The doppelgänger is an uncanny motif comprising two distinct types: (1) the alter ego or identical double of a protagonist who seems to be either a victim of an identity theft perpetrated by a mimicking supernatural presence or subject to a paranoid hallucination; (2) the split personality or dark half of the protagonist, an unleashed monster that acts as a physical manifestation of a dissociated part of the self. Studies of the motif which consider these types tend to view the difference between them as a formal one only. However, if the two types are treated as distinct perspectives on the theme of identity in crisis, a reading emerges in which, although the doppelgänger motif apparently subverts our notion of identity, it in effect operates in a conservative manner reinforcing the necessity of socialisation. The case of the identical alter ego belongs to the mirror stage which states the necessity of identifying with an external image in order to develop an ego; I must identify as ‘I’ that which is not me. The case of the split personality belongs to the Oedipal stage which states the necessity of demonizing the socially unacceptable sides of the self; I must other as ‘not-I’ that which is myself.
The central premise of the doppelgänger motif poses the paradox of encountering oneself as another; the logically impossible notion that the ‘I’ and the ‘not-I’ are somehow identical. Originating in the German Schauerroman and the British Gothic novel, the doppelgänger, like the vampire, was a product of early nineteenth-century fascination with folklore; derived from the superstitious belief that seeing one’s double is an omen of death, the doppelgänger motif fuses supernatural horror with a philosophical enquiry concerning personal identity and a psychological investigation into the hidden depths of the human psyche.
Specifically, doppelgänger narratives involve a duality of the main character who is either duplicated in the figure of an identical second self or divided into polar opposite selves. These two modes of doubling have since the earliest studies of the doppelgänger motif been categorized as distinct types: firstly, the alter ego is an identical double; the ‘duplication’ of a protagonist who seems to be either the victim of an identity theft perpetrated by a mimicking paranormal presence or subject to a paranoid hallucination as in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s convoluted narrative of madness and mistaken identity, The Devil’s Elixirs, Dostoevsky’s The Double or Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘William Wilson’, the tale of a man who murders his own conscience, personified as a mirror double. Secondly, the ‘divided’ or split personality features a monster double; the dark half of the protagonist, an unleashed vengeful fiend that acts as a physical manifestation of a dissociated part of the primary self, such as the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or, more explicitly, in the case of Dr. Jekyll’s too intimate companion, Mr. Hyde .
From a formalist point of view alone, this typology of the doppelgänger should be considered significant because it demonstrates in a radical way how the use of character foils is anchored in the basic rhetorical figures of repetition and contrast. Foils illuminate and in a sense even help construct the identity of the main character through a play of similarity and difference; Hamlet and Laertes, for instance, share a similar desire to avenge the murder of their fathers, but are diametrically opposed in temperament: Laertes’ hot-headedness contrasts with and emphasizes Hamlet’s reflective and indecisive nature. Thus, Laertes is an implicit double of Hamlet, accentuating certain of Hamlet’s character traits through repetition and contrast. This logic of repetition and contrast is brought to an extreme in the doppelgänger motif’s explicit duplication and division of the protagonist; the identical alter ego representing complete likeness and the split personality representing absolute contrast. However, rather than accentuating and developing the character of the protagonist, the doppelgänger poses a threat to his existence, because his unique identity is imperiled either by the indistinguishable sameness of the identical alter ego or by the antithesis of the split personality. The doppelgänger is indeed a harbinger of death, because its presence threatens to annul the identity of its host; as Mr. Golyadkin tells his doppelgänger in Dostoevsky’s The Double: ‘Either you or I, but both together is out of the question!’ (Dostoevsky, 1846, 97).
Gothic literature employs irrational excess and unnatural transgression in accounts of depravity and dissolution that serves to momentarily subvert the values and boundaries of society, provoking unease and ‘terrorizing’ the reader in order to ultimately re-establish and confirm (ostensibly at least) the necessity of these very values and boundaries. The excessive sameness or contrast of the doppelgängers in this sense momentarily subverts our notion of personal identity by taking to a terrifying extreme two means of identity formation: identification and othering. In narratives featuring an identical alter ego the protagonist is trying to resist a process of identification with a doppelgänger who seems to be taking over or merging with his identity. In narratives featuring a split personality, the protagonist makes the fatal mistake of not securing his identity by othering or disavowing as ‘not-I’ a part of his self which ought to have been disclaimed. Once unleashed, this monster-self cannot be controlled, and its murderous rampage can only be terminated in the final fatal confrontation. The Gothic doppelgänger motif in this way subverts identification and othering as a means of identity formation, yet arguably does so only in order to re-establish them as a necessary part of the socialisation of the individual through the negative example of the ill-fated protagonist.
