The narrator introduces himself to the reader, asking us to use the name William Wilson instead of his real name, which cannot be uttered because it's too heinous. The man connected with this name is an outcast from the world. The narrator asks whether there will always be such a dark cloud barring him from heaven. He says that it is the latter years of his life that turned to disaster. Most men turn rotten gradually, but for him it happened all at once. The event that provoked such a fall is about to be related to us, he assures, because he is approaching death.
In typical form, Poe begins his tale by showing us a tantalizing glimpse of the man that the narrator will turn into over the course of the story. Here, we know from the outset that the narrator will end up in this tragic, wasted state and this image looms over our reading of what follows. He also starts this story about a doubled identity more complicated by explaining that the name he is giving is not his real name, making it unclear who he really is.
William wishes that people would pity him. If no man has ever been tempted so awfully, and fallen so far, then surely no man has suffered as much as he has. He is surely dying within a nightmare. He goes back to the beginning, to his antecedents, who all had a tendency for imaginative and extraordinary lives. William declares himself typical of this family. As he grew, the willful temper became more established in him. He showed evil tendencies that his parents, being of the same breed, could do little to quash, and William soon becomes the master of his household.
William opens up about his temperament and his family origins, which should invoke our sympathies but it has an opposite effect. His appeal for sympathy sounds a lot like bargaining. And his confession that he has inherited an imaginative, active temper warns us to be weary of his story. The fact that William can dominate his parents as a young child foretells future trouble.
William recalls his school, in a misty, Gothic village with shadowy avenues and a haunting church bell. He recalls the place with pleasure, but then says it's ridiculous for one so evil to take relief in memories. But because these memories are of such an important time in his development, William decides to indulge.
Even William’s most beloved childhood memories are made suspicious and tainted with the Gothic atmosphere that now haunts his thoughts and the guilt that follows him around as a condemned man.
The school house was surrounded by a thick wall. The children were permitted beyond the wall on Saturday and Sunday, when they paraded to church. Young William watches with wonder each time the reverend, who is also the principal of the school, steps up to the pulpit and assumes such a figure of authority. The wall of the school was broken only by an impressive gate and its grounds were extensive and comprised of various nooks. The house itself is similarly winding and large, full of quaint crannies and illogical stories, so that one never felt quite at home. The school room was the largest room in the house and held several enclosures used by the principal and other fellows.
Poe creates the architecture of William’s world so that it mirrors the eccentricity and disturbing nature of the events that take place inside. Its winding, uneven and untraditional spaces form dark corners and secret places, adding to the Gothic mood that hangs over William’s childhood.
This is where William spent his youth. His youth, he says, didn’t need grand events. Even the monotony of his childhood’s days were more impressive than the crimes and passions of his later eras. He calls himself unusual, in that he remembers vividly even though there is little to remember. The emotions and sensations caused by those tedious daily events have stamped an eternal mark on William’s mind.
The vibrancy of William’s childhood goes beyond the ordinary vibrancy of childhood memories, because William’s childhood stands in stark contrast to his adulthood, which we are told is hellish but is craftily kept a mystery by Poe.
William’s energetic character sets him apart from his school mates and he finds himself able to dominate the playground, with the exception of one boy, who coincidentally has the same first and last name as our narrator. Because this original name is so hateful to him, William’s rival will also be known as William Wilson. This rival rebels from William’s followers and competes with him in everything he does.
William’s identity becomes more confused when we are introduced to this double character who, having the same name as William (though William of course has already explained that William Wilson is not his real name) must also be known by the alias William Wilson. The levels of remove from the man telling the story are many at this point, completely blurring the identity of the characters. It's as if William not only has a double in the other boy, but is now a double of himself.
Outwardly, William treats this rebellion with bravado, but he is scared of it, fearing that the ease with which his rival equals him signifies the other boy's superiority. Strangely, none of his other friends seem to notice the rivalry. It is almost a private game, and the rival’s efforts mirror William’s so precisely that it seems to be his sole purpose to embarrass him. Sometimes, an affectionate side to the battle can be detected, and William puts this down to a certain protectiveness and almost narcissism of a doppelganger.
The fact that none of the other children notice the rivalry between William and his double shows how intimately the rivalry is connected to his own mental state. That no one else notices the rivalry suggests that the rivalry might only exist in William's own mind; or it might even suggest that the double himself only exists in William's mind.
