Edgar Allan Poe, Meet William Wilson
“Men usually grow base by degrees. From me, in an instant, all virtue dropped bodily as a mantle,” Poe declares via the narrator in 1839's “William Wilson.”
Like Poe's favorite, “Ligeia,” written around the same time, “William Wilson” takes on that Transcendental sacred cow, the human will. In the Lady Ligeia, it is like a muscle she exercises to get her back into life. In “William Wilson,” which is really a crime story in advance of Poe's trilogy of detection, the Dupin stories, the will is a diabolical force—quite far afield from the Transcendental sense of the will as that energetic part of man that can carry you straight to the divine. But the story “Ligeia” was droll; Poe was slathering Gothic devices all over his material. Perhaps because the subject engaged him more deeply, Poe wrote “William Wilson” as one of those first-person confessionals that became his trademark.
What makes a work “Gothic”?
Look for medieval settings—castles, catacombs, and crypts figure large—supernatural elements, weather gone crazy, melodramatic language, and what we now call “fem jep,” or damsels in distress. Think of Gothic as Romance on steroids—caught in an underground passage in the wee hours of the morning.
The Story Behind “William Wilson”
The narrator, William Wilson, describes his increasingly antagonistic relationship with a classmate at his boarding school. This other boy, also named William Wilson, is so superior in every way to the narrator that their rivalry becomes intense. The narrator, a willful boy, became a “mastermind” at school, but discovered he had no power over the rival William Wilson. The two were identical. Over the years at prep schools, college, and beyond, the narrator's rival always turns up as the finer incarnation of himself.
In this passage, during the boarding school days, the narrator decides to study his nemesis while the other sleeps. In it, he only has a glimmer of understanding of who the other William Wilson is.
“It was upon a gloomy and tempestuous night of an early autumn, about the close of my fifth year at the school, and immediately after the altercation just mentioned, that, finding every one wrapped in sleep, I arose from bed, and, lamp in hand, stole through a wilderness of narrow passages from my own bedroom to that of my rival. I had been long plotting one of those ill-natured pieces of practical wit at his expense in which I had hitherto been so uniformly unsuccessful. It was my intention, now, to put my scheme in operation, and I resolved to make him feel the whole extent of the malice with which I was imbued. Having reached his closet, I noiselessly entered, leaving the lamp, with a shade over it, on the outside. I advanced a step, and listened to the sound of his tranquil breathing. Assured of his being asleep, I returned, took the light, and with it again approached the bed. Close curtains were around it, which, in the prosecution of my plan, I slowly and quietly withdrew, 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. My breast heaved, my knees tottered, my whole spirit became possessed with an objectless yet intolerable horror. Gasping for breath, I lowered the lamp in still nearer proximity to the face. Were these—these the lineaments of William Wilson? I saw, indeed, that they were his, but I shook as with a fit of the ague in fancying they were not. What was there about them to confound me in this manner? I gazed—while my brain reeled with a multitude of incoherent thoughts. Not thus he appeared—assuredly not thus—in the vivacity of his waking hours. The same name; the same contour of person; the same day of arrival at the academy! And then his dogged and meaningless imitation of my gait, my voice, my habits, and my manner! Was it, in truth, within the bounds of human possibility that what I now witnessed was the result of the habitual practice of this sarcastic imitation? Awe-stricken, and with a creeping shudder, I extinguished the lamp, passed silently from the chamber, and left, at once, the halls of that old academy, never to enter them again.”
The gulf between them widens as the narrator, bedeviled by his inability to understand what's happening to him, is driven into increasingly bad behavior—the “other” William Wilson even exposes him as a cheat at cards!
Finishing the Story
Up to this point, the story is an exploration into the criminal mind as it develops. Toward the end, the narrator finds the will to free himself—in any way he can—from what he believes is his tormentor. He feels justified. “Double” stories like “William Wilson” were popular in Poe's day, before the advent of modern psychology that studied these internal warring impulses as part of the same individual. In the 1800s, that other self actually became another, separate character—there's the example of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But in the hands of Poe, the narrator is not the “good twin,” the one dogged by the reprehensible and baffling “Other.” It's the outshone, lesser self who moves toward increasing criminality, who Poe chooses to narrate this story about man's violence against his own conscience. What an American choice it was! In an era that saw the rise of popular interest in rascal tales, Poe was in the vanguard of writers looking at the seamy undersides of those American forms of the hoax, the tall tale, and the con game.
After years of eluding his tormentor, the other Wilson, something changes in the narrator's view of his own predicament.
“Thus far I had succumbed supinely to this imperious domination. The sentiments of deep awe with which I habitually regarded the elevated character, the majestic wisdom, the apparent omnipresence and omnipotence of Wilson, added to a feeling of even terror, with which certain other traits in his nature and assumptions inspired me, had operated, hitherto, to impress me with an idea of my own utter weakness and helplessness, and to suggest an implicit, although bitterly reluctant submission to his arbitrary will. But, of late days, I had given myself up entirely to wine; and its maddening influence upon my hereditary temper rendered me more and more impatient of control. I began to murmur, to hesitate, to resist. And was it only fancy which induced me to believe that, with the increase of my own firmness, that of my tormentor underwent a proportional diminution? Be this as it may, I now began to feel the inspiration of a burning hope, and at length nurtured in my secret thoughts a stern and desperate resolution that I would submit no longer to be enslaved.”
This tender, mistaken belief in his own injury sets the stage for his own ultimate action against his double.
“William Wilson” is most clearly autobiographical in the sense of what Poe draws on from his own youth: Dr. Bransby's school in England, where he excelled at Greek, Latin, and athletics (in fact, the headmaster in the story is actually called “Dr. Bransby”). The narrator's drinking and gambling—what he calls “my miserable profligacy”—are revved-up versions of Poe's time at the University of Virginia. But you have to wonder whether “William Wilson” isn't also a kind of psychic autobiography of a writer who was already experiencing a kind of split between the unwavering commitment to live the life of a professional writer at any expense, including health, comfort, and ordinary friendships—and the simple yearning for a haven-like home where he could be just “Eddie.”