Poe's Stories

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Rivals and Doppelgangers Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Rivals and Doppelgangers Theme Icon
The Dead and the Living Theme Icon
The Gothic Style Theme Icon
Self, Solitude, and Consciousness Theme Icon
The Power of Memory Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Poe's Stories, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Rivals and Doppelgangers Theme Icon

In his stories, Poe creates a narrator faced with some kind of antagonistic person or force—a rival—that propels the plot of the story. In M.S. Found in a Bottle, the antagonist is both the supernatural weather and the strange breed of men on the ship. In The Black Cat, the rival takes the form of a cat, which seems to have a sixth sense for the narrator’s anxiety. Often the source of the rivalry is a mystery, as in The Cask of Amontillado, where the narrator explains that a man called Fortunato has wronged him and expresses his desire for revenge without ever explaining the nature of the original wronging. And then the punishment he exacts on Fortunato is so extreme, that it suggests that perhaps the act tells more about how unhinged the narrator is—or how unhinged his sense of rivalry has made him—than it tells about the criminality of Fortunato. In fact, sometimes the rivalry is free of offense entirely. In the case of The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator simply can't stand the old man’s vulture eye. Otherwise, the old man seems to be entirely innocent. The narrator's hatred is built up based on almost nothing. And yet it exists, and overwhelms him.

Poe’s use of rivalry does not always exist between a man and some external person or force. Sometimes the rivalry is the self against the self. A doppelganger is a German term for a figure, often paranormal, that seems to be the exact double of someone else. It is a phenomenon explored in several of Poe’s stories, including Ligeia’s doubling of the Lady of Tremaine and the cat in The Black Cat which seems almost to be the reincarnated in a ghostly form. But sometimes these doppelgangers suggest a condition more complicated than a case of paranormal doubleness. Sometimes the doppelganger is so similar to the teller of the story that it seems to indicate that the narrator is suffering from some kind of split personality or other mental disorder. Psychological insecurity brings about some of the most frightening moments in Poe's stories, and turns the stories on their heads: everything that seemed to be caused by some paranormal force suddenly seems like it might actually be rooted in the mind.

Rivals and Doppelgangers ThemeTracker

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Rivals and Doppelgangers Quotes in Poe's Stories

Below you will find the important quotes in Poe's Stories related to the theme of Rivals and Doppelgangers.
Manuscript Found in a Bottle Quotes

The crew glide to and fro like the ghosts of buried centuries; their eyes have an eager and uneasy meaning; and when their fingers fall athwart my path in the wild glare of the battle-lanterns, I feel as I have never felt before, although I have been all my life a dealer in antiquities, and have imbibed the shadows of Allan columns at Balbec, and Tadmor, and Persepolis, until my very soul has become a ruin.

Related Characters: Narrator (M.S. Found in a Bottle) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator of the story meets the crew of his new ship. The crew members are gaunt and intimidating--almost like ghosts. It's also in this passage that we learn that the narrator is a collector of antiques--in other words, the relics of bygone centuries, once owned by people who are now dead. He also describes his own soul as a "ruin," making an important connection between the aging, frightening settings of the Gothic and the psychologies of Poe's characters.

The passage is important because it establishes the macabre mood of the story (and the entire book) by blurring the line between the past and the present. Although the narrator is trying to focus on the here and now, he has a strange sense of being "pulled" into the supernatural; i.e., the world of the dead. Poe will repeat such a dynamic many times in his stories: a lonely, rational narrator will be swallowed up by the sheer bulk of the Gothic world of sinister settings, ghosts, and monsters.

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All in the immediate vicinity of the ship is the blackness of eternal night, and a chaos of foamless water; but, about a league on either side of us, may be seen, indistinctly and at intervals, stupendous ramparts of ice, towering away into the desolate sky, and looking like the walls of the universe.

Related Characters: Narrator (M.S. Found in a Bottle) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Architecture
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Poe gives us a flavor of his hidden impulses and desires--in other words, what he personally finds frightening. In the story, the narrator is aboard a ship that's slowly being sucked into a whirlpool. And yet all around the ship are huge columns of ice.

It's important to notice the claustrophobia of this scene. Even though the narrator is sailing on the ocean--i.e., a completely open place--he has the strong sense of being boxed in by these massive walls of ice. Confronted by the horror of compression and enclosure, death--or being sucked down by the whirlpool--is almost a relief. (In real life, Poe was terrified of being buried alive, and wrote dozens of stories on the topic. This story is an early sign of Poe's claustrophobia.)

