The Device of the "double" in Gothic Literature

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1965

Perhaps the single most interesting literary device used by Gothic writers is that of the “double.” Generally, the most common form of doubling in literature is the doppelgänger, a German term meaning “double-goer.” A literary doppelgänger often takes the form of an alternate identity of the main character. Sometimes this can be in the physical form of a biological twin; sometimes writers create a demonic character that functions as a representation of another character’s dark side. A famous example of this technique is Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer. In Gothic literature, the doppelgänger is often threatening and a cause for terror. Shelley’s Frankenstein offers one of the best examples of the use of a doppelgänger in Gothic literature. As Aiga Ozolins points out in the article “Dreams and Doctrines: Dual Strands in Frankenstein,” “There is ample evidence in the novel that the creature functions as the scientist’s baser self.” Further, Edgar Allan Poe makes use of the double in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In this case, Roderick Usher and his sister are biological twins, so closely connected that when the sister appears to die and is buried, Usher realizes too late that she has been buried alive. The horror of premature burial is doubled by this technique. The reader is first horrified by Usher’s proclamation that they have buried her alive; and then even more horrified by Usher’s horror. While the doppelgänger may be the most apparent form of the double in Gothic literature, there are many other, more subtle ways, that writers introduce notions of doubling in their fiction. Through mirrors, artwork, blurred characters, confusion between the dead and alive, the divided hero/villain, and déjà vu, doubles in Gothic literature proliferate like reflections in a funhouse mirror.

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So prevalent is the notion of doubling in Gothic literature that it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify Gothic novels that do not use the device in some form. One way that Gothic writers often introduce a double is through the use of literal mirror images. A character gazes into a mirror, for example, and sees not only himself but also his darker side at the same time. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll looks in his mirror to behold the demonic Mr. Hyde.

Less apparent, but no less effective, is the use of a figurative mirror image. In an essay in The New Eighteenth Century discussing Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, critic Terry Castle argues, “Characters in Udolpho mirror or blur into one another. Characters seem uncannily to resemble or replace previous characters.” Castle also points out the inability in this novel for characters and readers to distinguish the dead from the living. Again, death is a mirror image of life; the confusion over who is dead and who is alive created by this mirroring is major point of terror. “The Fall of the House of Usher” makes use of this device in the confusion of the burial of Usher’s sister. Is she dead, or is she alive when placed in the tomb? Is she alive, or is she dead when she suddenly bursts into the room where Usher is in the process of revealing his doubts about her death to the narrator? “One sure sign of the double,” argues critic Margaret Anne Doody in “Desert Ruins and Troubled Waters: Female Dreams in Fiction and the Development of the Gothic Novel,” appearing in the journal Genre, “is his haunting presence.”

Another way that Gothic writers introduce doubling into their work is through the use of artwork. It is a stock device in Gothic fiction that portraits and artwork can come alive at any moment. In Lewis’s The Monk, the evil Matilda has a portrait of the Madonna painted for The Monk Ambrosio. Unbeknownst to Ambrosio, however, Matilda has had...

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