Settling at last in Rome, the narrator attends a masquerade ball in the palace of the duke Di Broglio. The narrator secretly desires the wife of the duke, who has informed him of the costume she will be wearing. As he searches for her, the narrator feels a light hand on his arm and hears a whisper in his ear: “William Wilson.” The whisperer wears the same costume as the narrator, a Spanish cloak with a black silk mask. Drawn into a side room, the narrator becomes enraged, drawing his sword and stabbing his rival. To the narrator’s horror, the layout of the room mysteriously changes, and a mirror replaces the body of his antagonist. He stares into the mirror to find his own body stabbed and bleeding, and he hears his rival speak as though with his own voice: “In me didst thou exist—and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”
“William Wilson” is Poe’s most sustained character study of the doppelganger, or double, a theme explored in a similar way recently by the popular film Fight Club. Poe doubles the twins Roderick and Madeline Usher in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and in “William Wilson.” While Poe focuses on Roderick and Madeline’s physical relationship in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” he is interested in the psychological self-splitting that produces the two William Wilsons in “William Wilson.” Although Poe’s focus is undoubtedly the alter ego—the part of the self that haunts us against our will—he portrays this psychological condition through the manifestation of another body. The final image of the murder-suicide points to the ultimate inseparability of body and mind. The narrator may be plagued mentally and intellectually by his rivalrous double, but he can register his revenge only in physical, corporeal terms, such as the thrust of his sword that carries with it the angst of his tortured mind.
Poe’s study of psychology in “William Wilson” anticipates the major theories of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and one of the twentieth century’s most important psychologists. Poe’s notion of the rivalrous double predates Freud’s concept of the repressed, unconscious alter ego by at least half a century. Like Freud, Poe associates the alter ego with a universal psychological condition, unaffected by specifics of time or place. William Wilson’s double follows him across Europe—from England to Italy—and from childhood to adult life. It is clear that the narrator’s mental splitting of himself into two William Wilsons does not result from aggravating factors of a specific environment, since the narrator purposefully moves to different environments in an attempt to elude his double. The doppelganger represents the narrator’s attempt to project an inner evil on the outside world. Whereas “The Tell-Tale Heart” shows how the mad narrator internally fixates on something external—the old man’s eye—“William Wilson” portrays the reverse of this psychological trajectory.
Like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “William Wilson” thematically explores the ambiguous doubling of love and hate. As much as the narrator resists, he cannot help initially feeling affection for his rival. In fact, the tale’s murderous resolution shows how necessary the hated alter ego is for the sustenance of life. Because the long-awaited murder of his double also constitutes the narrator’s suicide, Poe suggests that we unwittingly thrive on those elements in life that we most want to reject. The inclination to reject or repress a set of emotions—like the hatred of a rival—indicates how important those emotions are to the self.
As in “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” the dramatic resolution of “William Wilson” occurs during a masquerade party. Poe relies upon the motif of the masquerade to set loose the homicidal impulses of the narrator. But he suggests that the narrator’s original desire, though not murderous, is still less than virtuous: he wants to make romantic advances toward the young and beautiful wife of the aged duke. Poe connects lust with the narrator’s obsession with his own identity. Poe exaggerates the rivalry by dressing the men in identical costumes, intimating that the narrator cannot escape his own demons, even when he dons a disguise. Only in service to his desire for the duchess does the narrator act on the animosity that has plagued him since childhood.