suspense of the story lie in two basic big questions: what exactly is the nature of this second William Wilson, and what is his relationship to the first?
What makes these questions so difficult is that the narrator doesn’t really know to answer them himself. As he tells his story, he seems as baffled by the similarities between him and his double NOW as he was when he was a kid at Dr. Bransby’s school. Still, we get enough hints from the author – as opposed to the narrator (for a discussion of the differences, see “Tone”) – that we can take a pretty good stab (pun intended!) at what’s going on here.
As we discuss in “What’s Up With the Epigraph?”, the easiest explanation for the doppelganger madness is that William Wilson #2 is the personified conscience of William Wilson #1. He’s our narrator’s Jiminy Cricket! Poe has taken the internal struggle we all feel when we want to do something bad but know we ought to resist and played it out externally. The little angel on William’s shoulder has come to life –at least in his imagination, which in a first-person narrated story is as good as reality.
You’re going to want to check out “What’s Up With the Ending,” where we discuss a few possible interpretations of the novel’s ending. In summary: either William kills himself literally, or he kills his good half, his conscience. The tricky part comes in reconciling your choice of interpretations with the frame of the story, with the introduction that the narrator gives in the first two paragraphs of the text. At what point is he telling this story? Where is he and what is going on? And WHY is he telling us this story?
William seems concerned, on some level, with garnering some sympathy from his readers. He asks us to look for an element of fatality in his story, to believe that the events which transpired were in fact beyond his control. After reading the story, this seems like, in a phrase, a load of garbage. William spends his whole life engaging in vice only to finally murder his better half in an attempt to have free reign over his ungovernable passions. That’s not fate – that’s a truckload of bad behavior. The narrator’s absurd request that we pardon him for his sins is a testament to what is possibly a criminally insane mind.
And yet, we do feel bad, on some level, for poor William Wilson, especially when we remember that his torment is all self-inflicted. If you buy that the doppelganger is his conscience, then William outs himself for cheating at cards. He tries to stop himself from the romantic rendezvous with Di Broglio’s wife. And he seems to be still trying, even after supposedly murdering his conscience, to lead a good life! After all, he condemns his sinful actions in his introduction – he doesn’t defend them. “William Wilson” becomes, in this light, a confession, a way for the narrator to purge himself of the sins he has committed by airing his dirty laundry.