Why did the Beatles make so many references within their work to include famous doubles and doppelgangers? Next in the “Doubles and Doppelgangers” series we have a pretty obvious reference to a double identity within a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe;
Poe of course, is featured on the Sgt. Pepper album and is subsequently mentioned in the Beatles song “I AM the Walrus” (“Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe”)
The story begins with the narrator letting the audience know that “William Wilson” is not his real name, it is a phoney name, only a name given to himself as to not reveal his true name (the true name is never revealed) or tarnish the innocent page in which this story is written.
LET me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation.
The narrator (as William Wilson) goes through a series of his own memories of his life, it soon becomes clear that this person is a bright, intelligent young man often exceeding the academics of his fellow classmates, and even outwits the adults in his life as well.
I grew self-willed, addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions. Weak-minded, and beset with constitutional infirmities akin to my own, my parents could do but little to check the evil propensities which distinguished me. Some feeble and ill-directed efforts resulted in complete failure on their part, and, of course, in total triumph on mine. Thenceforward my voice was a household law; and at an age when few children have abandoned their leading-strings, I was left to the guidance of my own will, and became, in all but name, the master of my own actions.
That is- with the exception of one student. According to the narrator, a student that has the same exact name as he: William Wilson. This Double William Wilson acts as a challenge to his mastery over the other students in the school, and is a source of fear, inferiority and competition for the narrator. The rivalry between the two Williams becomes even more apparent when the narrator describes their many shared attributes, such as the Wilsons’ arrival to the school on the same day, identical build, and similar style of dressing, which leads some of the students in the school to believe they are brothers. This infuriates the narrator, although they remain on speaking terms. The narrator’s obsession with his double grows obvious to the reader after a violent altercation between the two Williams.
I have before said, or should have said, that Wilson was not, in the most remote degree, connected with my family. But assuredly if we had been brothers we must have been twins; for, after leaving Dr. Bransby’s, I casually learned that my namesake was born on the nineteenth of January, 1813 –and this is a somewhat remarkable coincidence; for the day is precisely that of my own nativity.
Soon the narrator breaks into his double’s bedroom as he slept, in hopes of playing a practical joke on the unsuspecting William Wilson. As he brings his lantern close to the sleeping William’s face- the narrator believes he sees another William Wilson’s face. Terrified- he runs out of the bedroom in horror.
I gazed; –while my brain reeled with a multitude of incoherent thoughts. Not thus he appeared –assuredly not thus –in the vivacity of his waking hours. The same name! the same contour of person! the same day of arrival at the academy! And then his dogged and meaningless imitation of my gait, my voice, my habits, and my manner! Was it, in truth, within the bounds of human possibility, that what I now saw was the result, merely, of the habitual practice of this sarcastic imitation? Awe-stricken, and with a creeping shudder, I extinguished the lamp, passed silently from the chamber, and left, at once, the halls of that old academy, never to enter them again.
The Narrator is forced to change schools, and tries to leave the memory of William Wilson in the past, but eventually- William Wilson finds him. The Narrator finally moves to Oxford University (England of course) and has set up a rigged game of dice- in which the narrator uses his intellect and mastery over his weaker-minded classmates to achieve monetary gain. During this session, the double William Wilson appears again- announcing the ill-intentions of the narrator and promptly retreats. The announcement ruins the narrator, and he is forced to leave Oxford as well as Britain.
The narrator settles himself in Rome, and attends a masquerade ball in the palace of the duke Di Broglio. The narrator secretly desires the wife of the duke, who has informed him of the costume she will be wearing. As he searches for her, the narrator feels a light hand on his arm and hears a whisper in his ear: “William Wilson.” The whisperer wears the same costume as him- a Spanish cloak with a black silk mask. Enraged at this encounter, the narrator draws his sword and stabs William Wilson. To the narrator’s horror, the layout of the room mysteriously changes, and a mirror replaces the body of his antagonist. He stares into the mirror to find his own body stabbed and bleeding, and he hears his rival speak:
You have conquered, and I yield. Yet, henceforward art thou also dead –dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope! In me didst thou exist –and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.
The Beatles continued to reference “Doubles and Doppelgangers” into their art and music in many different ways. Sometimes blatantly, sometimes occulted. I hope that by drawing your attention to these various forms, you will be able to see the layers in which this glass onion is unfolding more clearly. As with this thrilling short story by Edgar Allan Poe- we can see the same apparent themes which the Beatles used time and time again. The symbolic use of the name “William” (Will – I – Am) and the mastery of his own will. Even to the point of being able to mold and conform the wills of the people around him due to his superior intellect. Read the full “William Wilson” story HERE.
Another thank you to my friend Stephen Lennon for bringing my attention to this Gothic story, and inspiring this blog!! 🙂
So many doubles…. so little time.
… To Be Continued