THE DEEP ONES: "William Wilson" by Edgar Allan Poe

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THE DEEP ONES: "William Wilson" by Edgar Allan Poe

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des. 31, 2015, 11:42am

I'll read this out of one of my "complete stories" Poe collections. Not even certain I've read it before, the title is familiar but that might be simply from all the references to it.

des. 31, 2015, 11:51am

One of my favorite Poe tales. I'll be reading it out of my old favorite The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe.

gen. 2, 2016, 6:07pm

The Library of America Poe: Poetry and Tales for me.

gen. 3, 2016, 7:08pm

>3 RandyStafford:

Read it this afternoon, I'm interested in any annotations from your edition you think worth bringing to the table.

gen. 6, 2016, 8:49am

I first read this way back in my teens, and I'd forgotten much - good on the nominator and the voters to make me re-read it!

In my recollection, the double was simply the narrator's externalized conscience. Rereading, while he certainly represents the narrator's moral sense, he also possesses an independent physical actuality, being able to be seen and heard by others such as the narrator's Oxford (soon to be former) friends. Unless, I guess, we take the narrator to be seriously unhinged, and to himself be the actual agent of the words and deeds he attributes to the double - but he seems too effective and rational (however immoral) for that sort of mental illness. He could be less than truthful about that too, perhaps, but taking this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, I guess he's an author sitting somewhere making it all up ...

I might have liked if he'd provided a little more detail on the vice and debauchery he decorously glosses over. Like I said in the Ilalotha discussion, I've got a soft spot for that sort of stuff in literary form.

Editat: gen. 6, 2016, 10:00am

Maybe it's sort of a reverse Fight Club. Palahniuk makes the narrator into the superego-oriented ego, with another character "Tyler Durden" expressing his dissociated id. Here, the narrator seems to be the id-oriented ego, while the other "William Wilson" is his dissociated superego.

gen. 6, 2016, 9:12am

The maze-like school house is like something out of Gormenghast.

This story is - to paraphrase Peter Murphy - full of keys, but where's the lock? It's helpful to use a Freudian viewpoint, but Poe certainly couldn't have had that in mind (not consciously, anyway!). I do like the reverse Fight Club analogy! I need to watch that film again soon. On blu-ray.

Andreas makes good points. Even with all that, I think Poe has a physically present doppelganger in mind.

I like to think that EAP is being playfully obscure with line like "I had always felt aversion to my uncourtly patronymic, and its very common, if not plebeian praenomen." But he probably isn't. :-D

gen. 6, 2016, 9:17am

If I'd read this before, I had no recollection of it whatsoever, and nothing seemed familiar. I wasn't really taken with Poe's writing in this one, and wouldn't be motivated to read another story of his if this had been my first. Interesting, since it's not an early tale.

I love the Doppelgaenger myth, and thought of both options discussed above by AndreasJ and paradoxosalpha. It's interesting that Poe chose to tell the story from the point of view of the debauched Wilson, and not the moral crusader. The story takes on the weight of justice rather than horror, I think.

gen. 6, 2016, 9:35am

If Wilson somehow contributed to the creation of his doppelganger, I'm reminded of Frankenstein at points, such as when the double suddenly appears out of nowhere to taunt the narrator:

It was the pregnancy of solemn admonition in the singular, low, hissing utterance; and, above all, it was the character, the tone, the key, of those few, simple, and familiar, yet whispered, syllables, which came with a thousand thronging memories of by-gone days, and struck upon my soul with the shock of a galvanic battery. Ere I could recover the use of my senses he was gone.

It's not just the reference to a galvanic battery that reminds me a bit of Shelley's creature uttering "I will be with you on your wedding night".

gen. 6, 2016, 10:15am

FWIW - here is a link to the "William Wilson" segment of the 1968 anthology film SPIRITS OF THE DEAD. Directed by Louis Malle. With Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon.

gen. 6, 2016, 4:15pm

>8 KentonSem: The maze-like school house is like something out of Gormenghast.

Acc'd Wikipedia, the school is based on one the young Poe attended in England. It doesn't say whether the prototype was quite so architecturally peculiar.

gen. 7, 2016, 7:27pm

I haven't come to this one without preconceptions, because I recently watched a DVD extra, which was Kim Newman talking about Poe film adaptations.

In connection with Louis Malle's version of "William William", he cites the original story as an important one in Poe's oeuvre, in which he subverts the established Gothic convention of the doppelgänger. Instead of the tale of an innocent haunted by a malevolent double, it's the opposite (the point elenchus has made above). this is a prime example of the "terror of the soul" idea, that we are assailed from within, by our own weaknesses and imps of the perverse, that I touched on in the discussion of Laird Barron's story.

Allowing for the fact that it's the memory of a child's perception of the school building, I think the description of Wilson's school in England may depict Poe's actual school (was it in Stoke Newington?) quite accurately, if that building was an old one that had been added to piecemeal over several centuries. There are still buildings in Britain like that, not all of them Stately Homes, but humbler buildings too.

gen. 7, 2016, 8:16pm

Well, I've read this story a couple of times before and then I opted for a literal and physical twin. I was a little less sure this time. I think the strongest evidence for that interpretation is the wounding of the narrator at the end. How is that done except by another individual?

