"What was my astonishment, on perceiving that he was the same being as myself!"

The idea of the double, or uncanny replica of oneself, has a long history and appears in various contexts. In Germany, these are known as doppelgangers, or ‘double-goers’. British and European folklore, meanwhile, feature wraiths, fetches, waffs, fyes, swarths and tasks. Encountering one of these menacing apparitions was commonly supposed to herald death.

 

The double reached particular prominence in the pages of 19th century gothic fiction. Dostoevsky makes use of it in his novella The Double: A Petersburg Poem (1846); Edgar Allan Poe’s short story William Wilson (1839) features a doppelganger which functions as the protagonist’s conscience; E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Devil’s Elixir (1815) concerns a Capuchin monk whose murder of a prince sees the victim recarnified as a mad doppelganger who manifests himself at regular intervals. In all these works, the double serves as a means of exploring concepts of the self new in literature; of portraying the human personality as divided, multiple and essentially unknowable, even to itself.

 

Narcissus, 1594-6. As in the myth of Narcissus, literary treatments of encounters with one’s own image generally follow a trajectory which begins with self-affirmation and ends in destruction of the self in or by the double
Public DomainNarcissus, 1594-6. As in the myth of Narcissus, literary treatments of encounters with one’s own image generally follow a trajectory which begins with self-affirmation and ends in destruction of the self in or by the double - Credit: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio