The human mind and the horrors that lurk within our psyche has always been a subject that has intrigued various Gothic Fiction authors in ways that led them to incorporate this idea as a central theme in their novels, to explore the unconscious desires of a person that are often concealed because of social constraints.
One of the thematic tools that authors utilize to highlight these repressed feelings is through the motif of the Gothic Double, an element of duality induced into a character to showcase the polarity between the good and the evil sides of an individual. Even though most of gothic fiction revolves around similar themes, authors often like to experiment and make their story unique by expressing the dual nature of humans through inanimate objects such as mirrors or paintings or by providing the evil with a separate body of its own. The motif of the double can be accounted for by the emergence of modern psychoanalytic theories that claims it to be a subversive function that occurs as a result of the increasing tension between the ‘laws of human society’ and the unconscious mind’s resistance to it. It is formulated on the basis of the unseen and unsaid aspects of the culture which has been silenced by the supposedly ‘civilized’ society. The apparition of ‘the double’ is often mistaken for the supernatural given its ghastly ambiance however according to the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’, the concept of the double is not merely fiction or mythical but undeniably real and is described by Freud as a ‘figure of repression’ rather than a spiritual presence. The double which emerges from an individual is the embodiment of the return of the repressed that is expressed by Freud to be, “the home that we refuse to acknowledge and from which we are estranged which causes the double among other eerie manifestations”. Freud’s theory of ‘The Uncanny’ apart from its psychological significance lends to the study of literature as a literary critique to account for the deranged state of the double figures in Gothic Literature.
Therefore these repressed desires, even if it can’t be observed physically, can be brought to light through the motif of the double, revealing the hidden reality.Oscar Wilde’s ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ and Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘William Wilson’ articulate the experience of self-division through the use of the Double motif to bring out the manifestation of the unconscious desires. Wilde’s and Poe’s novels both focus on the incubation of unexpressed emotions that fulminate like small ticking time bombs as a result of prolonged inhibition, bearing the motif of the double as a central component. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ follows the story of the destruction of Dorian Gray, a young and innocent lad who is the subject of a full-length portrait by Basil Hallward, a painter greatly infatuated with his beauty. Dorian untouched by society and with little knowledge of the world soon gets engulfed by the hedonistic worldview of Lord Henry wotton, who he meets through Basil and wishes to possess eternal beauty and youth just as the portrait. His wish is later mysteriously granted as he switches place with the portrait which acts as a paradigm for a mirror that reflects his moral and corporal deterioration.
Lord Henry, happy with his target takes great pleasure in spoiling Dorian’s life and convincing him to delve in acts of vanity while he remains youthful. Divergent to ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, ‘William Wilson’ is a very short straightforward story with less complexities and ambiguities that recounts the disturbing and inescapable past of William Wilson. Unlike the portrait in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’,’the double’ in ‘William Wilson’ emerges in human form, acting as a doppelganger who haunts the protagonist throughout his childhood and adulthood just as he’s about to indulge in villainous acts. Although for most protagonists the road to evil is mostly a slippery slope, for William it was more of a steep and rapid decline as his repressed guilt for committing such acts and his unconscious attempts of rescuing himself came into conscious through his recurring double.Both novels demonstrate two different ways in which the repressed, the conscious and the unconscious resurface and the way it causes the inherent fragmentation of identity in the protagonists ultimately leading to self eradication. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ engages with the subject of sinister duality hidden underneath the charade of otherwise upstanding gentlemen who mask their true sentiments when imposed with societal restrictions and pressures, as opposed to ‘William Wilson’ which is more concerned with the moral conflict in humanity, emphasizing on the conscience of the mind that acts as the superego, the component of the mind which incorporates the values and morals society to control the impulses of the Id, the impulsive part of the mind that acts according to the pleasure principle where desires have to be met immediately. The novels, ‘William Wilson’ written in the Dark Romantics era and ; ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ written in the Victorian era, were both excellent products of its time that incorporated specific elements of its period to critically emphasize the influence of the era’s norms and beliefs on the inner workings of the human mind. Dark Romanticism is a subgenre of Romanticism that evolved from the Transcendental movement in the 19th century.
