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Like almost any effective work of literature, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson” provokes any number of intriguing questions. Such questions occur both while the story is being read and after the process of reading has ended. Many of the questions provoked by any strong literary work are questions having to do with theme and meaning. In other words, readers are often interested in turning a literary work into a lesson, often a moral lesson. This approach to literature is very common and is certainly legitimate. However, if we are interested in reading in order to encounter ideas and lessons, wouldn’t it make more sense to read textbooks, essays, or philosophical discussions? After all, the lessons and ideas provided in these works are likely to be more logically developed, more strongly supported by relevant evidence, and more intellectually defensible than the ideas and lessons provided in works of literature.
Literature, almost by definition, is a use of language that invites attention to itself as a use of language, rather than simply as an expression of ideas. In other words, the feature that chiefly distinguishes literature from other uses of language is its effectiveness as a use of language itself. For this reason, it might be worthwhile to ask questions such as the following of Poe’s “William Wilson”:
- What makes the story effective simply as a piece of writing? How does the story grab and hold our interest? What is it about the story that makes us want to continue reading it? What phrasings are especially memorable, and why? How might one argue that Poe showed real talent in the particular words he chose and in the ways he put those words together into sentences? The opening paragraph would be as good a place as any to begin this kind of examination:
Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation. This has been already too much an object for the scorn --for the horror --for the detestation of my race. To the uttermost regions of the globe have not the indignant winds bruited its unparalleled infamy? Oh, outcast of all outcasts most abandoned! --to the earth art thou not forever dead? to its honors, to its flowers, to its golden aspirations? --and a cloud, dense, dismal, and limitless, does it not hang eternally between thy hopes and heaven?
- Is there anything about the writing in this story that now seems dated, artificial, unconvincing, or contrived? Is it legitimate to judge an earlier story by the literary standards of the present day? Is it right to expect Poe to write as clearly and simply, say, as Ernest Hemingway, or do we need to keep in mind Poe’s place in the ongoing evolution of literary style? How is the style of this story appropriate to its narrator, mood, and subject matter?
- How does this story compare and contrast in its literary effectiveness with a story on a similar theme by the same author, such as “The Fall of the House of Usher”? Both works deal with the theme of “the double.” Is one work more effective, powerful, memorable, etc., than the other? If so, precisely why and how? More specifically, how can the two works be compared and contrasted in terms the writing used (for example) in their openings and conclusions?
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