Doppelgängers in Fiction

Doppelgängers in Fiction

The theme of the “double” in modern fiction (or doppelgänger, as it is often termed) is an enormous and seductive one. As a projected figure – a shade, a ghost, a mirage, a reflection, or mirror image – the double generally acts as a foil or complement to the principal character, reflecting the idea of unity and division at the same time. The motif of the doppelgänger is in fact a very old one, finding expression in myths and legends going back to ancient times. There are primitive archetypes of mythical doubles, magical twins, firstborn parents, rival brothers, lovers and soul-mates, in fairy tales and sagas from around the world. However, since Victorian times, the double in Western literature has tended to symbolise an internal, Freudian psycho-drama taking place within the principal character, as opposed to a confrontation between external forces. The doppelgänger therefore becomes a projection of the hero’s unconscious desire, his or her own "heart of darkness", the dramatisation of an internal struggle against the social constraints within which the subject is required to operate. Five classic fictional examples illustrate the point.      

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    Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

    The ultimate modern incarnation of the fictional doppelgänger is to be found in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In fact, the monster created by Victor Frankenstein has all the hallmarks of the demonic double: fashioned from the scattered bones and body parts of the charnel house, the creature does not even possess a name, and has become so conflated with his creator that for many people, Frankenstein actually is the monster. Free from the social constraints that hamper the doctor, the monster seems to represent his creator’s dark and carnal desires run rampant. He acts on instinct where Victor is obliged to observe social convention and the implication that he rapes Victor’s love Elizabeth – or at least, takes a macabre delight in tearing her limb from limb before devouring her – implies that he, the monstrous double, can do what his master cannot: consummate his relationship with her. 

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    The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R. L. Stevenson (1886)

    Following directly in the Gothic footsteps of Frankenstein is Stevenson’s classic tale of the chemically-induced dual life led by Dr Henry Jekyll, respectable Victorian, a.k.a. the evil murderer Mr Edward Hyde. Here we find the motif of the doppelgänger again harnessed to address the fundamental dichotomy of outward respectability versus inward lust. By his own admission Dr Jekyll’s double life is the result of the fact that the social conventions and high moral ideals of Victorian society were so extensive and restrictive that they left little option other than the adoption of multiple personae. Thus the pressures of living an irreproachably "moral" life lead Dr Jekyll to develop a secret alias – Mr Hyde – which allows him free rein to indulge in the immoral, sensuous, shocking, and ultimately murderous fantasies that social convention obliges him to conceal from the world. 

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    The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) by Oscar Wilde

    A great admirer of Jekyll and Hyde, Oscar Wilde was to develop the doppelgänger theme extensively in his own work, in comic form in the stage play The Importance of Being Earnest, and in more serious form in the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The Importance of Being Earnest portrays two young men who each adopt an alias in order to have free rein to indulge their fantasies out of the prying eyes of a moralistic society. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, on the other hand, it is not morality but amorality that comes in for a critique: Dorian Gray, a shameless hedonist, aesthete and murderer, is faced with his true self in the form of the portrait that grows older and uglier with every sin he commits. Taken together they could be argued to be doppelgängers of the other: each work reflecting respectively the dangers of a life hampered by too many, or too few, moral constraints.


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    Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928)

    The doppelgänger motif crops up again in Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando only now the horizons broaden from social to gender, and even time, constraints. Thus in Woolf’s cross-dressing, transgendered and shape-shifting hero(ine), we see a character all at once more fluid and complex psychologically, emotionally, and sexually than the socially-gendered stereotyping of male or female. As the narrator observes, any single concept of self is too much of a straitjacket to contain the myriad facets of any one consciousness: “These selves of which we are built up, one on top of the other, as plates are piled on a waiter’s hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, little constitutions and rights of their own… so that one will only come if it is raining, another in a room with green curtains, another when Mrs. Jones is not there… and some are too wildly ridiculous to be mentioned in print at all.”  

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    The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

    Highsmith’s crime novel, The Talented Mr Ripley, sees the theme of the double return but this time not so much as an expression of self-emancipation as in the negative sense of the desire to possess and contain others to the point of their destruction. The anti-hero of Highsmith’s novel – Tom Ripley – is a struggling low-life New York conman who idolises the wealthy playboy Dickie. In fact, Tom so worships Dickie and the luxurious life that he represents that he starts to dress like him, walk like him, and talk like him.  n the end, he can only become him: by killing him. Just as Eve, the fan of the film star Margo Channing in the 1950 Hollywood movie "All about Eve", usurps and supplants the former, only to herself be toppled from the plinth by an adoring groupie. Indeed in novels such as Ripley it could be argued that the wheel has come full circle. The internal heart of darkness explored in modern literature of the double – a journey started over a century before, in Frankenstein - has, by the 1950s, reached its chilling, post-war conclusion: total lawlessness, amorality, and ultimate annihilation.