The description of the icy walls is also a good example of the kind of Gothic "architecture" that haunts Poe's stories. Even when nothing directly supernatural or horrifying is happening, the setting itself usually suggests something sinister or beyond human comprehension. These icy columns are reminiscent of the Romantic idea of the "sublime" (an experience, usually in nature, of terror and awe at the vastness of existence), and were perhaps inspirational for the setting of Mary Shelley's classic work of horror and the Romantic: Frankenstein

Ligeia Quotes

They were, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race. They were even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad. Yet it was only at intervals – in moments of intense excitement – that this peculiarity became more than slightly noticeable in Ligeia.

Related Characters: Narrator (Ligeia) (speaker), Ligeia
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

In this story, we're introduced to a narrator who's peculiarly obsessed with his bride, Ligeia. Ligeia's eyes are the very embodiment of the uncanny. Traditionally, the eyes are the most human, recognizable thing about a person--they're the "window to the soul," after all. Ligeia's eyes, however, aren't comforting or humanizing at all. On the contrary, they seem alien and bizarre. Thus, Ligeia's eyes are both familiar and disturbingly unfamiliar--in short, they're uncanny.

Ligeia's eyes are an important symbol in the story, because they suggest a strange combination of attraction and repulsion. Much like the whirlpool in the previous story, Ligeia's eyes are both seductive and terrifying to the narrator; they hypnotize him, even as he fears for his life. The narrator's simultaneous attraction and repulsion mirror that of the reader--we're frightened of reading any further, and yet we can't help but read on.

The night waned; and still, with a bosom full of bitter thoughts of the one only and supremely beloved, I remained gazing upon the body of Rowena.

Related Characters: Narrator (Ligeia) (speaker), Lady Rowena of Tremaine
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator of the short story has remarried after the tragic death of his wife, Ligeia. The narrator's new wife, Rowena, has fallen seriously ill. Late at night, the narrator keeps watch over Rowena. As he watches, the narrator can only think of Ligeia--dead, yet still very much alive in his mind.

As we gradually realize, however, Rowena seems to be transforming into Ligeia. Poe creates the illusion that the phenomenon is something supernatural and horrifying, but also that it's the narrator's own obsession with Ligeia that brings her back to life. The real victim here, of course, is Rowena, who seems to be no more than the empty vessel into which the narrator pours his obsession with Ligeia. Rowena is only a replacement for Ligeia--and here, with the narrator clearly hungering for his dead wife's return, Rowena herself seems "melt away."

William Wilson Quotes

Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation. This has been already too much an object for the scorn – for the horror – for the detestation of my race.

Related Characters: William Wilson (speaker)
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Poe introduces us to William Wilson--a man who's taken on his current, fake name because his real name has become associated with too much scandal and evil. Right away, Poe creates a mood of suspense and excitement--we want to know what, exactly, Wilson did that was so awful. The story also reveals itself to be another "retelling" from memory, as many of the stories in this collection are--and so Wilson is immediately made somewhat unreliable in that he's telling his own story, and may be misremembering or falsifying information.

We should note that William Wilson is the first named narrator in Poe's collection of short stories. And yet the name "William Wilson" is obviously fake--in other words, the fact that we've got the narrator's name doesn't mean that we know anything more about him than we did about the unnamed narrators in the previous stories. And just like the other narrators in the book, William Wilson is an unlikely everyman--even if we can't relate to all of his experiences, we're meant to identify with his point of view, and his horror becomes our own.

A large mirror, – so at first it seemed to me in my confusion – now 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 and tottering gait.

Related Characters: William Wilson (speaker)
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

In the finale of "William Wilson," Wilson realizes that he's killed himself. Wilson has spent his entire life fighting with a mysterious doppelgänger (double of himself), who undermines everything that Wilson tries to do. At the end of Wilson's life, however, the truth becomes clear: Wilson's doppelgänger isn't another person; it's Wilson himself.

To appreciate the full power of the story, one shouldn't take the ending too literally. One could say for example, that Wilson is schizophrenic, or that he has some other mental disorder that's caused him to hallucinate another person who looks and sounds just like him. But the more powerful and symbolic interpretation of the story is that William Wilson--as his bland, everyman name would suggest--represents the dual nature of all human beings. Like the titular characters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all people have a good side and a bad side. William Wilson has fought a constant war with his own soul and conscience, and in the end, he's the first and only casualty of that war.

The Murders in the Rue-Morgue Quotes

The modes and sources of this kind of error are well typified in the contemplation of the heavenly bodies. To look at a star by glances -- to view it in a side-long way, by turning toward it the exterior portions of the retina (more susceptible of feeble impressions of light than the interior), is to behold the star distinctly -- is to have the best appreciation of its lustre -- a lustre which grows dim just in proportion as we turn our vision fully upon it.

