Blog Post 12: What’s in a Name?

Hi everyone,

Nice job again today pulling together so many ethical and narrative strands of The Road in our last dicussion. On Monday we’ll look at our last piece of short fiction for the semester, Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson.” Poe’s story thinks through a different kind of Other than anything we’ve looked at so far this semester — one that seems strangely like the self…

So for this blog post, you should focus in on and analyze some specific passage of the story as a way of thinking about the larger issues raised by the doubling that’s at the heart of this story: what does it mean to have a double — both for this specific narrator and more broadly? What’s particularly significant about this kind of double? What questions does this dynamic raise for us as readers — what do we have to think about when we confront such a double, both in terms of this particular text and in terms of larger issues of identity, presence, embodiment, humanness?

Reminder: your response should go in the comments section for this post — click the “Leave a Comment” link at the top of the post. It should be at least 250 words, and is due by midnight on Sunday, November 20th. If you have any questions, let me know via email.

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10 thoughts on “Blog Post 12: What’s in a Name?

  1. Rebekah Clapham
    Blog Post

    While reading “William Wilson.” I was reminded of the movie Fight Club. I think specifically the messages about doubles in both of these pieces of fiction are very similar. Both fictions portray a psychological self-splitting that manifests in the form of another body, yet reveals the character’s alter ego. This alter ego seems to highlight what the character truly wants, and brings up a part of the character’s personality that haunts them/they suppress. In other words, the double turns out to be a projection of the character’s unacceptable suppressed drives and desires. These desires may be so suppressed and unexplored that the character does not recognize their existence within him/herself (e.g. the narrator in “William Wilson” sometimes seeing his double as looking completely unlike him). I want to focus on the final scene of “William Wilson” where the narrator kills his double, ultimately killing himself. This “murder-suicide” shows one cannot exist without the other, emphasizing the deep, unbreakable link between body and mind. When he “kills” his double by physically stabbing him, he ultimately only kills himself and is not successful at getting rid of the double. This suggests that the double truly plagues the main character mentally and intellectuality, and getting rid of his physical form will not stop the character’s inner torment. Instead, the character must spend time unraveling his own mind, taking an introspective position to understand what the double represents about his own true needs and desires. In the final scene, the narrator realizes “it was my antagonist” (231) when looking at his own reflection in the mirror, meaning he realizes that he is his own enslaver, the cause of his own downfall, and his own worst enemy.

    I think it is significant that the narrator’s relationship with his double changes so drastically throughout the short story. At first, the narrator is intimidated by his double, but he admires him and wants to impress him. The narrator and his double then become best friends, almost twins, and his double becomes the person that best understands him and best relates to him. However, the narrator soon starts feeling an intense urge to impress his double, and be better than his double. This changes the dynamic between the two, as soon the double becomes the narrator’s worst enemy, and they both do things to hurt each other. Because the double is ultimately a suppressed part of the narrator, this changing relationship between the narrator and his double is highly representative of the importance one’s relationship with oneself. Poe seems to be saying that it is crucial to not only have a respectful, vaguely competitive relationship with oneself, it is also imperative to be in touch with ones own suppressed conflicts and desires. To some extent, the whole idea of a double seems very Freudian, as if the double represents one’s repressed and bottled-up inner conflicts and anxieties. In this way, a double is a sort of catharsis—a way to release these conflicts and project aspects one does not like about oneself onto a different physical body. When confronting a double, particularly one’s own, it is vital to think about what the double represents about one’s own personality.

