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Of Edgar Allan Poe
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Poe: a Light
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William Wilson
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Settings
Characters
Narration
Plot Summary
Themes
Climax
Mansion as the Mind
Willful William
Figures of Speech
Vocabulary
Allusions
Biographical Information
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Complete Free Text
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Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..© 2010
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Type of Work and Publication Date

.......“William Wilson” is a short story with Gothic overtones. It centers on psychological terror and the possibility of paranormal activity (if the narrator is sane, which he probably is not.). The story first appeared in the October 1839 issue of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine and shortly thereafter in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present, published in 1839 with an 1840 date. 

Settings

.......The action begins in an undisclosed location where the narrator tells his story while he is near death. When the narrator begins his tale, the action flashes back to an English village that Poe modeled after Stoke Newington, north of London, where he attended Manor House School from 1817 to 1820 while living in Britain with John Allan and his wife, Frances. The Allans reared Poe after his mother died. The school in "William Wilson" is based on Manor House School. Other locales in the story are Eton, a town just west of London that is the site of Eton College, a secondary school for adolescent boys; Oxford, a city sixty miles northwest of London that is the site of Oxford University; the continental European cities of Paris, Rome, Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow; the African country of Egypt; and, as the narrator says, "the very ends of the earth." 

Characters

Protagonist: The narrator
Antagonist: The Imagined Rival (Really the Narrator) or a Doppelgänger, a Ghostly Double

Narrator (William Wilson 1): Protagonist, a mentally disturbed man who says he is near death. He has assumed a fictitious name, William Wilson, because his real name is reviled as an object of utmost infamy. He tells a story that began when he was a schoolboy. His purpose is to gain a modicum of sympathy from the reader because, he says, his evil deeds arose from circumstances beyond his control. 
Narrator's Rival (William Wilson 2): Person who closely resembles the narrator physically, has the same birthday as the narrator, and has the same name as the narrator (not the narrator's fictitious name but the narrator's real name). The narrator does not disclose his rival's real name because doing so would reveal his own birth name—which, as mentioned in the above entry, he wishes to keep secret because of the scorn it invites. Consequently, the narrator gives his rival the same fictitious name he gave himself, William Wilson. The rival is apparently a figment of the narrator's diseased imagination. Or, if the reader regards the story as a tale of the paranormal, the rival could be regarded as a doppelgänger, a ghost who is the double of a living person. 
Rev. Dr. Bransby: Principal of the school that the narrator attends and minister of the local church. Poe appears to have based this character on the Rev. John Bransby, who was headmaster of the school Poe attended while living in England as a boy. 
Mr. Preston: Oxford student who hosts a party attended by the narrator and other students.
Glendinning: Oxford student who loses a large sum of money to the narrator in a card game at the party hosted by Mr. Preston. 
Ushers: Supervisors at Dr. Bransby's school who take the narrator and other students on walks.
Parents of the Narrator
Eton Students: Boys who attend a secret party given by the narrator. 
Oxford Students: Young men who attend a party arranged by the narrator and hosted by Mr. Preston.

Narration

.......The protagonist begins the story in the present by describing his temperament and family background, then flashes back to his school days. Because he appears demented, he must be classed as an unreliable narrator. 

