Text: Marc Leslie Rovner, “What William Wilson Knew: Poe’s Dramatization of an Errant Mind,” Poe at Work: Seven Textual Studies (1978), pp. 73-82 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 73:]

What William Wilson Knew: Poe’s Dramatization of an Errant Mind


WILLIAM WILSON has a problem: he has glimmers of the past, but he does not understand them. Death is approaching, and in a final attempt to make sense of his life Wilson desires sympathy from his fellow men: “I would wish them to seek out for me, in the details I am about to give, some little oasis of fatality amid a wilderness of error.”(1) Unfortunately for Wilson, his life can be summed up with an easy solution. He lived as an allegory, partially good, partially bad, and he killed his good half. The moral dichotomy in Wilson’s life easily lends itself toward a simplified solution, and his story has been classified in terms ranging from melodramatic allegory to profound psychological study. In my examination of his life, I want, as William Carlos Williams suggests, “to make a start out of particulars,” examining the “particulars” in William Wilson’s story, that is, specifically, Poe’s revisions. More than doppelgdägers — although this motif appears several times in Poe’s tales psychological analyses, or metaphysical symbols, I am interested in Poe’s evolving texts, and I wish to compare the final version (BJ, August 30, 1845) with the original (Burton’s, October 1839), for a clearer interpretation of Wilson’s problems.(2)

After all, this approach is like Wilson’s suggestion on procedureto examine the detailsand Poe’s basic theory on the short story. Reviewing Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, Poe writes that “in the whole composition, there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one of the established design,” adding: “Truth is often, and in very great degree, the aim of the tale.”(3) Donald B. Stauffer points out that analysis, the language by which truth is derived, is “the keynote of Wilson’s remarks.”(4) He notes Wilson’s latinate and abstract terms and words like “perhaps,” “conceive,” and “solve,” which suggest speculative language. He also notices how frequent parenthetical phrases qualify thoughts and how parallel sentence structures weigh ideas. This mode of [page 74:] speech contrasts markedly with the emotional hyperbole of the opening paragraphs, leaving the reader with a narrator who lacks comprehension but who, nonetheless, provides lucid explanations.

Glossing over his childhood, Wilson begins his story with a reminiscence of his early school life because, in the “minute recollections of the school and its concerns,” he finds an emotional respite “in the weakness of a few rambling details.” The revisions concerning Wilson’s description of the school reflect this passion for details, for Poe deletes excessive adjectives from Wilson’s picture to emphasize the character’s visual acuity. The “tall houses” are no longer “inordinately tall,” the “high wall” around the house is not “enormously high,” and the “large chambers” in the school building are not “enormously large.” This movement from exaggeration to precision implies that Wilson can recognize the physical limits of his world.(5) Referring to the schoolhouse, Poe drops the terms “somewhat decayed” and “old,” suggesting that Wilson lives in a more ordinary and comprehensible reality than may have been apparent in the original version.

Richard Wilbur writes that Poe’s houses reflect a character’s state of mind, and, if this statement is true, then we may assume that Wilson has a fairly sharp mind. However, Wilbur writes that dim, winding passages in Poe’s stories represent a state of reverie wherein a character loses his sense of location, and he cites, as an example, Wilson’s description of the school’s interior:(6)

But the house:how quaint an old building was this:to me how veritably a palace of enchantment: There was really no end to its windings — to its incomprehensible subdivisions. It was difficult, at any given time, to say with certainty upon which of its two stories one happened to be. From each room to every other there were sure to be found three or four steps either in ascent or descent. Then the lateral branches were innumerableinconceivableand so returning in upon themselves, that our most exact ideas in regard to the whole mansion were not very far different from those with which we pondered upon infinity.

