In a story so dominated by its narrator’s voice, it’s hard enough to find Poe’s tone at all, much less characterize it. But we can look for the places in the text where we are meant to know something the narrator doesn’t – this is where we see Poe crafting the story outside the realm of his fictional narrator. For example, when William reveals the telling details that hint at the special connection between him and his double – yet is unaware of this connection himself – that’s where we can see the author.
Poe might be commenting here on the nature of morality, conscience, or identity, but he does so in a manner quite the opposite of his overbearing narrator. We can’t quote this point because it’s exactly the LACK of text that condemns or condones the narrator that supports it. It is essentially left up to the reader to decide how to deal with William Wilson and his doppelganger. Doppelganger means ghostly double.
This is a Poe story, so we know it’s going to be Gothic fiction. The mingling of the supernatural (William’s bizarre doppelganger) with the real is disturbing and highly effective in creating tension and suspense. Doppelganger means ghostly double. The story is definitely a psychological exploration of its main character, and much of the story’s drama is in fact psychological rather than action-based. The mystery comes in the fact that we don’t know what the deal is with this second William Wilson, and we look for clues to help us out as the story progresses and the truth slowly unravels.
William Wilson is the fake name of the narrator who tells his story. We talk all about the significance of this name in “Character Clues,” so check it out for yourself.
What is up with the ending? William has been pursued by his shadowy doppelganger (ghostly double) across the world for years, and he finally kills him only to find that…he’s killed himself! Hmm.
Of course, if you’ve been paying attention, which we know you have, you’d have noticed more than a few hints that the second William Wilson might not be a real dude. All the strangely convenient similarities between them – the same name, the same birthday, same age, countenance, voice, arrival at school, departure from school – are rather suspicious. (Countenance means facial features.) And of course, the more that the narrator insists they are coincident, the more we suspect they are not. William also comments more than once on the fact that others seem not to notice their strange relationship – suggesting that, in fact, the second William is just a figment of his imagination. Notice that, after William is horrified by the countenance of his doppelganger at Dr. Bransby's school, he never again forces himself to look in the double’s face; the doppelganger is always masked or cloaked or hiding in the shadows.
All of these events hint to us that William Wilson #2 is some alter ego of William Wilson #1 – maybe his CONSCIENCE, as the epigraph so boldly suggests. If this is the case, what does it mean that William kills his double at the end of the story? As the doppelganger informs him:
"You have conquered, 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." (last paragraph)
There are two basic ways of interpreting this. Number one is that William Wilson is speaking literally. When he stabbed his doppelganger, he literally stabbed himself – probably to stop himself from continuing to live a life of vice – and now he’s bleeding to death. If this is the case, his narration is taking place rather shortly after the stabbing incident, which is why the narrator claims in his introduction that death is approaching.
Option number two is that William Wilson the doppelganger is speaking metaphorically. Notice that he clarifies his use of the world “dead” – William isn’t dead TOTALLY, he’s just dead “to the World, to Heaven, and to Hope.” That is, his moral self is dead because he has murdered his conscience. What is left is a mere shell of man, hardly fit to be called a man, whose life can hardly be called living. The only sticky point in this interpretation is explaining why the narrator is so consumed with guilt in his introduction to the tale. If he just killed off his conscience and is a morality-free zone, shouldn’t he be off with Di Broglio’s wife rather than lamenting his sins?
The changing setting of “William Wilson” is actually a great structuring device. Each segment of the story takes place in a different, specific location. We start at Dr. Bransby’s school, where William meets his double, then move on to Eton for some vice, then finally Oxford for even more vice and even more doppelganger action. (Doppelganger means ghostly double.) The transition to Italy marks our movement into the final segment of the story, in which William offs his double/conscience/self.
Perhaps a more interesting question is: where is the narrator located when he’s telling us this story? You guys work on that and let us know.
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.”
Poe is generally known for his melodramatic prose. But “William Wilson” is one of the few Poe stories that is surprisingly cheese-free. This might be because the story is about issues of conscience and morality, rather than blood and gore. In this way, the style sort of fits the story. You’ll notice that, for the most part, these sentences are calmly composed and even prosaic at times. Prosaic means having the style of prose. Of course, there are a few passages of exclamations and ornate, horror-stricken prose (see the first paragraph, or the last paragraph, or that paragraph in the middle where Wilson leans over the sleeping face of his double). It just wouldn’t be Poe without it.
William Wilson takes an up-close-and-personal look at his double’s features while at Dr. Bransby’s school. And it is not a pleasant experience. “When the bright rays fell vividly upon the sleeper, and my eyes, at the same moment, upon his countenance. I looked;—and a numbness, an iciness of feeling instantly pervaded my frame,” he tells us (26). This is the last time he gets a good look at his nemesis’s features. (Nemesis means enemy.) For the rest of the text, William Wilson #2 lurks in the shadows or hides his face.