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2010

.......The narrator calls himself William Wilson, preferring to keep secret his real name—an object of scorn because of his wickedness. Now that he is dying, he wishes to show that “I have been, in some measure, the slave of circumstances beyond human control.”
.......From his ancestors, he inherited an “imaginative and easily excitable” temperament. As time passed, this temperament grew stronger and stronger, and “ I grew self-willed, addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions.” Efforts by his parents to keep his temperament in check failed. Thereafter, he did as he pleased. 
.......He attended school in a misty English village with shadowy streets, gnarled trees, old houses, and a booming church bell that rang every hour. He remembers fondly his days there in an Elizabethan dwelling surrounded by a brick wall with a gate topped with iron spikes. During the week, the children could not venture beyond the wall. On Saturday, they could walk through the village and nearby fields with two ushers. On Sundays, they were allowed out for morning and evening church services. The pastor of the church, the Reverend Dr. Branby, was the principal of the school. At the church he presented himself as benign. At the school, he was unduly severe, administering discipline with a stick. 
.......In the back of the school was a playground covered with gravel. There were no trees or benches. In front of the school was a garden of shrubs. The school itself was a mansion that enthralled Wilson.
.......“There was really no end to its windings—to its incomprehensible subdivisions,” he recalls. 
.......The long, narrow schoolroom had Gothic windows and an oak ceiling. In a “remote, terror-inspiring angle” of the room was the principal's office, an enclosure with a massive door. In the classroom itself were benches, ancient black desks, and piles of books.
.......The narrator spent five years at the school, from age ten to fifteen. His personality—his “imperious disposition”—was such that he “gained ascendancy” over all the other students around his age except one, a scholar with the same birth name as the narrator. The narrator does not disclose the birth name of this rival; to do so would be to reveal his own birth name. Instead, the narrator refers to him by the same fictitious name he gave himself, William Wilson. Although the narrator worried that this other Wilson was his superior, he concealed his fears. Thus, the other students continued to hold him in high esteem. 
.......Oddly, the narrator's competitor occasionally displayed a certain affection toward his rival.
.......“I could only conceive this singular behaviour to arise from a consummate self-conceit assuming the vulgar air of patronage and protection,” the narrator observes. 
.......There were senior students who believed that the narrator and the other Wilson were brothers, for they shared not only the same name but also the same date when they enrolled in the school. And then there was this: The narrator learned that he and his competitor were born on the same day—January 19, 1813. 
.......Despite the fierce competition between the narrator and his rival, the narrator says he “did not hate him altogether.” But they quarreled often.
.......“[Y]ielding me publicly the palm of victory, he, in some manner, contrived to make me feel that it was he who had deserved it,” the narrator observes.
.......Nevertheless, they generally remained civil toward each other. Although they did not become friends, they did become companions. Consequently, whenever the narrator attacked him in some way, the narrator pretended he was merely joking. But his competitor was not easy to overcome. In fact, he had only one major weakness: Because of a disease or condition, he was unable to speak loudly.
.......In time, Wilson discovered a way to unsettle the narrator. It had to do with their similarities. Not only did they share the same age, they were about the same height and had the same general physical appearance. And, of course, they had the same name. Nothing bothered the narrator more than any allusion to these similarities. For he wished to remain superior to—and entirely separate from—his rival. How the latter discovered this source of great annoyance to the narrator was a mystery. But the rival took advantage of it by imitating the narrator's actions, dress, the way he walked, and so on. He even imitated the narrator's speech, though in a whisper. 
.......The narrator's only consolation was that observers were not aware of his agitation. Why it escaped them he did not know. 
.......Another annoying tactic of the rival was to give the narrator advice on occasion, “not openly given, but hinted or insinuated,” the narrator says. How patronizing it was. However, the narrator admits that the advice was sound. Had he taken it whenever it was given, he might now be a better person. Instead, he always rejected it and, in time, grew more and more to resent his competitor's arrogance. Eventually he began to hate him. The latter, in turn, began to avoid him.
.......One day, in a violent confrontation with him, the narrator noticed that he spoke and acted in a way that was not characteristic of him. In so doing, he awakened in the narrator a faint memory of a time long ago, in his infancy—a confused sensation that he had been acquainted with Wilson. The feeling, or memory, occurred in a flash, then  dissolved. 