Curiously, despite descriptions of the formal features of these two types in several studies of the doppelgänger, the thematic significance of this typology has not been considered. Doppelgänger narratives have traditionally been interpreted in Freudian terms as allegorizing the struggle for domination between the ego and the id (or alternatively the superego). More in depth interpretations have viewed doppelgängers as symbolizing specific repressed material, for instance Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s feminist analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s madwoman in the attic as Jane Eyre’s ‘darkest double’, a projection of suppressed rage against the confined life of a governess (Gilbert and Gubar, 1979, 360). This kind of interpretation of the double as representing the repressed emotion and acting out the forbidden desire of the main character works well with the split personality doppelgänger: deformed and violent beastlike outcasts, who contrast with their civilized hosts. However, when referencing Freud’s influential analysis of the doppelgänger as ‘the return of the repressed’, it is important to note that he meant specifically the repressed self-love of primary narcissism, which returns in the uncanny shape of an identical alter ego as a symptom of the failure to invest one’s libido in ‘proper’ object-love (Freud, 1919). This narcissism is suggested in the typical scenes in which a protagonist confuses his own mirror image with the identical doppelgänger, and in his fluctuating feelings of attraction and aggression towards the other self; a strangely intimate relationship, faintly homoerotic, yet increasingly antagonistic. So, the Freudian approach might after all suggest a thematic divergence between the two types of doppelgängers where the identity crisis experienced by the protagonist is either due to a narcissistic erotic-aggressive tension in relation to his self-image, as in the case of the identical alter ego, or stems from an ambivalence about demonizing the socially unacceptable side of his self, as in the case of the split personality.
At this point, we might simply conclude that the identical alter ego and the split personality have been lumped together under the heading of the doppelgänger motif for formal reasons only. However, recalling my earlier claim that doppelgängers subvert our notion of personal identity by taking to a an extreme the two means of identity formation, identification and othering, and moreover, combining this notion with the narcissism and demonizing themes, we find that the protagonists of doppelgänger narratives turn out to be defiant Gothic rebels fighting (to no avail of course) against the process of socialisation: in the identical alter ego stories the protagonist is trying to evade identification with the image of himself; he is basically hesitant about seeing himself from the outside, as another. In Lacanian terms, he refuses the self-alienating identification with the specular image of the mirror stage. In the split personality stories, the protagonist is ambivalent about othering and demonizing an aspect of himself which is considered unacceptable in society and must be renounced for the greater social (or conventional) good. Again, in Lacanian terms, he is trying to circumvent the symbolic castration which is implemented by the Name-of-the-Father and necessary for one’s entry into the Symbolic. The Lacanian approach thus reveals the connection as well as the variation between the doppelgänger types, since it shows how both epitomize a struggle with the self-alienation inherent in the process of becoming a subject and achieving a social identity, yet the two types belong to different phases of this process; the mirror and oedipal stages, respectively. To see how this works in more detail, I will take a closer look primarily at Dostoevsky’s The Double and Robert Louis Stevenson’sStrange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The Double is the story of Mr. Golyadkin, an awkward Russian office clerk on the periphery of the St. Petersburg social circle to which he aspires. Unable to admit to his own jealousy and paltry ambitions, he projects these feelings onto his ‘enemies’; colleagues whom he accuses of brownnosing and envious backstabbing. One evening, he crashes a party he desperately wants to attend, makes a fool of himself and gets kicked out. In this moment of despair, just as he is about to jump off a bridge, an odd sensation goes through him, he involuntarily steps aside and thinks he hears someone speak. No one is there, but on his way home he encounters his doppelgänger and namesake, Golyadkin junior, whom he initially befriends. However, the double starts usurping his office functions and mocking Golyadkin senior while ingratiating himself with everyone else. The original Golyadkin frantically tries to justify himself to his superiors but is, finally, in a terrifying repetition of the first party scene, brought into the ballroom by his double, kissed goodbye in front of the guests, and carted off to the insane asylum by his doctor, who now appears to him in the shape of the Devil.
The uncanny effect of an identical alter ego like Golyadkin junior hinges on the fantastic hesitation between a realistic and supernatural explanation: is the menacing doppelgänger a symptom of insanity in the protagonist or an actual paranormal presence? Most of the nineteenth-century stories of identical alter egos contain, on the one hand, a level of psychological realism, where the doppelgänger is an autoscopic hallucination brought on by madness, and, on the other hand, a theological level where the protagonist represents the great sinner and his phantom doppelgänger is either a tempting devil as in James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, or an admonishing guardian spirit like William Wilson’s personified conscience, a scenario which of course easily translates into Freudian terms as the pull of unconscious desires vs. superego guidance. As evident in his later works, the idea of the great sinner held a special fascination for Dostoevsky, and Golyadkin senior can be read as an early study of this character concept. However, Golyadkin junior, in Dostoevsky’s unique take on the doppelgänger motif, rather than representing demonic temptation or angelic guidance, is a literal interpretation of the Pauline metaphor of the ‘new man’ or reborn self which replaces the ‘old man’ or sinful self at the moment of conversion:
[t]hat ye put off […] the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).
