They are interesting literary elements that most commonly appear in supernatural, fantasy, and magical realism genres. Often, although doppelgängers look like another person, they act quite differently. Someone who is kind and loving might have a violent and hateful doppelgänger. This can make one’s life quite difficult and provide writers with an interesting way to create a foil.
Definition of Doppelgänger
The word “doppelgänger” comes from the German meaning “double goer,” “look-alike,” or “double walker.” The term is often related to Romantic writer Jean Paul who used it in his book Sibenkäs.
The word was originally used to describe a ghost or shadow, but today, it’s used to refer to someone who looks like another person. This might be due to some supernatural origin, meaning that the two people are unrelated and completely identical or because they appear similar through chance alone. They can act as a foil to the main character, an alter ego, and more. Sometimes the two characters might switch places, take one another’s lives, or become mortal enemies. There are some instances of people finding real-life dopplegängers with whom they are a number of physical features.
Examples of Doppelgängers in Literature
The Outsider by Stephen King
Stephen King is well-regarded as the contemporary master of horror fiction. His novels frequently include supernatural elements and fantasy. In this recent novel, published in 2018, King uses a doppelgänger as one of the story’s central elements. Here are a few lines from the novel in which the characters were contending with the fact that no one will easily believe what they’ve uncovered:
Thinking that if a person did begin considering supernatural possibilities, that person would no longer be able to think of himself as a completely sane person, and thinking about one’s sanity was maybe not a good thing. It was like thinking about your heartbeat: if you had to go there, you might already be in trouble.
A man is spotted at the scene of a terrible crime while also, at the exact same moment, recorded on video in another state. This sets the main characters on a path to find the “outsider,” a supernatural creature who can take another’s form.
William Wilson by Edgar Allan Poe
Poe’s “William Wilson” is a famous example of a doppelgänger. The short story was published in 1839 and set on the outskirts of London. It follows a man named William Wilson who, in his youth, met a young boy with the same name and roughly the same appearance. This boy slowly becomes closer to Wilson, eventually taking his face and his entire identity.
I cannot better describe the sensation which oppressed me than by saying that I could with difficulty shake off the belief of my having been acquainted with the being who stood before me, at some epoch very long ago—some point of the past even infinitely remote. The delusion, however, faded rapidly as it came; and I mention it at all but to define the day of the last conversation I there held with my singular namesake.
The narrator worries that this doppelgänger is going to take his entire life away from him, a perfect example of Poe’s ability to craft chilling psychological thrillers.
Explore Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
In the first scenes of Hamlet, the title character is confronted by his father’s ghost. He’s recently been murdered before the play began. This ghost version of Hamlet’s father is sometimes considered a doppelgänger in that the two are similar but not the same person. He’s bent on revenge and asks Hamlet to avenge his death. This is also a great example of how the supernatural lends itself to these kinds of moments. Here are a few lines from the play. The ghost is speaking to Hamlet, saying:
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.
One of the more interesting ideas that come up in these lines is in regard to Hamlet’s sanity. He loses control of his life, and readers can follow his spiraling towards madness as the play progresses. One might ask themselves if Hamlet really saw or ghost or if it was a figment of his imagination.
Discover William Shakespeare’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Use Doppelgängers?
Writers use doppelgängers in order to show another side to a character. If a doppelgänger comes into a literary work, readers will likely quickly become aware of the characteristics they share with the person they look like. More often than not, the two are quite different from one another, sharing only a physical resemblance. As is the case in Stephen King’s The Outsider, the doppelgänger is a supernatural presence in many novels and short stories.
Through the use of doppelgängers, writers can create conflict in new and surprising ways. Doppelgängers are often unpredictable, exhibiting some characteristics of the person they resemble while also forcing inner and outer conflicts. It’s easy to imagine how a writer might use a doppelgänger to create conflict in someone’s life. In the end, the doppelgänger might even allow the main character to learn something about themselves.
Related Literary Terms
- Imagery: refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Dichotomy: create conflict between characters, groups, states of being, ideas, and more.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Dilemma: a problem or conflict that has more than one possible solution. There are always important consequences one has to contend with.
- Read: Doppelgängers and Curious Myths and Stories of Spirit Doubles
- Read: Tracing the Development of the Doppelgänger
- Watch: The Eerie Doppelgänger Of Emilie Sagée