I like the story more for the drama of the second Wilson theatrically showing up to confound the narrator than the mysterious nature of the double.

I read this out of Peithman's annotated edition, so I'll pass on some info.

Poe's inspiration has a convoluted pedigree. He credited an article by Washington Irving that talked about an unwritten play Lord Byron was planning. It was to be based on an old Spanish play Shelley had told him about. It involves a Spanish nobleman, Alfonso. The plot summary is fairly close to Poe's story right down to the final revelation that the spectre hounding Alfonson is his own self.

Poe did attend the Manor House School in Stoke Newington but its architectural style was not Elizabethean. Peithman speculates that Poe's description more closely matches Fleet House near the school.

William Wilson's birthdate is (at least in the version I read) January 19, 1813, but other versions use January 19, 1809 and January 19, 1811. Both dates were given by Poe as his own birthdate (it was the 1809 date).

The name Glendinng was the name of the man who succeeded Poe as sergeant major in the 1st Artillery. Preston was the name of a schoolmate and friend of Poe's.

gen. 8, 2016, 8:58am

>13 housefulofpaper: this is a prime example of the "terror of the soul" idea, that we are assailed from within, by our own weaknesses and imps of the perverse

Now that is an interesting insight, for me. Are there other stories or traditions connected with this? I immediately recollected the classic Dark Night of the Soul from Christian mysticism, and wonder if that informs the idea.

>14 RandyStafford: I think the strongest evidence for that interpretation is the wounding of the narrator at the end. How is that done except by another individual?

Without plunking for either interpretation, since I like the ambiguity of thinking it could be either one (or both?), when reading I thought it could have been that Wilson stabbed himself, thinking he was stabbing his double. My Heritage Press edition includes an illustration, which depicts the final encounter as 2 separate figures, but one slightly transparent. The mirror which featured in the story is left out of the illustration completely.

I agree very much that the drama is quite enjoyable, as was the ambiguity -- as I read -- of continually considering whether each incident adds weight to one interpretation over the other.

gen. 8, 2016, 2:40pm

>13 housefulofpaper:

I went back and re-read your comment on the "terror of the soul" from the Laird Barron story:
Blackwood's characteristic attitude to nature is one of worship (even though nature is too big and "unhuman" to be entirely benign). Barron's take seemed to be more American, insofar as nature (or Nature) is seen through a Christian viewpoint with the Stag identified with the Devil; there's also the focus on what you might call the state of the protagonist's soul...Poe's "it is a horror not of Germany, but of the soul" (quoting from memory, probably slightly wrong), the inward focus on your own sinfulness (not yours, dear reader, but writing "one's own sinfulness" felt more than a little poncey!) going back to the Puritans and forward to the themes of Southern Gothic...these are, as I say, American concerns and preoccupations which I don't see in Blackwood's stories, for all their moment-by-moment descriptions of their protagonists psychological and physiological states.

I didn't read the Barron story, so I didn't post in that thread, though your remarks were intriguing even then. I'd love to read of some other stories on either side of your proposed Outer Nature (British-Continental?) v. Inner Nature (American-Christian) binary. Any exemplars of either anyone would hazard to name?

gen. 8, 2016, 4:59pm

>16 elenchus:

I hope I made it clear that my comments leaned pretty heavily on the Kim Newman piece I cited above. I transcribed some of it in a discussion in the Gothic Literature group, here (if the link works!)

I've make several attempts to develop some of those stray thoughts and put them in writing, but ended up arguing against myself and deleting what I wrote each time.

I suspect the religious aspect is important. Compare the religiosity and Calvinist Theology of the early settlers against the Anglicanism imposed in England and Wales after the English Civil War, when "Enthusiasm" was a term of disapproval. "Go to Church but don't take it seriously", seems almost to have been the attitude. "Don't make waves because you know what we've just lived through and no-one wants to go back to that".

(I'm painting in very broad strokes here, I know! There are bound to be counter-examples, but at the same time there every age and society has its prevailing attitudes).

Maybe M R James is an example of a British writer of "Outer Nature" weird tales? Their stance is generally "curiosity killed the cat" (or just gave him a nasty turn) than "here is someone destroyed from within by his own flawed nature".

gen. 10, 2016, 12:52pm

Apologies for being late to the party. Finished reading this this morning. I think I have to change my reading hours - tried repeatedly to read this at bedtime and kept falling asleep!

I read this in an eBook edition of The Portable Edgar Allan Poe borrowed from my local public library. I think this is the way to go for me with Poe - my Kindle's dictionary look-up function is dandy for the archaic words that crop up so frequently in this author's work.

This reminded me a bit of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Do we know whether or not Wilde was a Poe fan?