This new redeemed self appears to Golyadkin senior as a usurping doppelgänger stealing his identity; he feels tossed aside like an old redundant rag, speculating wildly that if someone had indeed turned him into a rag:
he would have been a rag and not Golyadkin – yes, a nasty, filthy rag; but that rag would not have been a simple rag, it would have been a rag possessed of dignity, it would have been a rag possessed of feelings and sentiments. (Dostoevsky,1846, 73)
On the level of psychological realism Golyadkin senior’s insistence on personal dignity (the Christian sin of pride) is, ironically, his one appealing trait and makes it possible to interpret him as one of the so-called ‘superfluous men’ of Russian nineteenth-century literature, incapable of fitting into the hierarchical state-centered society. Dostoevsky thus plays the modern values of the level of psychological realism and Christian values of the theological level out against each other, so that the reader is presented with two opposing plots: one where the integrity of Golyadkin’s true personality is replaced by ‘the false Mr. Golyadkin’ a hypocritical mask necessary for social survival, and another where the misanthropy and selfish pride of Golyadkin’s sinful nature is replaced by the altruism and charity of his divine nature (Dostoevsky, 1846, 116).
What I have referred to as the theological and modern levels in Dostoevsky’s doppelgänger narrative are basically contrary valuations of the process by which the ego-identity is constructed as the human face of the subject. In Lacanian theory, the ego is the result of the infant’s identification with his own mirror image. Lacan writes:
[w]e have only to understand the mirror stage as an identification, in the full sense that analysis gives to the term: namely the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image. (Lacan, 1949, 2)
Recognizing his own mirror image, the infant thus appropriates it as ‘himself’. Yet in a sense this is a misrecognition, a case of mistaken identity, since the specular image is, strictly speaking, not the child, but something outside the subject. In a similar way the identical alter ego appears ‘from outside’ the main character and proceeds to take overhis identity as in the case of Golyadkin junior, or alternatively merge with him like the doppelgänger in Confessions of a Justified Sinner who tells his host:
I feel wedded to you so closely that I feel as if I were the same person. Our essences are one, our bodies and spirits being united, so, that I am drawn towards you as by magnetism, and where ever you are, there must my presence be with you. (Hogg, 1924, 158)
The infant in the mirror stage jubilantly assumes the image which represents his body as a unified whole, but the disparity between this coherent external image and the real body which, still lacking motor control, is perceived as fragmented, gives rise to an aggressive tension and jealousy. Likewise, Goyadkin senior initially experiences a brief sense of mastery at the thought that he could be a mentor to his doppelgänger, but soon begins to perceive him as a rival and, already suffering from delusions of persecution, believes that the doppelgänger is involved in a conspiracy against him. This tension between the protagonist and the identical alter ego invariably escalates to the point where it becomes a fight to the death: Golyadkin senior absurdly tries to challenge his doppelgänger to a duel, a final confrontation which is in fact carried out in Poe’s ‘William Wilson’.
In the end Wilson, although he succeeds in killing his doppelgänger, is no better off than Golyadkin, since committing the murder makes him the ‘outcast of all outcasts most abandoned’ (Poe, 1839, 96). Defeated or victorious, Golyadkin and Wilson become outcasts: this is the unavoidable fate of the subject of the unconscious, since he must either become alienated from ‘himself’, in other words the reified ego which is the result of his identification with the specular image, or forever remain outside the world of human interaction, for which an ego is a necessary prerequisite. Golyadkin’s banishment to the asylum (or decent into hell) can be construed as the fate of the subject of the unconscious once the ego – that part of us which we normally would consider our identity – develops. In a sense then, the nineteenth-century doppelgänger motif can be said to prefigure the basic discovery of psychoanalysis that the ego is not the subject, but rather an imaginary construct.
The development of the ego, however, is only the first step in the Lacanian socialisation process. The second step consists in castration: the acceptance of the Oedipal prohibition which implements the Law, understood as the fundamental principles of human social relations. This final step constitutes the resolution of the Oedipus complex and allows entry into the symbolic order. Whereas the protagonist in stories of identical alter egos refuses to accept the identification with his specular image which is necessary for the development of the ego, stories of split personalities can be construed as portraying a protagonist who will not fully accept the Lacanian castration that is a requirement for assuming a social identity. Basically this means that the second type of doppelgänger narrative is about what happens when one does not accept the basic restrictions and limitations of the social order and the human condition.