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    • Jessica Pavia
      Blog Post 12

      I also found his doubling to be a symbol of a suppressed part of Wilson’s life or past. For this post, I would like to focus on the one passage truly devoted to “William Wilson’s” parents and ancestry on page 217. Our narrator talks about his parents and their race as being quite inadequate, saying they are “Weak-minded, and beset with constitutional infirmities akin to my own…Some feeble and ill-directed efforts resulted in complete failure on their parts, and, of course, in total triumph on [his own].” I think Wilson’s double could be a manifestation of this part of his life, a part which he has worked so hard to become better than and forget. When first introduced to his double, Wilson finds himself intimidated by his presence and wanting to impress his double. Later, he wants to be completely better than his double. This changing outlook on his double parallels Wilson’s growing need to separate himself from what Wilson determines to be a weaker race. Wilson explicitly claims his parents are a weaker race, and finds being connected to such people hindering to his abilities, creating a need to separate himself as drastically as he can. However, Poe shows that one can never separate themselves from their past in such a measure. When Wilson tries to kill his double, he ultimately kills himself as well–a symbol of how closely connected he is to every part of his upbringing and self. Here Poe is making a statement about how dangerous needing to reject of parts of one’s self is. I think Poe is conveying how everyone is created from their past and the multiple lives that have layered together, and how trying to kill a part of one’s history ultimately leads to destruction of self.

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  2. Edgar Allen Poe’s “William Wilson” is about a man who is competing with his alter ego. When I came across there being a second William Wilson who looked exactly like the original and had the same birthday as well, it dawned on me that this may be a figment of the original’s imagination. As I read further along, this appeared to be true especially since the “unnamed” narrator see’s the reflection in the mirror of himself once he had killed the second William Wilson. It also was interesting that William Wilson was better than everyone else at school other that the other William Wilson. This seems to me that William Wilson was never satisfied or pleased with any of the work or tasks that he had completed. He always expected more out of himself and the competition drove him to better achieve that goal. One of the last sentences in the story really struck me “In me didst thou exist and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself” (232). This really shows that there is no difference between William Wilson and his double since the murder of the double was in fact his own suicide. He may not have died physically, but emotionally or spiritually, he is no longer alive. It is really interesting how the original William Wilson is so troubled and has tremendous guilt for this murder since it is what he wanted to do all along. There may be another message in this story…what you feel to be correct in the present, may not be correct in the long run. William Wilson is figuratively dead but there is literally no way to bring him back.

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  3. In Edgar Allen Poe’s “William Wilson”, the double represents how there are other people in this world that think and act like you causing it to be scary and surprising when you encounter this person. This is scary because you have found someone that has the same physical attributes, same ideas and identical lifestyles and they have found each other. Having a double encourages competition because they want to see which one is better. In this situation, one Wilson is better than another causing one of them to be put down and feeling as though they aren’t good enough in relation to the other Wilson. This shows that everyone’s identity isn’t personal because there will always be someone who resembles you in similar was that are uncanny to really believe. Also, when someone encounters their double, it might have them think whether or not they are an individual person because if there is someone else out there similar to them, then nothing they do or say is singular or personal because there is your double that is always thinking the same ideas. Wilson himself was scared because he realized that he and his double were similar in everyway even considering that he was a twin that he didn’t know about. When he attempted to kill his double he realized that he was also killing himself because they are technically the same person . Therefore, internally he is killing himself while emotionally, he’s breaking down because of the illusion of not being his own person.

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  4. Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “William Wilson” depicts a narcissistic narrator’s competition with himself in a psychological contest with a manifestation of his alter ego. Poe actively separates the narrator’s inner conflicts into another character in a relatively obvious way giving the alter ego the same name and birthday. William Wilson as a character is narcissistic, thinking himself smarter than all the other people at his school, his only competition being himself, who he becomes fixated on because of how identical they are in likeness and mannerism. The only noticeable difference between them is that the narrator’s alter ego speaks in a whisper “the very echo” of his own voice, suggesting that the alter ego is just a shadow of the narrator. The narrator’s murder of his alter ego is the destruction of a part of himself, looking in the mirror to see himself stabbed and bleeding and he hears “In me didst thou exist and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself” (232) in his rival’s whisper voice, the echo of his own. It is only in his alter ego’s murder that the narrator understands that the other Wilson was just an extension of himself as a doppleganger.

