Study Guide

William Wilson Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Edgar Allan Poe

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Light, Darkness, and The Doppelganger’s Shielded Face

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 Wall and Gate Enclosing the Schoolyard

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

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?