.......On an evening shortly after their confrontation, the narrator arose from his bed and, lamp in hand, negotiated a maze of passages that led to Wilson's room. He planned to play a malicious trick on him. But when he gazed at him sleeping in his bed, he was horror-stricken by his countenance. His features were those of his rival, but “I shook as if with a fit of the ague in fancying that they were not,” the narrator recalls. He had the same name, the same looks; he had arrived at the academy the same day. Was what he saw the result of his rival repeated imitation of the narrator? 
.......He immediately left the room—and the school—and never again returned. After several months, he enrolled in another school, Eton, just west of London. There, over three years, he developed morally reprehensible habits. Late one evening, he invited other students of his kind to a night-long party in his chambers. They drank wine and participated in “more dangerous seductions.” At dawn, someone tried to enter the chambers and succeeded only in forcing the door partly open. A voice from the outside, that of a servant, announced that a person was waiting in the hall to speak to the narrator. 
.......When the narrator went into the dim hallway, a man whose face he could not see came up to him and whispered in his ear, “William Wilson!” Then he left.
.......The narrator decided to investigate his rival's background and discovered that he had left Bransby's school on the very day that the narrator ran off. It seems that there had been an accident in his family. The narrator pursued his investigation no further, for he was moving to Oxford to begin his university studies. There, with a generous allotment from his parents, he indulged in all the vices. He gambled wildly to pad his income, taking advantage of fellow classmates. 
.......Two years passed. When a young man named Glendinning entered Oxford—a young man from a wealthy family—the narrator singled him out as an easy mark. He allowed Glendinning to win on several occasions, the better to entice him into a final encounter in which the narrator would gain a windfall in a game of cards. When the day arrived, he met Glendinning in the chambers of another student, Mr. Preston, who was unaware of the narrator's scheme. Many other students were also there to gamble.
.......As the evening progressed, the narrator played in such a way that eventually only he and Glendinning remained at their table. The game was ecarté, in which thirty-two cards were used and discards were allowed. The narrator saw to it that his opponent received generous servings of wine. After Glendinning lost large amounts of money, he asked to double the stakes. 
.......“With a well-feigned show of reluctance, and not until after my repeated refusal had seduced him into some angry words which gave a colour of pique to my compliance, did I finally comply,” the narrator says.
.......Glendinning continued to lose heavily. He grew pale. It appeared that he was ruined. The observers, in a show of pity for the fellow, cast disapproving glances at the narrator. Suddenly the wide doors of the apartment were thrown open with such force that all the candles in the room went out. 
.......The intruder, in a whispering voice that the narrator well recognized, told the observers that they would understand “the true character" of the narrator if they examined his pockets and the linings of the cuff of his left sleeve. The intruder left. The narrator was mortified. In a moment, the others found cards up his sleeve and in his pockets. The host then told him to leave the apartment—and Oxford—and handed him his cloak. But the narrator already had his cloak on his arm. The one handed to him was a duplicate, like the narrator's in every detail. The narrator remembers that the intruder was wearing this same cloak when he came in. But he accepted it anyway, throwing it over the other one on his arm. The others did not notice that he now had two. 
.......Before dawn the next day, he left Oxford for continental Europe, horrified and humiliated.
.......However, his mysterious rival sabotaged the narrator's activities wherever he went. He “thwarted my ambition at Rome, my revenge at Paris, my passionate love at Naples, or what he falsely termed my avarice in Egypt,” the narrator says. 
.......To the ends of the earth the narrator went, trying to escape this accursed man. Who was he? Where did he come from? What was he up to? In carrying out his campaign against the narrator, he never showed his face.
.......Frustrated, the narrator turned to wine. The more he drank, the more impatient he became with his tormentor. He decided to fight back. 
.......During a carnival in Rome, the narrator attended a masquerade at the palace of the Duke di Broglio of Naples. After drinking to excess, he forced his way through the crowd of masqueraders to find the young and beautiful wife of the aging duke. She had previously confided to the narrator the disguise she would be wearing. After spotting her, he felt a hand on his shoulder and heard the whisper of his rival's voice. The narrator turned around and seized him by his collar. The other Wilson was wearing a costume identical to the narrator's: a blue velvet Spanish cloak, a black mask, and a crimson belt from which hung a rapier. The narrator vilified him, calling him a scoundrel, an impostor, a villain. Then he dragged him away from the crowd and into an empty room. There, they fought with swords. In the end, the narrator ran him through in the chest, again and again. 
.......At that moment, someone turned the latch of the door. After the narrator quickly acted to prevent entry, he noticed a large mirror at the far end of the room. It had not been there before—or so he thought. When he walked toward it, what he saw in it terrified him: a pale and bloody image of himself advancing feebly. His rival! He was an exact likeness of the narrator. In a strong voice, 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." 