It focused on darker aspects of anthropomorphized evil and an individual’s inclination to succumb to evil and self destruction as opposed to Romanticism that took an optimistic approach of the mystical aspects of the universe and believed in human virtue. While Romanticists valued emotion and beliefs moreover logic and facts, the Dark Romanticists often believed that even the most innocent and good individuals gravitate towards evil and committing sins. Edgar Allen Poe, in tradition of the Dark Romanticism, attributes madness, horror, a sense of guilt and most importantly the triumph of evil into novels such as ‘William Wilson’ to magnify the power and supremacy of the dark side of the psyche including forbidden desires such as perversion and the self destructive nature of the conscious and subconscious mind. According to Richard Wilbur, an american poet, the self-destructive nature of Poe’s protagonists indicate “the yearning of a divided nature to be whole again” which is exemplified in Poe’s doppelgänger tale, ‘William Wilson’ as the protagonist struggles for the reunion of the divided self which in the end is achieved by self-infliction.
The so called doppelganger William Wilson is the protagonist’s conscious in the form of a separate being that comes into existence as he unconsciously wishes to bring these divided identities together to form a whole. He himself acts as a ventriloquist for himself by unconsciously creating an identical identity to convince himself to get rid of his vices however consciously, he appears to have sheer hatred and annoyance towards his double. This clear contradiction between the two selves reveals his veiled guilt for falling victim to his own lust of fulfilling his desires regardless of how malignant it is.The focus on the sublime soon shifted to the uncanny during the transition from the Romantic era to the Victorian era when literary themes changed from nature-centred awe to dread towards an internalized consciousness of strangeness or fear as a result of industrialization and amplified social restrictions. The victorian era was an era of masked apprehension, criminal tendencies and dark passions caused by the strict moral conducts of the society preventing liberal behaviour. The notion of the highly idealized, ‘English Gentlemen’ was formed during this period rendering to the era’s models of proper behaviour.
Reputation became every man’s primary concern as they hid their dark desires and misdeeds under the facade of prominent respectable men. Steven Marcus, a literary critic in his extensive and prominent The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England present these so-called victorian ‘gentlemen’ as sexual hypocrites who while maintaining a respectable reputation secretly indulges in prostitution and pornography. However it isn’t only limited to sexuality but also concerns rampant drug usage and alcohol intake. These Victorian diffidence of eroticism and the double standards were brought into light in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ as a medium for the propagation of upper-class morality in the Victorian era. Wilde exhibits these dark recesses of the victorian age through the use of the doppelganger motif to exemplify that there is greater meaning behind everything than just the superficial.This motif has become a recurrent tool that is frequently adapted in Gothic Fiction as a consequence of the growing belief that there is a “certain duality in every human being” (Mathis Junger). Curator, Greg Buzwell described a doppelganger or the double standard as , “Outwardly playing a respectable role while inwardly pursuing an existence that crossed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour” just like the protagonist, Dorian Gray as he indulges in devious acts in the Opium den while maintaining an upright and virtuous repute. The use of ‘The Double’ in both the novelsWilde once stated that “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.
Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.” This same ideology is seen to be portrayed in many of his novels, including the, ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’. Dorian Gray’s double is first brought to life with these words, “… But this picture will remain always young.
It will never be older than this particular day of June… If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that … I would give everything! … I would give my soul for that!” (Wilde 24).This statement serves as the trigger for the switch to occur as he unconsciously separates his own identity. He appears to be ever youthful while his traded soul encaptured within the painting deteriorates and records every sin he gravitates towards.Wilde, unlike conventional Gothic novel authors use the portrait to represent his degenerated soul as opposed to creating a separate entity for the double, through which Dorian gets to fulfill his unmet desires as concluded from the excerpt, “even those who had heard the most evil things against him, … could not believe anything to his dishonour when they saw him… Men who talked grossly became silent when Dorian entered the room.
There was something in the purity of his face that rebuked them.” (Wilde 102) This exchange between the body and the soul between the portrait and him allowed him to explore his darkest desires as his innocent and youthful looks would serve as an alibi against his sins. However even if his sins did not directly affect his physical appearance , it affected his morality to the extent that his tortured soul trapped within the painting began to rot and became sickening to look at. Basil’s theory of ‘Sin’ to be ” a thing that writes itself across a mans face” foreshadows Dorian’s change in morality as he continues to say that, “It cannot be concealed . . . if a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands even” (Wilde 111) This statement proves to be significant to Dorian as he notices the evil smirk that has appeared on the portrait with prominent “lines of cruelty round the mouth” after the dissolution of the relationship between him and his lover, Sybil Vane which shows the beginning of the emergence of the double.
