Edgar Allan Poe was presented to me in high school the way he was probably presented to you.
You know what I mean. It’s good for you, so you have to eat it. You’re fifteen, craving French fries and cheeseburgers, but all they have in the English syllabus is broccoli. Then they make you read it and try to convince you that reading is fun(damental).
No wonder it doesn’t work.
Unfortunately, high school broccoli is the way that lots of great writing gets introduced to us, and the sad thing is that there could be French fries in there somewhere, but we’d never know it. We don’t always give it a chance. We won’t even taste it unless there’s a pop quiz.
Teenagers are the picky eaters of literature.
Add to that the rebelliousness of youth, especially of a girl like me. I didn’t do drugs and I didn’t drink. I had braces until senior year, was president of the Latin Club, and should have been Most Likely to Achieve Sainthood. The only way I could rebel was to skip Poe.
So I did.
And I confess, here in this classy anthology, for an organization I love, among the writers I admire the most, that I didn’t read Poe until I was an adult. Until I finally grew up and, after my divorce, had no one left to rebel against. And when I won an Edgar, I felt like an impostor for never having read him. I couldn’t take the secret shame another minute, so I picked up a copy of his collected works and read a few of the stories. They were terrific, but the one that stayed with me was “William Wilson,” and I’ll tell you why.
It’s the story of a schoolboy, and at the very outset, his identity is uncertain. In fact, Poe starts the story, “Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation.”
Think “Call me Ishmael,” but more intriguing. Poe reportedly had an obsession with the color white, but we won’t go into the parallels between him and Melville here. Suffice it to say that what happens in “William Wilson” is as epic a battle as with any white whale, but in Poe’s story, the nemesis may be the hero himself.
Let me explain.
In the story, William Wilson meets a classmate who looks exactly like him. The other boy has the same name and even the same birthday. (Actually, William specifies their shared birthday is “the nineteenth of January,” which is Poe’s own birthday.) He’s the same height too. They even enter the school on the same day, “by mere accident.” The only difference between them is that the other boy has some defect in his throat that prevents him from raising his voice “above a very low whisper.” Bottom line, the other boy is the double, or twin, of William Wilson.
The boys start out as uneasy friends, then the double does everything to make himself more like William Wilson, except that he can’t copy his voice completely. William says, “His cue, which was to perfect an imitation of myself, lay both in words and in actions; and most admirably did he play his part. My dress it was an easy matter to copy; my gait and general manner were, without difficulty, appropriated; in spite of his constitutional defect, even my voice did not escape him. My louder tones were, of course, unattempted, but then the key,-it was identical; and his singular whisper, it grew the very echo of my own.”
It’s Single White Female, only with boys.
And, of course, a great twist. Instead of the main character being the good one and the double being the bad one, in “William Wilson” the narrator is the bad one and the double is the good one. It’s so much more interesting, and bolder. Imagine Goofus and Gallant, with Goofus as the storyteller. Isn’t he more fun to listen to than the goody-goody Gallant? (Patricia Highsmith, in the Ripley series, and Jeff Lindsay, in the Dexter series, would make the same wise choice. Though the first to do so may have been John Milton, whom you remember from your college broccoli. In Paradise Lost, wasn’t Satan more interesting than you-know-who?)
But to stay on point, in “William Wilson” the title character is witty, naughty, and an effete bully. He drinks too much, he uses profanity, he cheats at cards. His double is nicer, kinder, and more considerate in every respect. In time, William Wilson comes to dislike, then hate his double. He leaves school to get away from him, then time passes and he goes to Eton, where one day he invites “a small party of the most dissolute students” to his room for “a secret carousal.” Bam! In walks his double, to spoil the fun. William Wilson says, “I grew perfectly sober in an instant.”
The double is the buzz kill of the century.
William flees to Oxford, his thoughts haunted by his doppelg"anger. He says, “[A]gain, and again, in secret communion with my own spirit, would I demand the questions ‘Who is he?-whence came he?-and what are his objects?’ But no answer was there found.” At war with itself, William’s psyche begins to disintegrate. He lapses into chronic gambling, drinking, and further debauchery until we see him at another card game, with an aristocratic “dupe” whom William plies with liquor to cheat him more easily. Suddenly, the double reappears and blows William’s cover, exposing his hidden cards when he says: “Please to examine, at your leisure, the inner linings of the cuff of his left sleeve, and the several little packages which may be found in the somewhat capacious pockets of his embroidered morning wrapper.”