Analyses of doppelgänger narratives tend to focus on the symbolic significance of the doppelgänger itself, obscuring the role of the protagonist, and Dr. Jekyll, who does not even narrate his own story until the final chapter, is perhaps easy to overlook as simply the Victorian gentleman who falls prey to the animal urges of his more sensational double. But Jekyll is of course no innocent victim: he invents the potion that transforms him into Hyde and thereby sets in motion the events that eventually lead to his own destruction. Like Frankenstein before him, Jekyll is a mad scientist; an overreacher defying the natural order of things. To the ancient Greeks such rebellion against the divine law was hubris, the presumptuous transgression which always brings about the downfall of the tragic hero. In Lacanian terms it is the disavowal of castration and the Law; the unwillingness to accept what Jekyll terms ‘the restrictions of natural life’ (Stevenson, 1886, 57). In either case it invariably causes madness, despair or death.
Frankenstein’s crime against the Law is the disavowal of the immutability of death; out of grief for his recently deceased mother, he becomes obsessed with imparting life to inanimate matter. But death and lack are constitutive of the symbolic order, and the result of Frankenstein’s experiment is a monstrous double whose rage at being isolated from all human society drives him to murder Frankenstein’s family and friends. Jekyll’s crime against the Law is not the denial of death, but the ‘perverse’ structure of simultaneous avowal and disavowal of castration. Jekyll believes that he can uphold the Law and break it at the same time by splitting himself in two; although Jekyll can experience pleasure through Hyde, he does not believe himself responsible for Hyde’s actions. Hyde is characterized by uncouth manners, dark skin, a troglodytic appearance and apelike behaviour; terms which consistently place him in the role of the Other to Jekyll’s Victorian gentleman in terms of class, ethnicity, evolutionary stage and species. Yet, Jekyll initially approves his doppelgänger: ‘I was conscious of no repugnance, rather of a leap of welcome. This, too, was myself’ (Stevenson, 1886, 51). Conversely, other people find Hyde detestable: ‘I never saw a man I so much disliked, and yet I scarcely know why. He must be deformed somewhere’ (Stevenson, 1886, 11). Thus, Jekyll does not hate and demonize Hyde as the rest of society does, but thinks he can have it both ways; keep his social identity as a respected doctor and at the same time experience the uninhibited freedom of his doppelgänger. Of course this is impossible; the lesson of split personality stories is that breaking or trying to circumvent the Law causes the loss of one’s social identity and expulsion from the symbolic order.
Although the Gothic doppelgänger seems to subvert our notion of identity, it in effect operates in a conservative manner reinforcing the necessity of socialisation, since the fate of the protagonist functions as a negative example in order to show that resistance to the process of socialisation is futile. The two types of doppelgänger narratives represent this futile resistance at two stages of the process: The case of the identical alter ego belongs to the mirror stage which establishes the imaginary order and states that internalizing the specular image is necessary in order to develop an ego: I must identify as ‘I’ that which is not me. The case of the split personality concerns Lacanian castration and the necessity of renouncing the socially unacceptable sides of the self in order to gain access to the symbolic: I must other as ‘not-I’ that which is myself.
- This typology of the doppelgänger originated in Rank, Otto (1925). Der Doppelgänger: eine psychoanalytischer Studie. (Leipzig, Vienna, and Zürich: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag). Primary studies dealing with the typology are Tymms, Ralph (1949). Doubles in Literary Psychology. (Cambridge: Bowes and Bowes), Miyoshi, Masao (1969). The Divided Self: A Perspective on the Literature of the Victorians. (New York: New York University), Press Rogers, Robert (1970). A Psychoanalytic Study of the Double in Literature. (Detroit: Wayne State U.P.) and Herdman, John (1990). The Double in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. (Macmillan).
Dostoevsky, Fyodor (1846). The Double. Dover; Courier Dover Publications
Freud, Sigmund (1919). “Das Unheimliche”, in Studienausgabe, Vol. 4, (1970)
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar (1979). The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed. (Yale University Press, 2000)
Hogg, James (1824). The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner(Edinburgh University Press, 2002)
Lacan, Jaques (1949). “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as revealed in Psychoanalytical Experience.” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Norton, 2001)
Poe, Edgar Allan (1839). “William Wilson”. Selected Tales. (Penguin Popular Classics, 1994)
Stevenson, Robert Louis (1886). Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (Norton Critical Edition, 2003)