Now let me add the concluding sentence of the paragraph: “During the five years of my residence here, I was never able to ascertain with precision, in what remote locality lay the little sleeping apartment assigned to myself and some eighteen or twenty scholars.” From Wilson’s description the house certainly seems like a mysterious [page 75:] mansion, and Poe enhances this image by deleting the idea that the dormitory was “cottage-built,” making the dorm and the classrooms one large building. Yet if the house does baffle Wilson, then his apparent ignorance of locations appears inconsistent with Poe’s attempts, through revisions, to show that Wilson has a good sense of material qualities. Poe, though, makes one minor but important change in the above passage which eliminates this idea; he changes the word “impossible” to “difficult,” implying that Wilson could have known his location in the house.

This knowledge is demonstrated in the story when, deciding to play a practical joke on his rival, Wilson steals through a “wilderness of passages” straight to the latter’s bedroom. Wilson has said that he never knew where he and the others slept, yet he is discovered, at night, marching through a labyrinth like a Theseus following a string of understanding that reinforces the impression of the revisions. Thus, in Wilson’s character, the reader perceives an ironic contrast between Wilson’s familiarity with his physical surroundings and his unawareness of his knowledge.

In keeping with this contrast, Wilson’s description of his rival, the other William Wilson, is precise, but, in terms of human insight, he cannot explain the motivations of his other half. In the original version, Wilson notices that they were “not altogether unlike”; this phrase becomes “even singularly alike,” which emphasizes their physical similarity. The other William Wilson also recognizes this similarity and discovers a means to annoy Wilson by imitating his dress, walk, and general manner. A more striking parallel is that both William Wilsons have a common birth date, and Poe rearranges the statement of this fact to create an impact on the reader.

These observations indicate Wilson’s awareness of a close physical correspondence, although the revisions reveal an initial emotional ambivalence toward his double. Wilson says that the other William Wilson “appeared to be destitute alike of the ambition which urged and the passionate energy of mind which enabled me to excel.” Wilson, though, cannot define his feelings toward his rival, saying only that “they formed a motley and heterogeneous admixture,” adding: “to the moralist, it will be necessary to say, in addition, that Wilson and myself were the most inseparable companions.” In the original, Wilson says that his double “appeared utterly destitute” of [page 76:] ambition, and that his feelings “were formed of a motley and heterogeneous mixture.” Deleting “utterly” eliminates the possibility that Wilson has formed a definite idea about the ambitions of his rival and the change of tense and the substitution of “admixture” for “mixture” reinforce the impression of Wilson’s confusion. Poe also originally qualifies the term “moralist” with the phrase “fully acquainted with the minute springs of human action,” but he removes it because, although Wilson can describe a relationship as well as he can describe an object, he can define motivation only tenuously. Yet Wilson’s emotions alter after “frequent officious interferences with my will.” He does concede that his double’s “moral sense was far keener than my own; and that I might today, have been a better and thus a happier man, had I less frequently rejected his counsels embodied in those meaning whispers I then but too cordially hated and too bitterly despised.” The original reads: “had I more seldom rejected the counsels” which I “too bitterly derided,” and, in the change, Wilson’s feelings sidestep understanding to become a “positive hatred.”

This animosity is the impetus for the previously mentioned practicaljoke. Approaching the bed, Wilson holds a lamp to his sleeping counterpart’s face and is shocked:

Were these — these the lineaments of William Wilson? . . . Not thus he appearedassuredly not thusin 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 saw was the result, merely, 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.

He is shocked not by the recognition of their moral relationship but by their extraordinary likeness. Poe substitutes “saw” for “witnessed” to stress Wilson’s visual perception and adds the word “merely” to provide a greater contrast between Wilson’s day and night awareness. He also deletes “a gloomy and tempestuous night of an early autumn”; this change is similar to revision of other [page 77:] stories in which he muted Gothic or sensational images which may have obscured a desired effect.(7)

Here, the effect is terrifying enough for William Wilson, who flees the academy in a state of mind which contrasts markedly with the way in which he previously described the school. Wilson remembered it as “a dream-like and spirit-soothing place,” yet his experiences there were anything but spirit-soothing. Another odd contrast is that, although the school is supposed to be peaceful, the desks are “so beseamed with initial letters, names at full length, grotesque figures, and other multiplied efforts of the knife, as to have entirely lost what little form might have been their portion in days long departed.” Significantly, Poe drops “meaningless gashes” from this list because in William Wilson’s world and in the story nothing is meaningless, including the other William Wilson’s supposedly “meaningless” imitations.