The narrator reveals that he shares so many details of life with the other William that some schoolmates, even older boys, talked about them, and gossiped that they were brothers. They were even born on exactly the same day. But despite the trouble that his doppelganger causes him, William has some kind of affection for him. They have daily fights in the school yard, but they always manage to remain on speaking terms. The narrator can’t quite figure out how he feels: sometimes respect, sometimes hatred, sometimes fondness. But whatever it is, they are inseparable.
As the number of identical details and coincidences grows, the character of the second William becomes less clear and the spotlight turns to William’s imagination as the possible cause of such an implausible doppelganger, especially when he mentions their inseparable relationship. Theirs is a more personal rivalry than one would expect from a pair of children, and the mix of hatred and love that they share shows that they are more closely connected than rivals.
This troublesome relationship is the focus of William’s antics and the outlet of his wits. He plays practical jokes on his double that are sometimes violent. But William’s ploys have limited success in taunting his rival, who, it seems, has no weak spot. But there is one thing that causes the other William embarrassment: he cannot speak louder than a whisper.
William’s double is the only figure to cause William to doubt his superiority, but the other boy seems more a shadow than a real person. This shadow-ness is further enhanced by the whisper that the other boy speaks in, and again that whisper suggests perhaps that the boy only exists in William's mind.
William’s double has also found William's weakness, though how the other boy discovered it is beyond William, because he sees it as a small, petty thing. William is embarrassed about his common last name. The fact that the other William shares it makes him even angrier, and whenever they are confused for each other, or he hears the name repeated, his anger grows. As the rivalry grows more and more severe, it becomes obvious how physically identical the boys are too.
William’s embarrassment for his common surname shows an egotistical attitude – he wants to be the unique and special. Note how the rivalry seems to make the other boy more real, more similar. The rivalry, in some ways, seems to be what makes the other boy exist.
William is worried that the older boys at school are talking about this relationship between the two boys, but there is no evidence to suggest they have noticed anything. It is obvious that the second William has noticed their similarity too; William can tell because of how he uses it against him. The other William's favorite trick is to do an imitation of William, mimicking perfectly his dress, mannerisms, and, apart from the volume, his tone of voice. This imitation tortures William. The only consolation is that no one else seems to have noticed it. His double seems to really enjoy the effect he’s having. William does not understand why everyone else is ignoring what’s going on. Maybe, he thinks, it's because the imitation is so focused at him that it escapes others’ notice.
The doubleness of the two Williams becomes increasingly complicated. Not only do they share identical physical features, birthdays, and a host of other coincidental details, but their personalities now become almost identical when William’s rival starts mimicking him. Considering their already perfect symmetry, this new hobby must make it impossible to tell the boys apart. We as readers are stuck in the narrator’s perspective, though, making it seem like the rivals are in their own little world, so we don’t really get a clue as to how they appear to their classmates (who don't even seem to notice the other boy's antics).
Another thing William hates is the way his double talks down to him, offering condescending advice, although he admits that the advice is not immature or misguided, and he knows that if he had followed some of it, he might be a happier man today. But as a boy this counsel infuriates him and the doppelganger’s arrogance makes their rivalry become more and more bitter. The narrator had thought that their rivalry was akin to friendship in a way, but now it is all hatred.
William’s double annoys him with advice but William knows that he should be listening to it. Some of William’s anger comes from the fact that his double might actually have a kind of moral wisdom that William himself doesn’t have. In this way, the whispering, possibly imaginary double starts to seem like a kind of conscience, which William (who seems like kind of a psychopath, to be blunt) is trying desperately to ignore.
The doppelganger William notices this change and starts to avoid William. On one occasion around this time, the pair get into a fight, and the tone and openness of the doppelganger astonishes William, because it reminds him so much of his infancy, some barely formed childhood memory that he can’t explain. It is a fleeting sensation but he mentions it because it occurred on the day of their last conversation and he wants to remember the day properly.
The pattern of affection and hatred that has driven the relationship of the two William’s has become more volatile, and at the same time draws them even closer as William now associates his double with a sense from his infancy.
The narrator reminds us of the awkward shape of the school building and all its nooks and crannies. Some of these little alcoves were turned into dormitories, and this is where William’s double lives. One night, William gets up when everyone is asleep – he has been plotting a practical joke that will make his double aware of his hatred. He enters the tiny room and when he is sure that his double is asleep, he brings his lamp in and draws back the curtains that surround the boy’s bed. But as the light hits the boy’s face, the narrator cannot believe his eyes. He had always been a perfect replica but now he doesn’t recognize his own double! Terrified, William hurries from the closet and leaves the school house, never to return again.
