Poe Study Guides
Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..©
of Work and Publication Date
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
Gift: A Christmas and New Year's Present, published in 1839 with an
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."
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
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
Mr. Preston: Oxford
student who hosts a party attended by the narrator and other students.
student who loses a large sum of money to the narrator in a card game at
the party hosted by Mr. Preston.
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.
Young men who attend a party arranged by the narrator and hosted by Mr.
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.
Michael J. Cummings...©
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.”
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.
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.
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.
was really no end to its windings—to its incomprehensible subdivisions,”
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.
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.
the narrator's competitor occasionally displayed a certain affection toward
could only conceive this singular behaviour to arise from a consummate
self-conceit assuming the vulgar air of patronage and protection,” the
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,
the fierce competition between the narrator and his rival, the narrator
says he “did not hate him altogether.” But they quarreled often.
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.
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
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.
narrator's only consolation was that observers were not aware of his agitation.
Why it escaped them he did not know.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
dawn the next day, he left Oxford for continental Europe, horrified and
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
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.
the narrator turned to wine. The more he drank, the more impatient he became
with his tormentor. He decided to fight back.
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.
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:
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
The Enemy Within
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.
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 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.
Mansion as the Narrator's Mind
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!
narrator says he was a willful child who always got his way:
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
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
are examples of figures of speech in the story.
of youth and unbridled
muffled in a cloak
would be the cause of its two-fold repetition, who
would be constantly in my presence
same name! The same contour
of person! The same of arrival at the
was really no end to its [the mansion's] windings—to its incomprehensible
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.
time when memory herself was yet unborn (Comparison of memory to a
Dominie: Lord, master.
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.
(AD 205?-222), a Roman emperor who reigned from 218 to 222).
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.
heel of Achilles:
The only vulnerable spot on the body of Achilles, the greatest warrior
in the Trojan War, between Greece and Troy.
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
Neapolitan: Of Naples,
Italy; in the manner of Naples. Examples: a Neapolitan song, a Neapolitan
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.
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
or rapidly changing, like images in a dream; fantastic, surrealistic.
Common, ordinary first name, such as Tom, Harry, or Paul.
study or special room in which the occupant is not to be disturbed.
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.
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
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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