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Themes

The Enemy Within

.......All of us act against our own best interests from time to time. We do so through overeating, drinking to excess, workaholism, procrastination, habitual tardiness at work, or other activities. Sometimes an out-of-control inner demon causes us to suffer panic attacks, depression, or insomnia or to develop a fear of flying or public speaking. Not infrequently, the more we try to banish the demon and the symptoms he causes, the more diabolical he becomes and the more intense the symptoms. The narrator of “William Wilson” is an extreme case (if one assumes that he is the victim of mental illness and not a paranormal phenomenon). He sees and hears his demon as if it were a real person. In his struggle against the demon, he struggles against himself and loses by winning. Poe well understood that the human mind can turn against itself; he well understood that a crippling debility can result from a force within—a whispering voice that tricks and confounds. It turns the person into his own worst enemy.

Terror

.......Struggling against an imagined enemy—or a doppelgänger or wraith—the narrator first tries to undo his foe in various competitions. But when the enemy fails to succumb to his schemes, the narrator suffers extreme terror. To escape his foe, the narrator moves from city to city. However, his walking nightmare is always only a few steps behind him. 

Climax

.......The climax of a literary work such as a short story or a novel can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of "William Wilson" occurs, according to the first definition, when the narrator is revealed as a cheat at the card game. This development forces the narrator to leave Oxford and move from country to country to try to escape his rival. According to the second definition, the climax occurs when the narrator repeatedly plunges his sword into his rival and discovers that he has wounded himself. 

The Mansion as the Narrator's Mind

.......The human brain contains membranes, blood vessels, nerve cells, and complex networks of nerve fibers that carry messages. The mansion in which the narrator attends school appears to represent the narrator's brain—a brain that, apparently because of a mental debility, confuses and disorients him. Consider the following passage from the story:

But the house!—how quaint an old building was this!—to me how veritably a place 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 innumerable—inconceivable—and 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. 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 other scholars.
Perhaps the most intriguing sentence in the passage is the third one, referring to the two stories. Perhaps Poe intended them to represent the narrator and the rival whom he sees and hears. Or they could represent the conscious mind (which may choose a certain course of action) and the subconscious mind (which may oppose a course of action chosen by the conscious mind). Finally, they could be representations of multiple personality disorder (formerly called split personality) in which two or more personalities vie for control of the mind. If the narrator has two personalities, each of which alternately gains control, he at times becomes the rival chasing the narrator and at other times becomes the narrator fleeing the rival. He makes this possibility seem plausible by first reporting that Dr. Bransby, who serves as both principal of the school and pastor of the church, also exhibits symptoms of this disorder:
Of this church the principal of our school was pastor. With 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, with robes so glossy and so clerically flowing, with wig so minutely powdered, so rigid and so vast,—could this be he who, of late, with sour visage, and in snuffy habiliments, administered, ferule in hand, the Draconian laws of the academy? Oh, gigantic paradox, too utterly monstrous for solution!
Willful William

.......The narrator says he was a willful child who always got his way:

I grew self-willed, addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions. Weak-minded, and beset with constitutional infirmities akin to my own, my parents could do but little to check the evil propensities which distinguished me. Some feeble and ill-directed efforts resulted in complete failure on their part, and, of course, in total triumph on mine. Thenceforward my voice was a household law; and at an age when few children have abandoned their leading-strings, I was left to the guidance of my own will, and became, in all but name, the master of my own actions.
.......But one day, he met another boy with a strong will of his own, and they became rivals. Oddly, they shared the same first name and last name, but the narrator does not disclose this appelation; instead, he calls himself and his rival by the same fictitious name, William Wilson. Notice that will appears in William and wil in Wilson. The name thus represents, in a play on words, the central conflict in this story: the war of wills. Because the second Wilson is apparently a figment of the narrator's diseased imagination, the conflict develops in the mind of the narrator, who could have a split personality (or, in modern terms, multiple personality disorder). However, if the reader regards the story as a tale of the paranormal, the rival could be regarded as a doppelgänger, a ghost who is the double of a living person. The conflict then would be between the narrator and his ghostly double. 