The facets of the rival William’s character that differ from the narrator’s character are interesting to collect. The whispering voice is one example, and here’s another, the fact that the rival William sleeps in a closet instead of a normal bedroom, as if he has been hidden away. Poe cleverly uses our expectations for more and more doppelganger details and surprises us with the even more horrible idea of finding one’s doppelganger transformed. And William's own horror suggests, even as he hates his doppelganger, how much he has come to rely on it being his doppelganger.
After a few months, William starts studying at Eton instead and the strength of the horrible memory fades – he now remembers that night as if remembering a hallucination rather than a real occurrence. And his life at Eton, filled with folly and thoughtless games, promotes his unserious view of life. While at Eton, he passes years of careless misery, and develops bad habits. One night, he invites some peers to drink with him and their revelry is unbridled, and reaches its peak as the sun begins to rise.
William is no longer a child but his traumatic childhood memories haunt him in his new habits. His lively, domineering personality seeks an outlet, which was always filled and flattered by the presence of his double, but now goes into vices like drinking instead.
At the height of the party, William is about to make a toast when he is interrupted by the announcement that someone has arrived to speak with him. In his drunken state, William is excited by the interruption. He goes directly to the small hallway, which is almost completely dark. He makes out a figure waiting for him, dressed in a morning coat just like he is. Then, as he enters the room, the figure rushes towards him and announces himself as William Wilson in a chilling whisper. It is the quality of this voice that shakes William to his core and reminds him violently of his childhood. But when he recovers his senses, the figure is gone.
In the height of the careless atmosphere of the party, William is caught off guard by the appearance of this figure. The sudden switch from the bright loud party to the confined dark corridor and the sudden approach of the double is an explosive reminder that the horrors of the past remain unresolved. The experience also once again suggests the sudden appearance of one's conscience in the midst of doing something wrong.
Though the event remains vivid to William afterwards, it also has a paranormal quality that makes him more curious than frightened. He knows well the form of the apparition but wonders why and how he appeared. The only thing he can find out is that a family accident caused his double to leave the old boarding school on the same day that the narrator did. But he is soon distracted when he moves to the city of Oxford, a move that has been funded by his parents.
Though the narrator fled his old school in fear, the old obsession comes back to him and the doppelganger seems to feel the same way, having sought William out. The meeting is so unfinished and curious that even when the narrator describes himself moving on to Oxford, we know that the rival is still lurking.
The narrator begins this new stage in style and luxury and with an even greater love of danger and revelry. He tells us that we will hardly believe that he could sink to gambling but he does. He knows that his close school mates would rather disbelieve their eyes than think that the sociable, generous figure of their youth had turned to such a base vice.
The narrator’s life grows increasingly excessive. He wants more and more wealth and the closer he comes to ruin, the more his vices overtake him. Without his rival (or conscience?), William is free to dominate his social circle.
William introduces a new character, a wealthy young man called Glendinning, whose “weak intellect” makes him the perfect gambling partner. William plays him frequently, letting him win a lot of money in the first games. Then, when he has befriended and soothed Glendinning enough, they meet with other Oxford boys to gamble.
Glendinning appears as another rival figure for William, but this time, he is no match for William’s personality. William’s active pursuit of Glendinning shows us that, despite his hatred for the other William of his childhood, part of him needs a rival to sustain his power.
William ensures that Glendinning is the only opponent left in the game, and has been, at William’s invitation, drinking liberally all evening, so that at one turn in the game, Glendinning proposes doubling the stakes. William feigns reluctance. Everything is going according to plan and Glendinning bets larger and larger sums, and gets more in debt, but his face, which had been flushed with wine, now looks very sickly. William had thought that he had so much money that it wouldn’t matter what he lost, but the concerned whispers of his friends tell him that he has effected the man’s complete financial ruin.
William is fueled by the presence of a challenger like Glendinning and is so fired up by the rivalry that he becomes heartless, using Glendinning like a pawn in his game and taking his money ruthlessly. But Glendinning is found to be vulnerable. William is used to dealing with his double, who is almost without weakness, so when he finds Glendinning destroyed by his tactics, William is brought down to earth.
Embarrassment and sadness comes over everybody. William is relieved by an unexpected interruption – the doors open suddenly, blowing out all the candles. In the dim light, a stranger enters in a cloak. The room is not totally black but they can sense he is there. Then, in an unforgettable whisper, summoning all present to listen, he says it is his duty to inform them of the true nature of their host, and directs them to investigate William’s shirt cuff, which he claims hides some little packages. The room is stunned. The visitor leaves as quickly as he arrived.