Related Characters: Narrator (The Murders in the Rue Morgue; The Purloined Letter) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 252
Explanation and Analysis:

In this symbolic passage, the narrator makes an interesting analogy for understanding the world. The best way to understand a star in the night sky isn't to look at it directly. Indeed, when staring directly at a star, the star's light is dimmer. The best way to truly observe the star is to look just to the side of the star, allowing the greatest amount of light to enter the eyes.

The narrator's description of the stars is a clever metaphor for the way that Dupin goes about solving crimes, and perhaps for the way that Poe understands the universe. Total rationality (looking directly at the stars) simply isn't enough. Rather, the greatest insights can be achieved through intuition and free imagination (look to the side of a star). Dupin solves his cases by allowing his imagination and intuition to interact with his conscious mind. By the same token, Poe's stories are so evocative and memorable because they're full of events that have no rational explanation--i.e., they can only be understood if one surrenders some rationality in favor of imagination and emotion.

The Tell-Tale Heart Quotes

I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture.

Related Characters: Narrator (The Tell-Tale Heart) (speaker), The Old Man
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator of the story tries to explain why he killed an old man. The narrator's explanation is that he didn't like the man's eye--which, according to the narrator, resembles the eye of a vulture.

For Poe, the eye is the ultimate symbol of man's irrationality and unpredictability. The eyes are the window to the soul, and thus for the narrator to be repelled by an eye is for him to be frightened by an inexplicable, irrational fear of another person's soul. Put another way, there is no rational motive for the narrator's act of murder--as he makes very clear, he doesn't kill the old man because he hates him, or to get his gold. As with so many of the bizarre and frightening things in Poe's stories, there is no real reason for them to happen; and yet they happen all the same, making them all the more uncanny.

And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense? – now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man's heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.

Related Characters: Narrator (The Tell-Tale Heart) (speaker)
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator of the story has now murdered the old man and buried his body underneath the floorboards. As he sits in the old man's room, talking to the police, he begins to hear a strange ticking sound--a sound which he believes to be the beating of the old man's heart.

As we can guess, there is probably no actual heartbeat in the room. One could argue that the narrator, full of repressed guilt for his actions, has projected the sound of the heartbeat, undermining his own carefully planned murder. It's also possible that Poe intends the heartbeat to be a supernatural event--the old man is haunting his murderer from the grave, forcing him to divulge his secret to the police. In either case, though, the narrator's greatest enemy is his own irrational mind and his "over-acute" senses. Try as he might to get away with a crime, the narrator's own fear and anxiety destroy his chances of getting off scot-free.

The Pit and the Pendulum Quotes

Looking upwards I surveyed the ceiling of my prison. […] In one of its panels a very singular figure riveted my whole attention. It was the painted figure of Time as he is commonly represented, save that, in lieu of a scythe, he held what, at a casual glance, I supposed to be the pictured image of a huge pendulum, such as we see on antique clocks.

Related Characters: Narrator (The Pit and the Pendulum) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Architecture
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator becomes aware of his torture. In a dungeon, there is a painting of the figure of Time, carrying a large pendulum that resembles a scythe (a symbol of how Time must "reap" the human race via death). Although the narrator doesn't realize it right away, the painting of Time--and the very real, very sharp pendulum that he's carrying--will be the narrator's next form of torture. The pendulum is a symbol of the inevitability of death--just as time brings all human beings closer and closer to death, the pendulum threatens to kill the narrator, who is trapped in his Gothic torture-chamber, with increasingly terrifying force.

The Black Cat Quotes

I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket! I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity.

Related Characters: Narrator (The Black Cat) (speaker), The Black Cat (speaker)
Related Symbols: Eyes
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator of the story tortures his own cat by gouging out one of its eyes with his knife. What's interesting to notice in this passage is that the narrator seems both remorseful and remorseless as he describes how he tortured his pet. On one hand, the narrator describes the cat as a "poor beast," and claims that he shudders as he writes about his own actions. On the other hand, the narrator seems to have hurt his cat without any real remorse at the time-it's only later that he begins to regret his actions.

In short, the narrator is a deeply divided person--simultaneously good and evil, attracted and repelled by crime. In Poe's stories, the narrators' greatest enemies are themselves--they're trapped by their own divided natures, and can't commit a crime without later being wracked by their own self-hatred.

The Purloined Letter Quotes

"Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault," said my friend.