The irony between Wilson’s memory of the academy and what he actually experienced is consistent with the irony of his ability to recognize physical but not moral relationships. On irony, James Gargano writes that Poe “often designs his tales as to show his narrators’ limited comprehension of their own problems and states of mind.”(8) He also observes that “William Wilson” has “a tight and coherent form which expresses Poe’s view of the relation between man’s inner, psychological disorganization and his futility in the world at large.”(9) He bases his opinion on the relationship between Wilson’s wild and futile attempts to flee his rival and the tight and forcefully directed chronological narrative. Gargano’s point derives from certain conceptual observations about the short story, although I contend that, by examining the specific details with which Poe himself was concerned, we can recognize particular ironic relationships within the story.

The major ironic correlation is in Wilson’s inability to associate his physical resemblance with his moral relationship to the other William Wilson, despite his eye for detail. At one point, Wilson does have a visionary glimmer of a close tie: “I cannot better describe the sensation which oppressed me than by saying that I could with difficulty shake off the belief of my having been acquainted with the being who stood before me, at some epoch very long ago — some point of the past even infinitely remote.” This vision indicates [page 78:] a prenatal world where their spirits may have been one, and Poe rearranges this sentence to stress the possibility that the two Wilsons may have been previously acquainted. Ironically, the physical world the world of clothes, speech, and detaildivides the whole person of William Wilson into good and bad halves, with the sharp-eyed bad half being blind to his bond with the good half. It is not within the nature of William Wilson to dwell on metaphysics, and so he dismisses his vision saying: “I mention it at all but to define the day of the last conversation I there held with my singular namesake.”

After this conversation, Wilson makes his night visit and then flees the academy. The pace of the story quickens because, after having established the relationship in the long school section, Poe is free to trace the rapid, progressive moral decline of William Wilson, a decline that is constantly checked by his other half. At Eton, Wilson is prevented from making “a toast of more than wonted profanity” when he is summoned to meet “a youth about my own height, and habited in a white kerseymere morning frock coat, cut in the novel fashion of the one I myself wore at the moment.” In the original story, Wilson was about to utter “an intolerable profanity”; Poe changes the adjective to tone down a sensational image that might overshadow a desired effect. Then, after Wilson has unknowingly ruined a young lord by cheating at cards in Oxford, a stranger enters the room and announces that a pack of shaved cards is in Wilson’s morning coat. He leaves the room, and an uproar ensues when the cards are found in Wilson’s pocket. As Wilson departs the room in disgrace, he is handed a cloak, the duplicate of his own. He realizes that, besides himself, only the stranger has worn a cloak, but, “retaining some presence of mind,” he accepts the second cloak, and places it over his own. Without comment a connection is made based on the cloak, and this time Wilson flees a school not from fear but from shame.

In Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow, his criminal intentions are always thwarted by his rival. Then, in Rome, they meet at a masquerade, a rather ironic setting for a dropping of disguises and also a common motif in Poe’s tales, most notably “The Masque of the Red Death.” Prior to arranging an assignation with the beautiful, young wife of an aging duke, Wilson suddenly feels a hand on his shoulder and hears that “ever-remembered, low damnable whisper.” [page 79:] “In an absolute phrenzy of wrath, I turned at once upon him who had thus interrupted me, and seized him violently by the collar. He was attired, as I had expected, in a costume altogether similar to my own; wearing a Spanish cloak of blue velvet, begirt about the waist with a crimson belt sustaining a rapier. A mask of black silk entirely covered his face.” Wilson and the interloper fight in a small antechamber, and, with “sheer strength,” Wilson presses his foe against a wall and kills him. Then he hurries to the door, secures it, and is shocked as he turns around:

A large mirror, — so at first it seemed to me in my confusionnow stood where none had been perceptible before; and, as I stepped up to it in extremity of terror, mine own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood, advanced to meet me with a feeble tottering gait.