>7 paradoxosalpha:

Maybe it's sort of a reverse Fight Club. Palahniuk makes the narrator into the superego-oriented ego, with another character "Tyler Durden" expressing his dissociated id. Here, the narrator seems to be the id-oriented ego, while the other "William Wilson" is his dissociated superego.

Nailed it! Couldn't have said it better myself.

>8 KentonSem:

I need to watch that film again soon.

Yeah, me too. It grows higher in my estimation all the time.

>9 elenchus:

I wasn't really taken with Poe's writing in this one, and wouldn't be motivated to read another story of his if this had been my first.

I found it problematic, too; it seemed overly show-offish at times. Having said that, I'll give Poe the benefit of the doubt and say he was merely using an appropriate narrative style for his protagonist, who's not a fella who seems to be lacking in self-regard.

gen. 11, 2016, 12:58am

The only word which sent me to the dictionary here was "faucal" (which is apparently a synonym for pharyngeal, which sounds like it should be the more obscure, but isn't, at least not to someone with a bit of a background in phonetics).

gen. 11, 2016, 10:22am

>19 AndreasJ:

Here are few of mine (thanks, Kindle Vocabulary Builder), generally looked up out of interest in the word's etymology, but occasionally because, context clues aside, I honestly had no idea what the fuck they meant:


(All but 2-4 drive my Google Chrome spell check insane, so I don't feel so bad about posting those)

Am I correct in assuming you are not a native English speaker? I often find that folks that speak English as a second language have a larger English language vocabulary than we native speakers do. :)

gen. 11, 2016, 11:24am

>20 artturnerjr:

My native language is Swedish. My English vocabulary tends to be quite strong when it comes to scientific and academic fields, rather less so with respect to slang or dialect.

I also have a bit of Latin, which helps with words like "sublunary" and "praenomen". :)

Editat: gen. 11, 2016, 12:14pm

>21 AndreasJ:

Interesting. I've had several Spanish courses over the years, which is where most of my knowledge of Latinate languages comes from. I was actually approaching fluency in it at one point; alas, that's mostly gone now, largely due to years of disuse.

I was terrible at Latin; it's one of the few college courses I got a failing grade in. Considering that I was not the most, uh, self-disciplined student at the time I took it (I was in my early twenties, and sort of a less extreme version of our story's narrator), it's hardly surprising.

gen. 13, 2016, 8:46am

"In Poe, consciousness is clearly recognized as a trap. Once the dilemma has been noticed, there is no escape and it even ceases to seem heroic staving off the madness that will come." (Robert Harbison, Eccentric Spaces, p. 97)

As I think we may have discovered before in Poe, the epigram of this tale gives the whole in nuce:
What say of it? what say of CONSCIENCE grim,
That spectre in my path? --Chamberlaine's Pharronida
The story takes the metaphorical spectre of the Chamberlaine quote and literalizes it into the concrete figure of the doppelganger.

Editat: gen. 31, 2020, 5:11pm

My recent reading of The Phantom Fourth by Le Fanu brought this story to mind immediately, having re-read it last year at some point, after a specific reference to it by Stephen King (some online rabbit hole). It was a comical spin on inebriation and travel. A lot of my experience in 12yrs of inbound incentive Tourism proved repeatedly that people are liable to behave badly the further they get from their own turf. Soaked to the gills with no one they know nearby. And usually it divides the cronies who indulge in packs. Either they don't want to see each other to be reminded of their bad behavior or they keep doing it because no one really remembers what happened, nor do they care about the wake left behind. In Le Fanu's tale, the 3 friends fight constantly until they return to Dover. In Poe's, it's a battle to the death.

As a person who annually celebrates not only my birthday but my name day and my Baptism, it is difficult for me to view this story through psychology or psychiatry or even an intellectual lens. Poe is an early guilty pleasure, pre-teen for sure, and my fondness for him is no less than for childhood stuffed animals or favourite games/activities/momentos. That being said, and me being female without any 'deviant' past deeds, to my mind it's easily a battle of angelic dominion. It's like the mind is trying to act like its body's own exorcist. Isn't that what conscience is? This guy has used his free will to follow a path lesser than he knows himself to be worthy of, and his Guardian Angel is battle weary but loyal to assist in his redemption, never abandoning the post. Satan can also assign a demon to plague a mind (emotions) and body but they cannot touch that soul until the moment of death. It can be stained or clouded, but never lost or gained until that final struggle. I'm no Theologian nor do I know exactly what I'm singing in Latin, but certain sacred sensibilities seep into the stories I read without me being aware of it until many years later, when my life and re-reading gain context. Hindsight is 2020! =) It's a matter of Faith, when knowledge and reason become unreliable narrators. Understanding is optional.

The end image brought to mind Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010). Mirror and all. I love Aronofsky's searing images, especially in The Fountain (2006). I too envisioned the raging war torments St. John of the Cross, but also St. Teresa of Avila and St. John (Jean) Vianney, St. Padre Pio, St. Gemma Galgani, etc. I love that St. Gemma was able to laugh in the face of her persecution, having been wearied and wise beyond her 24 years.