Study Guide

William Wilson

by Edgar Allan Poe

William Wilson Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“William Wilson” is a tale narrated by an infamous criminal who is on the verge of death. He is ashamed to reveal his name; William Wilson is an admitted pseudonym. As death approaches, he tries to explain the momentous event that led to his life of misery and crime. His greatest fear is that he has forfeited heavenly bliss as well as earthly honor.

The path to the single event responsible for Wilson’s criminality begins in an ancient, dreamlike English village whose memories alone now afford him pleasure. The village includes the church and academy that Wilson attends from age ten to fifteen. Dr. Bransby, the pastor of the church, is also principal of the academy, and Wilson marvels at the “gigantic paradox” that allows one man to be both a benign clergyman and a stern disciplinarian. The academy is set apart from the mist-enclosed village by a ponderous wall and a spike-studded gate. Old and irregular, with endless windings and subdivisions, the school building becomes for the narrator a palace of enchantment. Even the low and dismal classroom is a source of spirit-stirring and passionate excitement.

At the academy, Wilson wins control over all of his fellows but one—a classmate with the same name as his. The two William Wilsons are identical in height and figure, move and walk in the same way, and dress alike. In fact, they were born on the same date and enter school at the same time. They seem to differ only in voice: The narrator speaks in normal tones, his namesake in a low whisper.

As time passes, their rivalry intensifies. They quarrel daily because of what the narrator calls his namesake’s “intolerable spirit of contradiction.” However, the narrator admits in retrospect that...

(The entire section is 710 words.)