Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The sinister double, originally as the Doppelgänger, was one of the central motifs of Gothic fiction (see Gothic Fantasy) and remained an important theme in weird fiction throughout the 19th century. The notion is connected to various superstitions regarding Shadows, Mirror images and Twins, but derives much of its psychological power from the fact that we all construct civilized "social selves".

In Edgar Allan Poe's classic "William Wilson" (1840) the repressed secret self "escapes" to indulge his darker impulses, whose moral debits are naturally laid at the door of the narrator. The Devil's Elixirs (1816) by E T A Hoffmann and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by James Hogg are far more convoluted, as is certainly appropriate to the extrapolation of a relationship far more intimate and confused than any between two different people, however closely they might be bound together by blood ties or erotic obsession. Charles Dickens adapted the notion to moralistic fantasy in The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain (1848); Mrs Craik followed suit in "The Self-Seer" (1853), but Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) mercifully failed to reduce the moral problem to mere elements of Good and Evil, the absurd brutality of such a separation eventually being made starkly clear in Italo Calvino's The Cloven Viscount (1952). Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) belied the author's introductory claim that there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book, but also exemplified the difficulties involved in deciding which is which. Henry James was equally deceptive in calling his philosophically ponderous examination of the theme "The Jolly Corner" (1908).

Early-20th-century writers fascinated by doubles include Stefan Grabiński, who surrealized the theme in keeping with the literary fashion of his day, and Robert Hichens, who doggedly explored its links with the theme of Identity Exchange. Less problematic doubles are often featured in Timeslip fantasies and tales of Reincarnation, but the confrontation between a social self formed by one century and its equivalent product of a very different time can raise interesting questions relevant to the philosophical problem of identity, which surface even in such a light-hearted extrapolation of the theme as Edwin Lester Arnold's Lepidus the Centurion (1901). The comic potential was further displayed in Two's Two (1916) by J Storer Clouston (1870-1944), and was later extrapolated more thoughtfully and delicately by James Branch Cabell in There were Two Pirates (1946). In Gerald Bullett's Mr Godly Beside Himself (1924) and Vernon Knowles's "The Shop in the Off-Street" (1935) men who trade places with their Fairy doubles regain access to the world of the imagination from which they had somehow become alienated; the farcical ramifications of a similar notion are explored by L Sprague de Camp in Solomon's Stone (1942; 1956).

An important subcategory is that dealing specifically with Shadows, where the focus is usually on the loss of an entity which seems superfluous but is in some mysterious sense vital. The precedent was set by Adalbert von Chamisso's Peter Schlemihl (1813), whose theme was reworked by Hans Christian Andersen in "The Shadow" (1847), in turn reworked (in harness with another Andersen tale) by Oscar Wilde in "The Fisherman and his Soul" (1891). The most notable 20th-century shadow-fantasy is The Charwoman's Shadow (1926) by Lord Dunsany; another is "The Danger of Shadows" (1941) by Stephen Vincent Benét. [BS]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.