When he surfaces at Eton, the narrator writes that “[because of] the faint light […], the features of his face I could not distinguish” (29). At Oxford, the lights magically go out when the doppelganger enters the room. At the masquerade, the double’s face is hidden by a mask of black silk. You get the picture.
If you buy the theory that the doppelganger is a product of the narrator’s overactive imagination, then his face is hidden because William subconsciously wants it to be hidden. This makes sense; he was horrified the last time he looked at his double up close – why would he want to do it again? For one reason or another, William’s subconscious doesn’t want his conscious self to know that his doppelganger is really his alter ego.
The narrator spends so long talking about the wall around his schoolhouse that we’re bound to sit up and take notice. Walls and gates tend to make us feel trapped. And indeed, “William Wilson” is the story of a man who is trapped – psychologically – by his conscience (if you choose to interpret the story this way, and of course you don’t have to). William flees all over the world and cannot escape his double, so in a sense he is trapped by his double’s insistence that he behave morally.
The schoolhouse is a confusing building. It’s full of nooks and crannies such that you never really know where you are. It’s got two stories, but it’s hard to say which story you’re standing on at any one time. In one sense, this two-story stuff can be seen as a metaphor for the two William Wilsons. They are inseparable and it’s hard to tell them apart. In another sense, you can see the schoolhouse as a metaphor for the whole story of “William Wilson.” As the reader, we never know where we stand. Is the narrator telling the truth? Where is he narrating from, anyway? Where and when, relative to this story, are we even located?
Unreliable narrators are one of Poe’s trademarks, and William Wilson – or should we say, the man who pretends to be called William Wilson – is no different. For starters, he’s willingly masking his identity. Then you have to remember that he himself doesn’t really understand what’s going on in his story; his imagination has convinced him that his conscience/alter ego actually is a totally different person. How are we supposed to trust a man with what is basically a split-personality disorder?
That’s just it – we’re probably not supposed to trust him. Much of the suspense of “William Wilson” and much of the fun of unraveling this mystery comes from the fact that the storyteller might not be telling the truth. It leaves us trying to sort out reality much the same way that our narrator is, which just might be the point – or at least one of many points.
One way to look at this story is to argue that we begin trusting the narrator and then slowly become suspicious of him. After all, he proposes a confession to us – what could be more honest than that? As the story progresses, however, we begin to see that William is self-deceiving to the point where he can’t be telling us the truth, because he doesn’t even face the truth himself. And that’s where we get all mistrusting.
The monster in this case seems to be William’s double. We get a better and better sense of who this second William Wilson really is as the narrator reveals more information. What seems at first to be a coincidence of similar names turns out to be much more.
Things seem to be going well for William Wilson after he flees school and heads to Eton. He engages in vice unimpeded by the nagging whispers of his ghostly foe. For a moment, it seems as though he really has escaped the monster.
And then, the double shows up again. This is supposed to be the stage in which we come face to face with the monster, but this is not the case in “William Wilson.” Instead, the second William Wilson remains a shadowy figure.
The nightmare stage is where the final big battle goes down between the protagonist and the monster. In “William Wilson,” this masquerade scene constitutes this stage. William finally faces his double and comes face to face with the horrifying fact that he is only part of William himself.
Yes, this happens before the nightmare stage, which just means that “William Wilson” doesn’t perfectly fit the mold. It’s interesting that William slays the monster, yet is still tormented by feelings of guilt at the story’s start. We have to wonder, then, if he effectively killed his conscience or not.
What we know is that this guy is distraught, lying to us, damned, and apparently about to die. His introduction to this tale and his requests of us as his readers constitute the story’s initial situation.
William Wilson’s double is definitely the story’s central conflict, bringing with it important questions: who is this guy? What is his relation to our narrator? What does he want? Why does he torment William so much?
Of course, the various hints we’ve gotten so far have clued us into the fact that this second William Wilson is no mere ordinary, coincidentally named guy. We know he has some special connection to the narrator, and probably suspect that he isn’t actually a real person. But the narrator isn’t so perturbed until this pivotal scene.
This would seem to be the sudden and brutal fall into utter evil that Wilson spoke of in his introduction. We’ve been building toward this moment, when Wilson finally confronts the other Wilson, since the story’s start.
Wilson is on the verge of discovering the truth…
The denouement is the stage when everything finally gets explained. This story doesn’t work exactly like that, in the sense that we’re not sure how enlightened the narrator is, even after his confrontation with his double. Does he believe that this other William Wilson was a physical manifestation of his conscience? Or is he still confused? Can we even be sure as to how to interpret the bloody finale? This denouement leaves more questions than it answers.
As in the denouement, there’s no clear explanation in this conclusion. See “What’s Up With the Ending” for a few possible interpretations.