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the story.

Alliteration: the follies of youth and unbridled fancy 
Alliteration: closely muffled in a cloak
Anaphora: who would be the cause of its two-fold repetition, who would be constantly in my presence
Anaphora: The same name! The same contour of person! The same of arrival at the academy! 
Hyperbole: There was really no end to its [the mansion's] windingsto its incomprehensible subdivisions.
Metaphor: stole through a wilderness of narrow passages from my own bedroom to that of my rival (Comparison of the network of passages to a wilderness)
Paradox: The protagonist is his own antagonist. 
Personification: a time when memory herself was yet unborn (Comparison of memory to a person)

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Vocabulary, Allusions

Dominie: Lord, master.
Draconian: Severe, rigid in legal and disciplinary matters. The adjective derives from the name of the ancient Greek statesman Draco (seventh century BC), who promulgated a harsh code of laws.
Elah-Gabalus: Elagabulus (AD 205?-222), a Roman emperor who reigned from 218 to 222).
Eton: Prestigious school that England's King Henry VI founded in 1440 as the King's College of Our Lady of Eton Beside Windsor, providing scholarships for deserving boys who enrolled.
exergues of Carthaginian medals: Inscriptions on medals from Carthage, an ancient city-state in North Africa.
ferule: Rod used by teachers to punish children. 
habiliments: Clothes, attire.
heel of Achilles: The only vulnerable spot on the body of Achilles, the greatest warrior in the Trojan War, between Greece and Troy.
Herodes Atticus: Greek teacher from a family of extraordinary wealth.
kerseymere morning frock: Frock (sleeved, loose-fitting garment for the upper body) made of wool woven with diagonal parallel lines. 
lustrum: Period of five years.
Neapolitan: Of Naples, Italy; in the manner of Naples. Examples: a Neapolitan song, a Neapolitan recipe.
Oh, le bon temps, que ce siecle de fer!': Line from a short 1736 poem, "Le Mondain" ("The Man of the World"), by Voltaire (1694-1778). Here is a translation: Oh, the happy days in this century of iron. In this poem, Voltaire rebukes those who yearn for a golden age of long ago, when Roman gods held sway, and expresses his enthusiastic approval of the age in which he lived.
outré: Strange, bizarre, unconventional.
parvenu: Person of wealth without social status; person who has come into a fortune but lacks a noble family background. 
peine forte et dure: French for a torture method. The words mean strong and harsh pain or punishment. If a person accused of a crime refused to enter a plea before a court, he was subjected pein forte et dure, in which heavy stones were placed on his chest, one after another, until he entered a plea or suffocated. 
phantasmagoric: Bizarre or rapidly changing, like images in a dream; fantastic, surrealistic.
Plebeian praenomen: Common, ordinary first name, such as Tom, Harry, or Paul.
sanctum: Private study or special room in which the occupant is not to be disturbed. 

Author Information

.......Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849. 
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Study Questions and Essay Topics
 

  • Writers of short stories, novels, and film scripts frequently focus on seemingly impossible events. For example, films such as Jurassic Park, Spiderman, and the War of the Worlds all center on farfetched storylines. Yet hundreds of millions of people see these films–no doubt because they all have a modicum of plausibility. What is plausibility? What makes a film or a literary work plausible even though its subject matter seems beyond belief? Is "William Wilson" plausible? Explain your answer.
  • Write an essay arguing that "William Wilson" is about a man who suffers from a mental debility, such as multiple personality disorder (split personality).
  • Write an essay arguing that "William Wilson" is about a sane man who becomes the victim of paranormal activity. Include in your essay a discussion of the terms doppelgänger and wraith.
  • Write an essay that discusses the extent to which Poe based "William Wilson" on his own experiences.
  • Do you have an inner demon that is difficult to control? 
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