"What nonsense you do talk!" replied the Prefect, laughing heartily.

"Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain," said Dupin.

"Oh, good heavens! who ever heard of such an idea?"

"A little too self-evident."

"Ha! ha! ha! – ha! ha! ha! --ho! ho! ho!" – roared our visitor, profoundly amused, "oh, Dupin, you will be the death of me yet!"

Page Number: 328
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Detective Dupin prepares to listen to the Prefect's description of a police case, one which the Prefect has been unable to solve. Dupin's first reaction is that the simplest explanation is the best--without ever having heard the case, Dupin's instinct is to seek simplicity, not a complex, elaborate explanation for the truth (essentially the concept of Occam's Razor--that the simplest explanation is the likeliest).

As we'll soon see, Dupin's emphasis on simplicity is exactly right--the solution to the mystery of the purloined letter is so incredibly obvious that the Prefect couldn't conceive of it. The passage could be interpreted as Poe's criticism of the overemphasis on reason and science in his society. The Prefect, representing the ways of science and rationality, believes that every mystery has a solution, but also seems to think that complex mysteries must by necessity have complex solutions. Dupin takes a different approach to the truth, favoring a loose, intuitive style of detection (he guesses the solution to the mystery before he's even heard the mystery). In the end, it's Dupin's style (and, perhaps, Poe's similarly loose, intuitive creative style) that prevails.

“All fools are poets; this the Prefect feels; and he is merely guilty of a non distributio medii in thence inferring that all poets are fools."

Page Number: 338
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Detective Dupin quarrels with the Prefect over the solution to the mystery described in the story. The Prefect believes that the Minister--the man whom the Prefect suspects of blackmail--is a poet; i.e., he is a creative, nontraditional thinker. The Prefect--a man of science and rationality--naturally dismisses the Minister, claiming that the Minister must also be a fool.

Dupin cites an old rule of logic: the fact that all fools are poets doesn't necessarily prove that all poets are fools (there could be some poets who aren't). Dupin himself claims to be a poet--i.e., he solves mysteries by using his intuition and imagination, not just his analysis of the facts.

Dupin is being intentionally coy and esoteric here, but he's still making a serious point. Dupin suggests that logic and reason by themselves aren't enough to solve every mystery in the universe. While too much intuition and imagination (i.e., too much poetry) are toxic to solving a problem, a little poetry, mixed with a little rationality, form a powerful combination. Dupin himself embodies the mixture of poetry and rationality necessary to solve a difficult case. He's clearly an intelligent man (hence his citing of logical fallacies in the passage) but he's also eccentric enough to think outside the box and solve cases that baffle the Prefect himself.

The Masque of the Red Death Quotes

The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.

Related Characters: Prince Prospero
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

In this story, a haughty prince, Prospero, holds a grand party in his palace. At the party, the guests try to distract themselves from the realities of their kingdom: all around them, there's a horrible disease called the Red Death, which is killing off many innocent people. The Prince and his guests believe that their joy, wealth, and imagination will protect them from the disease.

Poe is clearly critical of Prospero's ignorance and arrogance with regard to the Red Death. Instead of accepting the reality of the horrible disease, or trying to do something about it, Prospero turns his back on the Red Death altogether. Some critics have suggested that Prospero is Poe's caricature of his literary contemporaries, authors who, unlike Poe himself, ignored the horror and banality of life and tried to focus too excessively on aesthetics or fantasy. (As the story suggests, there was a class element in Poe's critique of his contemporaries: Poe was the first American author to support himself entirely through writing, and seemed to have resented his wealthier peers.) Where other writers try to forget how dangerous and horrifying the world really is, Poe uses literature to address to world's horrors head-on.

The Cask of Amontillado Quotes

I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

Related Characters: Narrator (The Cask of Amontillado) (speaker), Fortunato
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final story in the book, a narrator prepares to enact his revenge upon Fortunato. The narrator is obsessed with obtaining revenge upon those who humiliate him in some way (though we're never told how, exactly, Fortunato humiliated the narrator, making us wonder if the narrator is just a sadist or a madman). And yet the narrator also makes it clear that he doesn't want revenge to "overtake" him--he just wants to get even with Fortunato and then move on with his life. At the same time, he wants Fortunato to thoroughly realize that the narrator is taking revenge on him--no accidents or sudden deaths.

Revenge, in short, is a kind of balance between becoming too obsessed with getting even, and not being obsessed enough. It's odd that the narrator describes revenge as a form of moderation, since there's absolutely nothing moderate about the revenge that the narrator enacts upon Fortunato (he buries the poor guy alive).