Dorian, afraid of this change endowed in the portrait quickly checks his own lips in the mirror to see if it had actually changed in reality. This course of action demonstrates a conflict with his inner self arising because of his unconscious desires.Despite his wrongdoings, he repressed his guilt thinking, “What did it matter what happened to the coloured image on the canvas? He would be safe. That was everything” His growing ignorance and his reducing fatality to his misdeeds unleashed the demons of the pandora’s box of his soul, providing the unconscious (the evil side) with more power and strength. But to Dorian ‘Evil’ was simply “a mode through which he could realise his conceptions of the beautiful” (109). He continued overlooking his sins as he eventually degenerated “to a lower, bestial level of existence”.
He locks the portrait in an abandoned room as the portrait becomes unbearable for anyone to set eyes on where “the face painted on the canvas” continues to “grow bestial, sodden and unclean”. His lack of responsibility for his actions and callousness leads him to descend deeper into the world of criminality, drugs and sexual depravity which were considered socially unacceptable in that era. Dorian, scared of his hidden private self being exposed and his public self suffering the consequences, went through great deals to disguise his duplicity in order to remain reputable in the victorian society. An american historian, Gertrude Himmelfarb states in her Manner into Morals that, “The victorians thought it no small virtue to maintain the appearance, the manner, of good conduct even while violating some basic precept of morality” which is clearly evident in the ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’. The motif of the Doppelganger in, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is further personified in the conflict present in the passage below: “He looked round and saw the knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward. He had cleaned it many times, till there was no stain left upon it. It was bright, and glistened. As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant.
It would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free. It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace. He seized the thing, and stabbed the picture with it.”The knife serves as a personification of his externally clean but internally corrupt soul. Even if his looks provide him with an escape route from his misdeeds, his soul still bears the burden of his wrongdoings just like the knife bears its hidden stain from the murder that it was used to commit even after it’s been wiped clean. It is the corrupted soul within the portrait that he attempts to kill without realizing that the death of the soul trapped in the portrait would be the death of him as it is still a part of him. As he pierces the knife into the painting he briefly becomes the hideous deteriorated self that was hidden under his beautiful facade while the portrait regains its original image.
Wilde induces the idea of Sigmund Freud’s, ‘The Uncanny’ into the painting of Dorian Gray as it ‘derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but -on the contrary- from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it’4. The portrait is Dorian’s double and at the same time not his double hence being a depiction of ‘The Uncanny’. Dorian’s outward appearance depicts who he used to be, as beautiful in the inside as he was on the outside. His entity was once ‘whole’ as opposed to his now disoriented and split self. The confinement of the soul results from sociological oppression induced into Dorian by the moral codes of the so called urbane Victorian era. Wilde, in order to further substantiate this split personality which otherwise can’t be observed in real life, makes use of fiction in such a way that it makes these subconscious thoughts, actions and its consequences observable attending to what Freud once said that, “fiction presents even more opportunities for creating uncanny feelings than are possible in real life”. Therefore it can be deduced from this analysis that the unconscious mind governs behavior to a greater degree than people suspect. Finally he uses the motif of the double to send a message to the public of how dangerous the lack of societal acceptance can be to the unconscious mind, forcing innocent and wise people to become such monsters.
Edgar Allen Poe’s novel, ‘William Wilson’ is rather similar to Wilde’s novel in its engagement with the psychological effects of fragmented identity. However the purpose for the creation of the double is different than that of Wilde’s. Poe’s double is william’s unconscious creation of a separate being to safeguard himself from his repressed desires and to keep himself from delving into vile acts. Because of the psychological detachment between the double and the self, William is able to unconsciously develop a conscious to protect himself and once the double reaches the crucial stage, it either provides the individual with the necessary impetus for a conscience or the double becomes the “uncanny herald of death.”8. The character William wilson goes through different stages of development starting from the formation of his egoistic tendencies to the repression of sexual desires to despotism.
In Freudian terms, these stages of development are termed “ego-duplication,” “ego-separation,” and “ego-substitution.”The first stage of development, the formation of his egoistic tendencies are brought to notice from his “ascendancy over” other children in the school “with a single exception” which is the doppelganger. Wilson is seen to be authoritative as he states that, “if there is on earth a supreme and unqualified despotism, it is the despotism of a mastermind in boyhood over the less energetic spirits of its companions”.
This demonstrates Wilson’s complete awareness of the dominance he has over others which he however dismisses as “unqualified despotism.”Wilson’s double in contradiction to Dorian’s is the result of his unconscious desire to prevent himself from being involved in vulgar acts by creating a separate embodiment of his virtuous self that serves as the conscience and helps him control his desire for manipulation and power.