The Varieties of Ambiguity: Cognizing the Doppelgangers in Poe and James

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The distortions and projections found in the realm of the fantastic reveal its great cognitive potential. Apart from representing the break in the acknowledged order of life, the fantastic depicts phantoms and phantasma, the subversive activity of the human mind. Our paper tackles upon the means of representation of Doppelganger imagery uncovering the understories of the troubled or alienated self in two famous American fictions generally defined as examples of Gothic Horror – “William Wilson” by E.A. Poe and “The Jolly Corner” by Henry James. Doppelganger texts can be said to represent the blending of Todorov’s thematic groups – “themes of the self” and “themes of the other,” since the appearance of the double mainly signals the specific kind of auto-communication, or the communication with the Self as Other. The rereading of these stories proves that the fantastic distorts ‘the real’ in different proportions for various thematic purposes and aesthetic goals. Both texts exemplify unreliable narration. Yet, the roots of their unreliability and the specifics of their ambiguity, are notably different.
The notoriously ambiguous narration in “The Jolly Corner” seems to fit Todorov’s definition of “pure fantastic” as an intermediary stage of hesitation between alternative explanations of the strange. It is notable that James pictures a localized double, i.e. the one inhabiting the haunted house. The tale also allows one to cognize ‘the strange’ allegorically, this example showing that numerous fantastic texts resist Todorov’s genre definitions. Indeed, Spenser Brydon’s is most probably struggling with himself, the struggle symbolizing a kind of mid-life crisis.
The appearance of the second William Wilson in Poe’s tale also signals the break in the natural flow of life. Though this double is sometimes narrated as objective reality – his presence in school is proved by eye-witnesses, the reader has to cognize him as an apparent anomaly, as a monstrous distortion of physical laws, especially in the last episode. Besides, this im/possible’ character is capable of changing locations. Wilson’s double, like the Doppelganger in James’s text, can be easily interpreted allegorically. All these features combined make up for numerous inconsistencies in Poe’s chimeric image placing serious cognitive obstacles. We claim, that in this case the root of fantasticality is to be found in the specific dream narrative (R. Walsh), rather than in the epistemological ‘impossibility’ of the double. We believe that in Poe’s tale there are (1) the “I” who experiences and participates in dream events and (2) the “I” who reflects upon the dream. Yet, both are parts of the same dream. If this is not the case, then we might ask: Who narrates the story in which the first sentence is “William Wilson is not my name”? Such narrative doubling underscores the Doppelganger imagery in Poe’s text, guaranteeing “the unity of effect” and “the totality of impression” that, according to Poe’s theory, should characterize a good work of fiction.

Translated title of the contributionВариации двойственности: Познание двойников у По и Джеймса
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
StatePublished - Mar 2018

Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Psychology(all)


  • ambiguity doubles
  • the fantastic
  • Gestalt
  • EDGAR ALLAN POE (1809 – 1849)
  • Henry James
  • doubles

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