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  5. Doppelgangers are often inherently, supernaturally unescapable. They have either always been present or appear out of nowhere. In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “William Wilson” the idea of the doppelganger is self-created by the narrator who is striving to parallel himself to his academic rival of the story’s titular name. This ultimately leads to the narrator’s prolonged demise.
    For one night the narrator sneaks into William’s room while he is asleep and notices this truth himself, “Not thus he appeared – assuredly not thus in the vivacity of waking hours,” (Poe 224). Poe is left with nothing but a mess of “incoherent thoughts,” (Poe 224). He cannot accept that William is a different person separate from serving as a double. Reality does not match up with what he has taught himself and he must be correct. The narrator cannot shake his own ideas of self-specialness nor can he shake the belief that there are people beyond him who are just as significant as himself. In refusal to tie and in order to remain superior and so by comparing himself and competing in another competition that William is not aware of, he can easily win, “I had no reason to believe . . . this similarity had ever been made a subject of comment . . . That he had observed it in all his bearings, and as fixedly as I,” (Poe 222). Though for a brief moment, in a state of vulnerable sleep with a bright, truthful light in his own hand shining onto William’s face, the narrator asks himself, “what now I saw was the result, merely, of habitual practice of this sarcastic imitation,” (Poe 224)? Yes. It is exactly that, but the narrator does not realize this truth until later when does die. So instead, the narrator remains jumbled throughout, refusing to accept both his commonality and talent. He ends up only lusting after the unattainable: a self-created doppelganger. For he reduces a human life just to satisfy his own.

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  6. This was a very odd story by Poe. This story about doubles kept me engaged through this mystery surrounding a person who is very quirky and tricky to follow. This idea of doppelgänger, or double, creates a sense of almost like sibling rivalry. “The words were venom in my ears; and when, upon the day of my arrival, a second William Wilson came also to the academy, I felt angry with him for bearing the name, and doubly disgusted with the name because a stranger bore it” (). The idea of identity is lost within the narrator and this sense of anger towards someone simply having the same name arises The narrators identity is stolen by this man. Everyone in the world wants and usually has a unique qualification and identity about themselves that differs them in even the most slightest way. If someone is to take that from you it is like a piece of you being taken and destroyed. This particular double simply takes and never gives. He takes the name and personality and as the story progresses torments the protagonist or narrator of the story. It is like the good twin and the bad twin idea shown in this short story.
    Doubles are usually associated with this idea of one being satanic and the other one being the angel or smart and dumb. I feel like this idea is just being strained out in the short story.
    Someone being exactly like another in everyday like it is described creates this scarcity for me at least in how they will use this power for evil. If I had a person who looked like me, would they act badly and blame it on me. The presence of them would scare me as well because if they looked exactly like me, I feel like I would not recognize them as myself in another because I have my own way of the way I perceive myself.

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  7. We have been discussing the concept of morality with McCarthy’s The Road and how God plays a role as the judge of people’s morals. In Poe’s “William Wilson,” the judgment of morals and characters comes from the self and Poe implies that humans have a difficult time processing and judging their own decisions. Poe shows that humans can have two sides, like doubled personalities, which can conflict and cause tension within the self. Though the prompt question is regarding having a doppleganger that is other than oneself, I would like to focus on the idea of having an internal doppleganger.

    William Wilson finds himself doing unhonorable things to other people and hears his subconscious tell him that what he is doing wrong. His subconscious is a hallucination of himself, implying, abstractly, that one’s own judgement seems like an outsider to the decisions one wants to actually make. Wilson finds himself becoming an alcoholic and a gambler, cheating people consciously. Wilson inherently wants to do these bad things and chooses to not listen to his reasonable side that has been advising him not to do them. Wilson is banished from three schools and many countries because he has found himself in questionable situations. The two situations explained to the readers is that Wilson tries to cheat a student in a gambling game by hiding cards up his sleeve. A man comes into the room, which is a hallucination of Wilson himself, to outwardly tell the other students that Wilson had cheated. The second time Wilson’s doppleganger comes is when Wilson goes to an Italian ball to charm an already married woman, and Wilson ends up killing himself and “the impersonator.” There is a battle between the two sides of a personality; one that is moral, one that is spontaneous and selfish. One side wants to do the right thing while the other side opposes doing the right thing because it wants to get what it wants. Wilson says that when he experiences both sides of himself, there are mixed emotions of being in awe, terror, and being impressed. In this long sentence, Wilson says:

    “The sentiment 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” (230).