Just like at school, the other William knows everything about the narrator – how he could have known about the secret card deck or even planted it there, shows his supernatural presence and connection to the narrator that goes beyond friendship and rivalry to something more intimate. Again, one possibility is that he is an embodiment of William's conscience, that his revelation of William's cheating is in fact William himself revealing that cheating in a sudden fit of conscience.
The narrator can hardly describe his terror when pairs of hands seize him and he is searched by his friends, who find, as predicted, packets of false cards used for cheating. The discovery is greeted with silent contempt by his friends. The host of the party asks him to leave immediately and quit Oxford, and hands him his cloak. William is so embarrassed that he expects he will lash out at the host, but something else occurs to him with more force. He notices that he is already holding his cloak, an unusually expensive one in a strange fashion, and the one he is being offered is an exact replica. He remembers that the figure had also worn a cloak. He thinks on his feet and takes the replica without anyone noticing that he now carries two cloaks. He leaves the room, in painful disgrace, and soon after, leaves Oxford, and the country.
William is now in a position of ridicule and disrespect from his group of peers that he once dominated. This is a shock to the system and William’s reputation is ruined. But the real uneasiness of the room is the lingering sensation that William’s curse, of being followed by a double character, has returned. The double’s ability to know where he is and what he is doing fills William with dread and gives the reader a sense of foreboding now that the figure has disappeared. The double, even in its absence, is inescapable.
William tries to escape his alter ego, but even on the continent, he finds signs of the other William. He flees from country to country, each time pursued by his rival. He again questions with all his might why and how this man is pursuing him but realizes that the only offence his doppelganger is committing is stopping certain immoral deeds that the narrator has schemed, like his cheating of Glendinning. The narrator also notices that, though his double always wears a matching outfit, he never shows his face. William wonders if he really believes that he can avoid being recognized as the original doppelganger.
William is powerless to escape the pursuit of his alter ego, because the scope of this paranormal figure, made, perhaps, somehow from William’s imagination, conscience, and disturbed, over-active mind, is limitless. There is no earthly place that William can find that is not immediately accessible to the rival.
William hurries to the final stage of the story. He admits that through all these encounters, he had been frightened of his doppelganger. He had felt deep awe as well as terror, which had stopped him from fighting back. As time goes on, he drinks more and more and his temper worsens, and as it does, he becomes more firm with his rival. He feels that in becoming more courageous he creates the opposite transformation in the other William. He feels hopeful that his curse won’t last forever.
So far the two Williams have shared a balance of love and hate and never crossed the line into dangerous violence – they seem to value each other’s presence too much to risk harming the other, but the tables are starting to turn, which forebodes that something might happen to get the balance back.
At Carnival time in Rome, William has been drinking and moves, frustrated, through the crowd. He is even more impatient because he has an object of interest in the crowd, a married woman, who had told him what she would be wearing so he could spot her in the masses. But just at this moment, he hears the dreaded whisper again. Enraged, William turns and grabs his rival by the collar of his identical costume and fires insults at him and drags him into an adjoining room. The double is wearing a veil over his face.
Carnivals and masked balls are used by Poe to disguise his characters and also to confront disguises. Here, the climax of the doppelganger plot is full of layers of costumes, veils and disguises. The truth of the double’s identity and the explanation of his power over William should be about to be revealed, but the veil blocks us from seeing the double clearly.
Now, William throws him into the room and shuts the door and draws his sword. The other William reluctantly also draws. After a brief fight, William has his double pinned and vulnerable and stabs him repeatedly in the heart. Someone is trying to enter the room but William prevents them. He goes back to the body of his nemesis, but is shocked to find that the room has changed. Now, a mirror stands in the room and presents to him a reflection of his own figure, but covered in blood. As the figure comes to meet him, he sees that it is also the other William, and when he speaks, it is as if he himself is speaking. In a voice, no longer a whisper, he tells William that he has murdered himself.
The true shape of William’s almost life-long pursuer becomes manifest to him at last. The disorder of William’s childhood mind has transformed his vision of the world. The figure of the other William disappears and shows itself to be a shape-shifting mirage created by William’s disordered mind. The outside world and the inside world of William’s mind have fused. The double now seems not so much a double as an opposite side of William himself, and in killing it he kills himself.