Thirty-Two Stories

By Edgar Allan Poe; Stuart Levine et al. | Go to book overview

WILLIAM WILSON

Poe's great story about conscience is unusual in several ways. Although Poe unjustly accused Hawthorne of having lifted passages from "William Wilson for use in Hawthorne's tale "Howe's Masquerade," Poe admired Hawthorne; "William Wilson" is, indeed, his most Hawthornian story. The moral emphasis reminds one of Hawthorne, as does the manner of making a character an emblem of a spiritual trait. Poe also used Hawthorne's favorite technique for suggesting the incredible while maintaining credibility: he made the strangest occurrences in his story ambiguous. Wilson says that he could only "with difficulty shake off the belief" that he had known his double in a prior life; often the double appears when Wilson is "madly flushed" by liquor or excitement. Readers see the double as conscience and note that Wilson sometimes welcomes the interruptions. Those facts and Wilson's hereditary imaginativeness give room to interpret the events of the tale either literally or as the creations of a guilt-ridden and diseased mind.

"William Wilson" is unusual also in that it contains a very rare and uncharacteristically "realistic" description of childhood. The only other child whom Poe developed in any detail is Arthur Gordon Pym in Poe's novel. More typical of Poe is the familiar passage about how the narrator comes from an "imaginative and easily excitable race." That passage is present, too, as a prop to credibility.

Poe achieves power through accelerated rhythm as well. After the lengthy portion of the story set at Dr. Bransby's school, subsequent scenes are successively shorter. The result is almost cinematic, like the effects filmmakers can achieve through rhythmic "cutting"; the effect is to make Wilson's later adventures whiz by dizzyingly.

An interesting ambivalence is evident here and elsewhere in Poe, who can be alternately--and sometimes simultaneously--democratic and snobbish. Wilson is shown to be arrogant and aristocratic; he is, for instance, ashamed of his "common" name and regards institutions of higher learning as playgrounds for the elite. We as readers are supposed to dislike him for his snobbery. The usually antidemocratic Poe, in other words, at times reveals strong antiaristocratic biases. (Compare "The Masque of the Red Death" and "Mellonta Tauta.")

A note of explanation: The sources of Poe's ideas in this tale have been very thoroughly studied and make an interesting story. Details are nicely summarized in Mabbott (9, II). Poe felt so much in debt to Washington Irving's 1836 article "An Unwritten Drama by Lord Byron" that he wrote to Irving to tell him about the tie. Irving's piece outlines the idea of the double as a "spectre," "an allegorical being, the personification of conscience." It in turn involves connections from Byron to Percy Bysshe Shelley and ultimately to Calderón.

-104-

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Thirty-Two Stories
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction vii
  • Metzengerstein 1
  • The Duc de L'Omelette 9
  • Ms. Found in a Bottle 16
  • The Assignation 26
  • Shadow 42
  • Silence 48
  • Ligeia 54
  • How to Write a Blackwood Article 68
  • The Fall of the House of Usher 87
  • William Wilson 104
  • The Man of the Crowd 120
  • The Murders in the Rue Morgue 130
  • A Descent into the Maelström 159
  • Eleonora 174
  • The Masque of the Red Death 181
  • The Pit and the Pendulum 188
  • The Domain of Arnheim 200
  • The Tell-Tale Heart 216
  • The Gold-Bug 221
  • The Black Cat 248
  • The Purloined Letter 256
  • The Balloon-Hoax 272
  • The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq. 284
  • Some Words with a Mummy 303
  • The Power of Words 318
  • The Imp of the Perverse 323
  • The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar 329
  • The Cask of Amontillado 339
  • Mellonta Tauta 346
  • Hop-Frog 361
  • Von Kempelen and His Discovery 370
  • Bibliography 379
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