    The two personalities that are clashing with each other and find themselves in awe and terror of one another. The moral one has a “majestic wisdom” which makes the spontaneous one have “a feeling of even terror,” though the terror “impresses” and “inspires” the spontaneous side. Wilson’s wise side wins at the end, for it kills Wilson’s selfish side. Although this is true, was that really a wise decision? Tying this back into the role of judgement and morality, a person has two sides to them: one that makes a decision based upon logic and reason, and one that makes a decision based upon desire. People have to listen to which side would make the proper decision for the moment, instead of being seized by one altogether. Wilson kills himself in the end because he could not deal with his internal pain of being too selfish and unreasonable, killing his logic and therefore self.

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  8. The moments of duality in the short story by Edgar Allen Poe exceed just the surface-level duality that is provoked by the existence of two “William Wilson’s”, and this is the very notion that, in my opinion, made the story most captivating. One instance in which we can observe an intricate instance of duality is when the narrator talks about the head-master of the school, who also happened to be the leading priest at the church. The narrator explains “how deep a spirit of wonder and perplexity was I wont to regard him from our remote pew in the gallery, as, with step solemn and slow, he ascended the pulpit! This reverend man, with countenance so demurely benign, […], and in snuffy habiliments, administered, ferule in hand, the Draconian laws of the academy? Oh, gigantic paradox, too utterly monstrous for solution” (Poe, 218). Here, we observe the headmaster taking on two completely paradoxical roles, which contribute to the larger theme of duality in the novel. In the one hand, we see the headmaster in his role as administrator, in which he uphold Draconina laws of academy. The narrator talks about the man as very rigid in school, making strict rules and expecting the students to diligently follow them. However, when he was being a reverend in church, the man took on a different persona: he has slow steps and upheld the higher values that were taught to him in church. Another way that the author found to make the two personas of this man paradoxical was through the different clothing he wore in two locations that our protagonist interacts with him. He says that when the man is at the church, he is wearing very clean clothes however when he is acting as the headmaster of the school, he wears clothes that are in direct contrast (dirty) to those he wore before. This duality speaks to the nature of people and their ability to have different facades depending on the circumstance they are faced with. The fact that Poe does not tell us his name is also significant, since it becomes hard for the reader to explain the man without picking one of his two “personas” as means to describe him. The principal of the school, or the pastor of the church, is one of the many ways that Poe found to develop the theme of duality in the short story.

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  9. Edgar Allen Poe’s “William Wilson” begs important questions about the nature of doubling and what it means to have a double. Poe introduces a conflict between an unnamed narrator, and his alter ego, who both share the name “William Wilson”. The narrator struggles with his self worth in this story, and feels in constant comparison to his double growing up. Turning to alcoholism and gambling, Wilson tries to forget about his double until he finally kills him in which he discovers his double is a manifestation of himself. I believe Poe’s doubling signifies an internal conflict of the self that the narrator ceases to resolve. As the narrator introduces himself he claims to have the qualities of being “imaginative and and [having] easy excitable temperament”(217). Wilson establishes his place above his other classmates, but never feels fully satisfied. I believe this insecureness is what manifests itself into his double. I think in a way Wilson uses these insecurities as a way to make excuses for dealing with his problems. His desire for self worth turns to problems with alcohol and gambling, and eventually leads him into a downwards spiral towards death. After successfully killing his double, he stands in front of a mirror, he hears Wilson’s voice, or what could be the narrator’s voice saying, “In me didst thou exist-and in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself”(232). Perhaps Poe uses doubling as a way to emphasize how our psychological problems can have very real life implications. Something interesting that I observed was on 220, where Wilson states, “Upon mankind at large the events of very early existence rarely leave in mature age any definite impression”(220). I think this story may prove just the opposite in this claim Wilson makes. It seems Wilson growing up with fears and insecurities as an independent child is what led to this physical manifestation of his inescapable problems, and what inevitably made up his being, (or his alter ego’s being) and destroyed their lives.

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