Thus it appeared, I say, but was not. It was my antagonistit was Wilson, who then stood before me in the agonies of his dissolution. His mask and cloak lay, where he had thrown them, upon the floor. Not a thread in all his raimentnot a line in all the marked and singular lineaments of his face which was not, even in the most absolute identity, mine own!

It was Wilson; but he spoke no longer in a whisper, and I could have fancied that I myself was speaking while he said: “You have conquered, and I yield. Yet, henceforward art thou also dead — dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope! In me didst thou exist — and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”

In the first paragraph, Wilson’s hatred is stressed, as “an absolute phrenzy of wrath” replaces “a perfect whirlwind,” the latter term a sensational image that does little to characterize Wilson’s reaction. The other William Wilson’s last words are meant to convert that blindness into enlightenment as Wilson is commanded to “see by this image” what they were together and what he has done to separate permanently the halves. “See” echoes Poe’s earlier change of “witnessed” for “saw,” reinforcing the idea that Wilson has not adequately employed his perceptions. The reader’s perceptions also receive a strong hint to “see” as Poe illuminates several other earlier mentioned elements in the ending.

The most significant revisions are the additions to the final paragraphs, particularly in the references to clothesan important detail in the story. To Wilson’s observations about the Spanish cloak, Poe [page 80:] adds that it was “blue velvet, begirt about the waist with a crimson belt sustaining a rapier.” The line about the mask was originally a clause; in the revision it becomes a separate sentence underscoring the disguising of Wilson’s antagonist’s features. These modifications create a vivid impression of their mutual disguises and arm both characters. Adding “not a thread in all his raiment” impresses upon Wilson their mutual identity more strongly than any other mention of clothes.

Through Wilson’s recognition of their indistinguishable costume and appearance, he finally sees that he and the other William Wilson are the same person. This startling realization occurred on his night visit, but it was a discovery that he blotted out of his mind. In this final scene, his double will not let him forget this fact again. The recognition comes through the emphasis on clothes, and, in fact, the relationship between clothes and moral correspondences is a thread woven through the story, for whenever he met another character, Wilson tended to evaluate the person in terms of his garments.

Bransby, the master of the academy, is “a gigantic paradox, too monstrous for solution” to Wilson, who cannot reconcile the benign minister with “his robes so glossy and so clerically flowing” with the strict disciplinarian “who, of late, with sour visage, and in snuffy habiliments, administered, ferule in hand, the Draconian laws of the academy.” Then at Eton, Wilson notices that his startling visitor is wearing the same clothes as himself, and, at Oxford, a long section explains how the departing stranger left behind an expensive fur, the exact duplicate of Wilson’s coat. It is a tremendous coincidence that Wilson’s moral intruders dress as he does, yet, while noting this fact, he shows no awareness whatsoever of its possible significance. It is interesting that, as Wilson recognizes the duplicate garb in the Eton scene, Poe removes Wilson’s remark “what then struck my mad fancy” to create an emotional reaction consistent with the other incidents.

