Style and Technique

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.

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...

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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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