Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

One of Poe’s favorite techniques is to tell a story in such a manner that the reader is not quite sure what happens. In “William Wilson,” for example, it is not easy to know what Wilson actually sees when he looks into his namesake’s face or, in the final scene, when he confronts the blood-spattered figure that may or may not be his reflection. Poe refuses to make his tales transparent for two major reasons. First, he is convinced that, in the nature of things, truth is difficult to know because it is difficult to separate appearance from reality. William Wilson admits that he may have hallucinated the events of his story and that his entire existence may be a dream. Second, Poe deliberately blurs events so that the reader will question the story’s literal level and look beneath its surface to discover allegorical meanings.

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On a literal level, William Wilson and his namesake are distinct individuals; on an allegorical level, the two represent the warring parts—the physical and the spiritual—of the divided self. Allegorically, it makes sense that William Wilson does not become aware of his namesake’s existence until age ten, the age, according to Poe, at which psychic wholeness is lost and the split in consciousness emerges. It makes equally good allegorical sense that William Wilson sees less and less of his spiritual self as the split in consciousness widens and intensifies with age.

The story’s major events and characters all have allegorical significance. That Dr. Bransby is both a benevolent pastor and a rigid schoolmaster underlines the theme that all human beings are made up of contradictory impulses. That William Wilson spends his early years in a remote, circumscribed, and dreamlike setting suggests, allegorically, that the child’s vision has not yet been compromised by contact with the mundane world. That the final confrontation between the earthly Wilson and his spiritual counterpart occurs during a masquerade is allegorically appropriate; indeed, Poe uses this pattern in “The Cask of Amontillado,” “Hop-Frog,” and “The Masque of the Red Death” as well. In Poe’s writings, to cover oneself with a mask or a veil or a costume is to retreat temporarily from consciousness of the outer world to consciousness of the inner world, site of the civil war that rages in every human breast. Poe’s deliberate obscurity both points to the complexity of truth and invites the reader to look for allegorical meanings beneath the surface of the tale.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 158

Burluck, Michael L. Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytical Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

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