Not until the final scene of the story, when Wilson is commanded to “see by this image,” does he make the necessary associations. Because he tells the story in retrospect, his moral sense seems more pronounced at the end of his life than at any time prior to the symbolic murder;(10) although Wilson evidently anguishes over his fate, I question whether he really understands his situation. In the second [page 81:] paragraph of the story, clothes are made a metaphor for morals when Wilson says “from me, in an instant, all virtue dropped bodily as a mantle,” yet morals do not imply guilt for, in later versions, out goes the next remark: “I shrouded my nakedness in triple guilt.” Although this line may have been changed so as not to overuse the metaphor, it is more important to note that Poe eliminates Wilson’s only mention of the word “guilt.” Attempting to show that Wilson does feel guilty, Thomas Walsh likens the dying man’s last words: “dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope,” to the opening: “Oh, outcasts of all outcasts most abandoned!to the earth art thou not forever dead? to its honors, to its golden aspirations?and a cloud, dense, dismal, and limitless, does it not hang eternally between thy hopes and heaven?”(11) In his opening words, Wilson appropriates his other half’s dying lines, but, in the context of his emotional rhetoric, they are uttered as words without meaning. The last line originally read “dead to the world and its hopes”; Poe capitalizes these images, emphasizing their abstract importance, and adds the reference “to Heaven.” Thus, he converts the last line into a statement of moral truth that has apparently had little effect on Wilson. The world, hope, and heaven are still lowercase terms for him, although to his now-dead half they possessed capital importance. The surviving Wilson is tormented by his deeds; he expresses not a feeling of guilt but a desire for sympathy. He realizes that he has lost the favor of the world and heaven, but he does not understand the full implications thereof.

Poe has provided specific hints to explain this loss, and his revisions clarify the ironic relationship between Wilson’s eye for detail and his inability to associate detail with his life’s moral framework, in effect making more explicit the string of clues leading to the substantiation of Wilson’s moral obtuseness. The sensitive reader should recognize the well-laid trail of “evidence.” The morally blind Wilson lived not in a Gothic miasma, but in a world composed of intelligible particulars, and it is interesting to note that Poe’s technique for explicating Wilson’s problem looks forward to his invention of the detective story and his later ratiocinative tales. Brander Matthews observes: “it is not in the mystery itself that the author seeks to interest the reader, but rather in the successive steps whereby his analytical observer is enabled to solve a problem that well might be dismissed as [page 82:] beyond human elucidation.”(12) These successive steps, beyond the elucidation of William Wilson, serve as Poe’s challenge to the reader.


1.  Edgar Allan Poe, “William Wilson,” H.III:300. All quotations from the text are based on this source.

2.  “William Wilson” was also published in The Gift for 1840 and in TGA; however, besides accidental changes, the story was not extensively revised until the BJ version. I have used and have checked R. A. Stewart’s collations which appear in H, and, in doing so, I have received much valuable aid and counsel from Professor Benjamin Franklin Fisher iv.

3.  Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales,” H.X:108-109.

4.  “Style and Meaning in ‘Ligeia’ and ‘William Wilson’,” SSF, 2 (1965), 325. 5. Ibid., p. 324.

6.  Richard Wilbur, “The House of Poe,” R:110.

7.  Other articles containing this observation in regard to Poe’s revisions are: Seymour Gross, “Poes Revisions in ‘The Oval Portrait’,” MLN, 79 (1959), 19; David Sloane and Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Poe s Revisions in ‘Berenice’,” ATQ, 24 (1974), 20; G. R. Thompson, “‘Proper Evidences of Madness’: American Gothic and the Interpretation of ‘Ligeia’,” ESQ,18 (1972), 36. 8. “The Question of Poes Narrators,” CE, 25 (1963), 165.

9.  “Art and Irony in ‘William Wilson’,” in New Approaches to Poe: A Symposium, ed. Richard P. Benton (Hartford, 1970), p. 18.

10.  Thomas F. Walsh, “The Other William Wilson,” ATQ, 10 (1971), 17.

11.  Ibid., p.18.

12.  “Poe and the Detective Story,” Critics on Poe, ed. David Kesterson (Coral Gables, Fla., 1973), p. 63.

Ed. Note. Burton’s is considered “original” here because, given the September-October publication date typical for annuals like The Gift, and the October date for the appearance of Burton’s, one can hardly distinguish which actually first appeared. The differences are so few as to make the texts identical. Just so for “final” as regards BJ. Although “William Wilson” reappeared in the Philadelphia Spirit of the Times in the 5-8 September issue, we have no evidence for Poe’s authorization or revision for this version. Cf. Christie’s remarks above, p. 44 and n. 4.






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