The doppelganger, German for “double-goer,” is a literal or symbolic double set in opposition to one of the characters of the story. This theme has appeared in literature for centuries, but is especially popular in works of Gothic fiction. Though, in the most literal sense, a doppelganger is a fellow human being who bears a striking physical resemblance to another character, in these stories, supernatural or imagined doubles with symbolic significance, or sometimes even different aspects of the same person, can be considered doppelgangers. The idea of a doppelganger or alter ego allows for an exploration of human duality. The doppelganger is both duplicate and opposite, showing how opposing forces can exist in one being and forcing us to confront our divided selves.
The term was originally coined by German author Jean Paul in his novel Siebenkäs and was further popularized by the short story “Die Doppelgänger” written by Prussian author E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1821. Edgar Allan Poe picked up the idea in 1839 in his short story “William Wilson,” about a boy who encounters another boy with the same name, same birthday, and a very similar appearance to his. Disturbed and resentful of the other boy, the title character tries to escape him. However, as William grows older his doppelganger keeps popping up and thwarting all his attempts to do something bad, like cheat at cards or seduce a married woman. The doppelganger’s role here suggests that he symbolizes the protagonist’s conscience—an interesting departure from the popular “evil twin” trope. At the end of the story, William stabs his double and then realizes with horror that he has killed part of himself.
Robert Louis Stevenson takes the more typical “evil twin” approach in his 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, although with the unusual twist that the two men are actually the same person. This literal sense in which the two contrasting personalities reside in the same body emphasizes the fact that a doppelganger is actually part of the self. Hyde represents Dr. Jekyll’s inner dark side which had been repressed in Jekyll’s attempt to be an upstanding Victorian citizen. Oscar Wilde uses a different variation on the doppelganger theme to get across a similar point about inner evil in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). In the novel, Dorian is granted his wish for eternal youth and beauty and goes about living an amoral life of hedonism, while only his portrait ages and reveals his moral decay. At the end of the story, Dorian tries to stab the picture and his servants later discover him stabbed to death himself. Both stories serve to show that human nature encompasses both good and evil, and the evil cannot be repressed, hidden, or driven out.
In many of these stories, when the doppelganger is killed, its counterpart dies as well—suggesting the divided selves, though opposite and often contradictory, are inseparable. The doppelganger is also generally a cause of extreme anxiety for its counterpart, who may be in denial or reluctant to acknowledge this part of himself. This anxiety is played upon in Henry James’ short story “The Jolly Corner,” about a man obsessed with who he could have been if he had been raised in a different environment. When he finally meets this other version of himself, he is overcome with terror and faints.
The doppelganger continues to be a fascinating element of the gothic in popular imagination, as can be seen by the plethora of doppelgangers in the popular TV series The Vampire Diaries, and the recurrence of the “fight the dark version of yourself” motif in movies and video games.
What’s your favorite doppelganger story? What other tropes would you like to see me discuss? Let me know in the comments! If you like these trope segments, be sure to check out my previous posts on absent mothers, unreliable narrators, and creepy housekeepers.