Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Double follows Golyadkin, a troubled, middle-aged man living and working in St. Petersburg. He is plagued with anxiety, and his mental struggles invade his daily life, preventing him from succeeding socially and professionally. As his personal life cascades into chaos, he begins to spiral psychologically, ultimately descending into madness as his hallucinations and delusions of persecution lead him to act irrationally and erratically. Golyadkin believes his peers wish to orchestrate his demise, as he explains to his doctor:
“'I have enemies, Christian Ivanovich, I have enemies; I have malignant enemies who have sworn to ruin me . . .” Mr. Golyadkin answered in a frightened whisper.
Christian Ivanovich is deeply concerned by his patient’s fears, so he recommends a drastic set of changes. He worries that Golyadkin is affected by his lack of social outlets and companionship and fears that the younger man is becoming antisocial and paranoid. As such, he prescribes a strict regimen, recommending:
a change of habits. . . . Entertainment, for instance, and, well, friends — you should visit your acquaintances, and not be hostile to the bottle; and likewise keep cheerful company.
Golyadkin takes Christian Ivanovich at his word and misinterprets his advice. Rather than slowly integrating into the social sphere, he decides to show up uninvited to a dinner party his boss, Olsufi Ivanovich, is holding at his home. As one might expect, his presence invites only confusion, and Olsufi Ivanovich’s servants turn Golyadkin away at the door. At this point, Golyadkin is paranoid and upset, but his anger is directed toward other people and their reactions to him. He seems blissfully unaware of his role in creating the awkward social situations he so dislikes and instead imagines the world to be a massive conspiracy meant to keep him quiet and unhappy.
Later, in yet another misguided attempt to integrate into the social lives of his superiors, Golyadkin sneaks into a luxurious ball Olsufi Ivanovich threw in celebration of his daughter, Clara Olsufyevna’s birthday. Golyadkin is obsessed with Clara; he admires her beauty and musical accomplishment, and in his haste to speak to her, he reveals his extreme obliviousness and social incompetence:
On the way he jostled against a councilor and trod on his foot, and incidentally stepped on a very venerable old lady’s dress and tore it a little, pushed against a servant with a tray and then ran against somebody else, and, not noticing all this, passing further and further forward, he suddenly found himself facing Clara Olsufyevna.
In these early scenes, Golyadkin seems confident and self-assured; even though his certainty is rooted in delusion, he still has a clear sense of self that drives him forward. When his double appears, and his identity splits, divided into Golyadkin Sr. and Jr., the original Golyadkin seems to lose all confidence; he becomes self-conscious and timid, peering around every corner in anticipation of his enemy, who seems to lurk just out of sight. Golyadkin Jr. appears during a snowstorm, seemingly conjured by Golyadkin Sr.’s distress at being summarily thrown out of Olusfi Ivanovich’s party. As Golyadkin Sr. stares at this identical version of himself, he is horror-struck when he realizes that the man before him is, in fact, him. The narrator explains his mental state as follows:
His hair stood on end, and he almost fell down with horror. And, indeed, there was good reason. He recognised his nocturnal visitor. The nocturnal visitor was no other than himself — Mr. Golyadkin himself, another Mr. Golyadkin, but absolutely the same as himself — in fact, what is called a double in every...
(This entire section contains 1186 words.)
respect. . . .
The arrival of the double alters Golyadkin Sr.; he is shaken and uncertain, and this newfound fear makes him timid and furthers his mental decline. When he returns to Olsufi Ivanovich’s house much later in the story, he does not march confidently inside or approach Clara. After the introduction of Golyadkin Jr. into his social and professional spheres, Golyadkin’s status becomes unclear and is constantly fluctuating. He does not know how to act, so he conducts himself cautiously:
The door from the next room suddenly opened with a timid, quiet creak, as if thus announcing the entrance of a very insignificant person.
As Golyadkin Jr. slowly but surely integrates himself into the fabric of Golyadkin Sr.’s life, the latter becomes increasingly erratic as his delusions grow stronger and begin to seem more real. Separating fantasy from reality becomes a difficult task, which he fails to accomplish time and again. One night, a particularly vivid nightmare seizes hold of him, in which Golyadkin Jr. replicates over and over, producing endless doubles. In the nightmare, dozens of
…precisely similar Golyadkins set to running after one another as soon as they appeared, and stretched in a long chain like a file of geese, hobbling after the real Mr. Golyadkin, so there was nowhere to escape from these duplicates — so that Mr. Golyadkin, who was in every way deserving of compassion, was breathless with terror; so that at last a terrible multitude of duplicates had sprung into being; so that the whole town was obstructed at last by duplicate Golyadkins, and the police officer, seeing such a breach of decorum, was obliged to seize all these duplicates by the collar and to put them into the watch-house, which happened to be beside him...
By the end of the novel, Golyadkin Sr. loses control of himself completely; his current state—and the sight of Golyadkin Jr., who revels in his namesake’s struggle—consumes his consciousness, plaguing him with the knowledge life as he knew it has been erased. No longer is he a successful bureaucrat with a servant in his employ; no longer is he an independent, confident man. In the end, he is reduced to the chaos of his madness, which eats away at the remnants of his rational self. The narrator describes Golyadkin’s mental state in those frantic final moments:
After the first shock of horror, the blood rushed to Mr. Golyadkin’s head. Moaning and gnashing his teeth, he clutched his burning head, sank back on his block of wood and relapsed into brooding... But he could form no coherent thought. Figures kept flitting through his brain, incidents came back to his memory, now vaguely, now very distinctly, the tunes of some foolish songs kept ringing in his ears... He was in great distress, unnatural distress!
As Golyadkin Sr. is escorted from Olsufi Ivanovich’s premises, he is met by Christian Ivanovich, the doctor with whom he met at the beginning of the novel. In his heightened emotional state, the kindly older doctor is no longer pleasant or concerned; instead, he seems devilish and punitive, dragging the miserable Golyadkin Sr. to an insane asylum. Christian Ivanovich speaks with anger and aggression, extolling the protagonist's dreadful fate:
“You get free quarters, wood, with light, and service, which you deserve not,” Christian Ivanovitch’s answer rang out, stern and terrible as a judge’s sentence.
Our hero shrieked and clutched his head in his hands. Alas! For a long while he had been haunted by a presentiment of this.