William hurries to Paris, then to Rome, decompensating further, and during a ball at carnival his lecherous eye falls upon the beautiful wife of a duke. Out of the blue, the double appears, this time masked and caped, to thwart our hero’s misdeed. The two fall into a sword fight, and-
Well, I can’t give away the surprise ending.
You’re probably thinking that you can predict the ending, but it’s more ambiguous than it first appears. I think I have a good guess about what happens, but I won’t ruin it for you, and sometimes I’m not sure my guess is right anyway. I checked online to read criticisms of the story’s ending, but all I found was a Web site called wiki.answers.com, which devotes an entire page to the ending of “William Wilson” but asks only, “What Does the Tale William Wilson by Edgar Allan Poe Mean? Show Us Your Smarts! Help Us Answer This Question!”
I declined to show my smarts.
Elsewhere on the Web are comments from people confused by the story’s ending, and my favorite is from mister_noel_ y2k of Cardiff, Wales, who posted: “for anyone who has read this story, could they perhaps explain what this story was about because I wasn’t sure whether or not the two william wilson’s were the same person or not or whether it was a jekyll and hyde kind of story or whether or not the narrator was obsessed with william wilson” (http://www.online-literature.com/forums/showthread.php?t=12581).
So why do I think this story is so great, and how does it speak to why Poe himself was so great? I think it’s in the pull of its terrific premise, the doubling between William Wilson and his look-alike. As our friend mister_noel_ y2k says, while it’s unclear whether William and his double are two halves of the same whole, or in fact two separate people, the effect is the same. His fragmented or broken identity terrifies us at a profound level, and when it’s the protagonist who’s having an identity crisis, we’re placed squarely in his very shaky shoes. So it’s impossible to read “William Wilson” and not identify with William, feeling his anguish and his evil, both at once.
And the threat is so much greater when it comes from within, as in this story of psychological horror, than from without, as in a conventional ghost story. Poe must have known that no monster is half as scary as the evil within us, and it’s tempting to wonder if he “wrote what he knew,” considering his own personal unhappiness and the fact that he assigned William Wilson his own birthday. Read that way, the story is poignant indeed.
Plus, Poe may not have invented the Evil Twin, but he certainly anticipated it, as well as the spookiness that comes from the fragmenting or doubling of the self, and the splintering of identity. Sigmund Freud would later explain the psychology at work here in his essay “The Uncanny,” written in 1919, but there’s no doubt that the concept gives “William Wilson” its dramatic impact. And the hold that doubling has on our collective psyche is underlined by more recent examples in popular culture, from benign sitcoms like The Patty Duke Show to the comic-book conflict of Spider Man and his evil flip side, Venom. Think, too, of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the man looks like your husband but he’s not your husband. Or vice versa, in The Stepford Wives, when the terrified wife stumbles upon her own replica.
Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne novels trade on the doubling concept when our hero flashes back on a self he doesn’t know, remember, or even recognize. Bourne’s confusion about his own identity, and about whether he is fundamentally good or evil, echoes “William Wilson.” And there’s even a hint of identity duality, or a split self, in Stephen King’s classic, The Shining, in which a frustrated writer takes a job as a hotel caretaker, loses his mind, and tries to kill his family. Not only is the caretaker a double of a previous caretaker, who had followed the same deranged path, but we see how easily Good Dad crosses the median to become Evil Dad when a hotel and a blank page drive him crazy.
The blank page I know well.
In fact, I was thinking of “William Wilson” when I wrote my novels Mistaken Identity and Dead Ringer. The main character in those books, Bennie Rosato, is a strong, independent, and clever woman whose life gets turned upside down when she’s summoned to prison to meet with a look-alike inmate-who claims to be her long-lost twin sister. I didn’t get the idea from Poe, I got it from my own life, when I learned I had a half sister I didn’t know about. That she looked uncannily like me, down to the blue eyes we both got from our father, at first unsettled me at the deepest level, and by the time we got to know each other, I knew I had to write about the experience. You can’t have this job and ignore something like that or you forfeit your advance.
I reread “William Wilson” for the inspiration to turn my life into fiction, and though my half sister is a lovely person, I made her into an Evil Twin (with her permission). The psychological journey that Bennie Rosato takes in my novels was informed not only by my own confused feelings but by those of the entirely fictional William Wilson, and I like to think they gave those novels an emotional truth.
So I owe Edgar Allan Poe quite a lot.
Thank you, sir, and Happy Birthday.
And what is the lesson in all this?
Eat your vegetables.