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
Rivals and Doppelgangers Quotes in Poe's Stories
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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!"
“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."
The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.
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.