The doppelganger is my favorite underused literary device. The word is German, literally meaning “double walker,” and represents the double of a character, typically an evil twin, or a ghostly double of a living person. The most famous literary doppelgangers are Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and Edgar Allan Poe’s two Williams in “William Wilson.” Alfred Hitchcock was fond of using doppelgangers in his films, and they are present in both Vertigo and Psycho. There are few other famous examples of literary doppelgangers, however, as the concept is far more prevalent in German folklore.
According to tradition, doppelgangers have no shadow and cast no reflection. To meet one’s doppelganger is a sign of a coming death or illness. Historical cases include President Abraham Lincoln and poet John Donne. In Noah Brooks’ book, Washington in Lincoln’s Time, when Lincoln was elected in 1860 he looked into the mirror and saw two versions of himself. He reportedly told his wife what he saw, and she grew fearful, thinking it was an omen of his death. Donne claims that he saw his wife’s doppelganger on a trip into Paris, and when he returned to London he found that his wife had delivered a stillborn baby in their home.
Whether or not these instances actually happened is a matter of contention, but the doppelganger as a literary device is invaluable. It displays the character’s internal conflict between good and evil in a concrete image rather than an abstract thought. For example, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian’s portrait becomes more grotesque looking with every crime Dorian commits, although Dorian himself remains eternally young. As Dr. Jekyll’s sins and crimes grow more severe throughout The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he finds himself turning into Hyde involuntarily, and unable to transform back into Dr. Jekyll.
I am unable to find any examples of doppelgangers in recently published works, and am afraid the device has gone out of style. Perhaps some author will bring it back into style in the coming years? Maybe we could start a “Save the Doppelganger” fund?
I am soliciting donations.