Translated from German as “Double-goer,” the term doppelgänger is used to describe the double of a character. This concept in literature did not originate in the Gothic; on the contrary, it can be traced to the beginnings of Western civilization. In the epic of Gilgamesh, for example, the eponymous hero battles and then befriends his double, Enkidu. The dualism described by Aristotle and Plato was incorporated in Judeo-Christian theology, which is built on the distinction between the body and the soul, the good and the wicked. The morality dramas that emerged from this framework reflected this duality. In John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) God and Satan can easily be read as doubles of one another. Shakespeare used many doubled characters in his comedies, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night. Experiments with duality or multiplicity of character play an important role in the history of literature leading up to the 18th century, when the Gothic was conceived.
The term 'doppelgänger' emerged around the same time as the Gothic novel, appearing for the first time in Johann Paul Friedrich Richter’s Siebenkäs (1796). The doppelgänger motif is depicted by Richter in Siebenkäs as “so heissen sie Leute die sie selbst sehen” (“So people who see themselves are called”.) The term describes a duality of the self in which a shadow, or an alter-ego, manifests itself to the original subject, and the subject has a simultaneous consciousness of being both his present self and the external other observing himself. Horror is produced at the recognition of seeing oneself from an external position, in the realization that a tragic figure that the subject has been observing is actually that of his own. The projection of fear and anxiety to an external agent returns to haunt the subject in this fashion, as exemplified by Heinrich Heine’s poem taking the term as its title:
A man stands here too, staring up into space And wrings his hands with the strength of his pain It chills me, when I behold his pale face For the moon shows me my own features again!
This horror is also heightened by the sense of uncanny or the ‘Unheimlich’ that Freud interpreted in his theory of the ‘Uncanny’ as aspects of things familiar to us which becomes distorted and are made strange. Dread is intensified as a result of discovering a familiarity to that what was feared, the subject realizing that the fear was inherently innate in his psychology. In ETA Hoffmann’s story "The Sandman", the fear Nathaniel bears for the Coppelius the Sandman as a threatening figure is reawakened by a doubling of this evil with the appearance of Coppola the glass-maker.
In other literary instances, the doppelgänger motif brings about the fear of identity theft with the startling appearance of an identical other who has subversive or malicious intentions. In Wilkie Collins' Woman in White, Laura Fairlie’s identity is taken by her double Anne Catherick, resulting in her incarceration in the asylum when her real upper-class identity being misappropriated. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the double comes from a division of the self, the two egos representing opposing figures of a good-evil dichotomy. Here, the respectable Dr. Jekyll slowly loses his sense of self-identity with the severing of his psyche into two disparate halves, and Mr. Hyde conversely beginning to take over the Dr. Jekyll’s life.
Under a doubled association, literary characters can encounter or mirror an opposite figure in significant actions, with the parallel motion of the two usually indicating an implicit similarity and inescapable relationship between the two. Despite being two characters opposing each other in Dracula, Van Helsing and Dracula bear similar traits of being foreign and authoritative father-figures to the other characters, their identification asserting the same inherent desire for power and control.
The literary Gothic’s interest in the doppelgänger highlights the period’s interest in the exploration of the psychopathological nature of man, in its scientific search for the basis of fear and dread in the psyche. The notion of a unified and stable psychology of the self is destabilized when the unconscious overcomes the ego in responding to primitive fears of identity loss and disembodiment of the soul from the body. An element of the uncanny and the macabre is thus presented in Gothic texts where the doppelgänger appears, by blurring of the boundaries between the dream state and reality, sanity and madness, introducing subjectivity into what we perceive the external world really is.
Courtesy of Ong Yong Hui, National University of Singapore and Wendy Fall, Marquette University
See also: doubling
Hughes, William, David Punter, and Andrew Smith. The Encyclopedia of the Gothic . Chichester, West Sussex, UK : Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.
Macías, Javier, and Rafael Núñez. "The Other Self: Psychopathology and Literature." Journal of Medical Humanities 32.4 (2011): 257-67. Print.