Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Edgar Allan Poe often deals with the theme of the divided self or the split in personality, and “William Wilson” is his most obvious story of the war within. Poe links the two William Wilsons—they have the same name, common physical traits, and identical histories—to show that the two are doubles or twins or parts of the same self. What part of the self does each represent? The story’s epigraph suggests the identity of the second William Wilson: “What say of it? what say [of] CONSCIENCE grim,/ That spectre in my path?” The second William Wilson, who comes and goes like a specter or apparition, represents the conscience or moral sense; that is why, as the gentle but persistent voice within, he speaks only in a low whisper and why no one other than the narrator ever sees him.

Since the second William Wilson stands for the spiritual or heavenly part of the self, it is appropriate that his death costs the now-soulless narrator all chance for an afterlife: The narrator represents the earthly, mundane, physical part of the self that above all seeks pleasure, power, money, and conquest. So long as the conscience or spiritual self is present to restrain its earthly counterpart, Wilson’s villainy is limited to drinking, swearing, and cheating at cards. Once the spiritual self is destroyed, however, there occurs a “sudden elevation in turpitude,” and the earthly self turns to serious crime. The civil war in “William Wilson” ends with the triumph of the physical self over the spiritual self, but the price of victory is the loss of eternal life.