7 (or should that be 14) of literature’s best dopplegangers

Kevin Daniels 

Whether it’s in the form of body doubles, feverish hallucinations, uncanny twins, or a mixture of all three, doppelgangers stalk the history of literature. The term itself is German for double walker, and it’s persistence as a theme is testament to the questions of identity that walk beside us, an ever present part of our human condition.

The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky is arguably the genre’s most famous example, so we’ll deem it the Complete Works of Shakespeare to this list’s Desert Island Discs. The following are another seven instances of literary doubles, all radically different to each other, all essentially the same.


William Wilson – Edgar Allen Poe

William Wilson – Edgar Allen Poe

William Wilson is just one example of the short stories that led to Poe being renowned as a master of the form. The tale’s eponymous narrator provides an account of his boyhood and education in pastoral England, where all is smooth sailing until Wilson encounters his double. This meeting signals the beginning of his gradual descent into crime and debauchery, and it would be fair to say that things go a bit ‘Black Swan.’ In one sense William Wilson is a fairly straightforward morality tale of a man wrestling with his conscience, but the restrained pace and manner of the narrative are pregnant with potential readings. Along with Dostoevsky’s The Double and the work of E.T.A. Hoffman, William Wilson laid the ground for the modern double story.


The Double – José Saramago

The Double – Jose Saramago

On the insistence of one of his colleagues, downtrodden teacher Tertuliano Máximo Afonso rents a film, only to find that one of the actors appears to be his exact double. The story that unfolds is relentlessly dark, and quite unique among doppelganger stories. So often doubles prove elusive, tantalisingly out of the protagonists reach, leaving them questioning whether they aren’t simply imagining things. That’s not the case here – it’s no huge spoiler to say that Afonso soon meets his double, who proves to be exactly that: an exact copy, down to eye colour, moles, and date of birth. I won’t reveal what happens next, but suffice to say the novel proceeds to a surprising and bloody conclusion.


The Golem – Gustav Meyrink

The Golem – Gustav Meyrink

Meyrink’s feverish, dreamlike novel is set in a double of Prague, a city that has proved a fertile source of inspiration and existential crises over the years. The manner in which Czech history has been rewritten has spawned many books about identity, and, along with Franz Kafka, Meyrink is one of the greatest exponents of this. Heavily influenced by (and possibly a satire of) the newly popular psychology of the unconscious, this is a creepy little novel in which the double is everywhere, chopped up and reflected in all sorts of uncanny events and objects – mesmerism, wax figures, and most crucially of all, the eponymous golem itself. The story of Athanasius Pernath, ghetto-dwelling jeweller and art dealer, is one that could only have been written in a post-Freud world.


The Prisoner of Zenda – Anthony Hope

The Prisoner Of Zenda – Anthony Hope

The double stories of the Victorian era often explored the darker aspects of the theme, with novels like Jane Eyre, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde preoccupying themselves with issues like repression, guilt, and privacy. Following on from this, The Prisoner of Zenda comes as breath of fresh air.

Double stories tend to fit into one of two camps – they either drip with dread or are overblown ripping yarns. Hope’s novel is certainly the latter. Set in 1894 in the fictional country of Ruritania, the heir to the throne is drugged just before his coronation, leaving the kingship set to fall into the hands of his devious brother. A last minute attempt to foil the plot sees our hero (and the true king’s distant relative) Rudolf Rassendyll roped in to pose as the monarch, given their familial resemblance. What follows is entirely far-fetched and thoroughly good fun.

By way of an interesting coda, in 1913 the German acrobat Otto Witte claimed that in (suspiciously) similar circumstances he had been crowned King of Albania for a five day spell, over the course of which he lined his pockets, enjoyed a harem, and declared war on Montenegro. Chances are he had just seen the film adaptation of Zenda, released earlier that year.


Lunar Park – Bret Easton Ellis

Lunar Park – Bret Easton Ellis

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club warrants a mention for its great take on modern masculinity and identity via peculiar psychiatry, but the award for the most postmodern of doppelganger tales must go to Bret Easton Ellis.

In response to several years trying to follow up on the phenomenal yet burdensome success of American Psycho, Easton Ellis made the canny move of writing a novel in which a fictionalised version of himself is quite literally haunted by his own success. The Ellis of the story is overweight, married to a film star (Ellis was neither at the time of writing) and also plagued by visions of Patrick Bateman, his most famous literary creation. That the cover of the UK edition features the reflection of Ellis’s face in a shard of glass is indicative of how the novel toys with the fragmented nature of identity. Lunar Park is a memoir of sorts, but one in which Ellis creates his own doppelganger. This in turn allows him to lay his demons to rest, concede weakness, and address his critics, all in the process of writing a gripping story.


Despair – Vladimir Nabokov

Despair – Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov loved to alternate between paying homage to and pouring scorn on the tropes of Western literature, so it’s hardly surprising that in the form of Despair he offered his own take on the double motif. It’s no coincidence that the location Russian businessman Hermann Karlovich first encounters his double is a rubbish heap in the aforementioned city of Prague, home to Kafka and Meyrink. In another textbook illustration of Nabokov at his most tricksy, the title in French can either refer to a pair of people, or a pair of people being unpaired, shown not to be doubles. On top of all this, and as with many a Nabokov novel, the narrator is typical unreliable, lending another layer of complexity to the mystery of the double. Playful, head-scratching, and exhilarating, Despair is a novel only Nabokov could have written.


The Sweet Valley High series – Francine Pascal

The Sweet Valley High Series – Francine Pascal

One always calls out to you, the other’s shy and quiet... Could there be two different girls who look the same at Sweet Valley High? If you’re of a certain generation, the preceding words will probably provoke a pavlovian response of either a frantic search for the remote, or singing along. The theme of the TV series, based on Francine Pascal’s books, summarise the plot nice and neatly.

Sadly enough, it’s a struggle to find many female examples of the double in the history of literature, but it could be argued that the astronomical sales of Pascal’s series goes some way towards redressing the balance. Over the course of 152 books, identical twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield (and, for a brief spell, a murderous triplet) use their resemblance for low level prom-related inanity and pedestrian detective work. The bulk of the later books in the series are ghostwritten, a doubling of authorship that probably wasn’t meant as a cute joke on the nature of writing, and the tendency of life to imitate art.