The Double in Literature

16/04/2015 18:10



The idea of a double, or doppelgänger, in literature is a very old concept and one that has brought us many famous works throughout the ages. Doubles are typically used in literature as the kind of ‘evil twin’ of the protagonist (as in Dostoyevsky’s The Double), however the concept can also be used to link two characters together that share the same characteristics and values (as in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway). Usually when there are instances of a double, there is 

a ‘splitting point’, in other words a pivotal moment in the text where it becomes apparent that the protagonist has suddenly become one of two halves. The presence of the double causes conflict, as there can never be peaceful co-existence between a character and their second manifestation. In many instances where there is a double, it is the embodiment of a specific set of characteristics either that the original character desires to have, or a concentration of their worst characteristics, thus living up to the ‘evil twin’ stigma.

 A key work within English literature is obviously considered The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by James Hogg, where the protagonist’s second self is the figure of the devil himself, but already in Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley the creature that comes to life can be regarded as the evil alter ego of its creator, the young Genevan scientist. Of course, we cannot forget to mention the two most cited works involving the question of the double and the identity crisis: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde, while in the American short story William Wilson (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe the alter ego is interpreted by a perfect copy of the protagonist who carries also his own name. Furthermore, a large and growing body of critical literature has investigated the existing correlation between duplicity and the peculiar characteristics of the Romantic and Victorian periods. These studies show how the themes of duplicity and dichotomy are extremely inherent components of the ages under discussion. The Victorians, in fact, were great moralisers but they promoted a code of values that reflected the world as they wanted it to be, not as it really was, a world based on duty, hard work, respectability and charity. The idea of respectability, in particular, distinguished the middle class from the lower classes. It was a mixture of morality and hypocrisy, severity and conformity to social standards, prudery, sexual repression and rigid social control. In the meantime, however, they strongly believed in self-help, self-control, patriarchal laws and decent conduct. On the surface, therefore, this society appears as the age of reason, social development and charity. But the appearance was very different from reality and many novels of the period portray a society where labour, death, disease, corruption and social injustice reigned almost everywhere. Of course, those themes, together with sexuality, were taboos and the novelists usually employed different literary devices to represent them. Strict moral codes and ethical manners were opposed to corruption, money-making capitalistic interests and fake compassion and what was shown outside began to be inevitably separated from what was felt in the individual’s intimacy and in the private sphere:

The Strange Case also functions as an historically specific moral allegory about Victorian hypocrisy and repression. Dr. Jekyll inhabits a sterile, self-consciously repressed world of male professionals. […] Stevenson’s novella is, among other things, a tale of civilisation and its discontents, which conjures up the dark underside of the repressed world of the male professionals (doctors, scientists and lawyers) who form Jekyll’s circle. Jekyll’s alter ego Hyde, is a version of the id, acting out the libidinal desires which Jekyll’s superego (or Jekyll as superego) would suppress.

(from The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, 2012)

There is more than just a binary relationship between a good self and its evil other. In some cases human identity is shattered into a myriad of pieces: just before the advent of mass society, the individual begins to loose the sense of his/her own value, counting less and less. The twentieth century has been characterized by major changes and particular socio-political circumstances: leaving the old century for the new one, the solid certainties of the previous era and both the faith in progress and the vision of a better future begin to collapse, giving space to a panorama of crisis. Modern man feels to be anonymous and negligible in a non-caring world which resembles much more an assembly line than a jolly place to live in. He begins to feel himself unnecessary, insignificant as a single individual and to make sense only as part of the mass: he is just one of the many tiny grains of sand that form the beach of humanity. In doing this, he loses the sense of his proper self and identity, feels himself to be none or, better, a myriad of fragmented parts that fall apart.



The strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
The Picture of Dorian Gray


The divided nature of man, the theme of good and evil aspects of a character has attracted many English writers.


The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is Robert Louis Stevenson's most famous and important novel and it is one of the greatest classics of the fantasy genre.


Henry Jekyll is a brilliant scientist who, by mixing special drugs, succeeds in creating a potion which is able to separate the two natures of man: good and evil. The latter, the deformed and repulsive Mr Hyde, slowly manages to prevail over the former and commits several wicked and criminal deeds.


The novel represents the eternal struggle between good and evil, which, this time, live together in the same person: Jekyll  and Hyde are the symbol of a double personality.


Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are symbolic of the duplicity of the Victorian Age: on the one side Jekyll represents the public face of the individual and is a respectable man; on the other side, at night in the bad areas of London, he is Mr Hyde, who represents the dark side present in all people.


Even the name Hyde is linked to the theme of the double: it means to hide, to do what you cannot do openly.


In Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Victor Frankenstein, creates a monster that in a certain way represents his double.


As a consequence of his manipulations with nature, Frankenstein is punished because his creature kills the people that the doctor loved.


Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a young man that is very beautiful: his portrait represents his double, his soul corrupted by his bad actions. At the end of the novel, Dorian dies when he destroys his picture with a knife.

A common element in all these stories is their moral message: sooner or later the protagonists will be punished for their sins because in the end the evil will be defeated.

[1] For further analysis see Tomaso Kemeny, Testi di illustrazione e di rappresentazione dell’800 inglese, Ibis, Como-Pavia 2000.