Definition of Doppelgänger
A doppelgänger is a person who is a look-alike to another person, and is often a foil in literature. Doppelgängers are often harbingers of bad things to come, and can often be evil twins to the protagonist. Doppelgängers are usually identified because they look so much like the main character, yet they could also resemble someone else in personality or behavior.
The word doppelgänger comes from German, in which it means “double goer.” The German Romantic writer Jean Paul created the definition of doppelgänger at the end of the eighteenth century for his book Siebenkäs, which deals with slightly supernatural themes.
Difference Between a Doppelgänger, Foil, and Alter Ego
Characters who are classified as examples of doppelgänger, foil, and alter ego are all somewhat similar in function in literature. All three of these devices act as doubles to the main character. In the case of an alter ego, however, that double is a part of the character him- or herself. Thus, there is no second person acting as a double; the doubling is internal. A foil, meanwhile, is a second character who contrasts the protagonist in order to highlight certain qualities of the protagonist. Finally, a doppelgänger is a second character who is so similar to the main character as to be uncanny.
- Alter Ego—One character with two opposing sides
- Foil—Two characters who are different, the juxtaposition of which highlights their contrasting natures
- Doppelgänger—Two characters who are so similar as to be supernatural
Common Examples of Doppelgänger
We are probably all familiar with finding doppelgängers of friends and acquaintances while passing or meeting strangers. It is possible that recognizing a stranger as a doppelgänger of someone we already know well helps us to make quick judgments about this stranger. Thus, if someone you meet looks like a good friend of yours, you might make positive assumptions about this stranger without knowing him or her yet. Thus, in common life, doppelgänger examples are abundant and usually don’t seem all that supernatural.
Sometimes comedians play the part of a politician in order to satirize them that the comedians become like doppelgängers of the politician. This was the case with Amy Poehler and Hillary Clinton, as well as Tiny Fey and Sarah Palin.
Here are some examples of celebrity doppelgängers:
- John Steinbeck (author) and Paul Walker (actor)
- Katy Perry (singer) and Zoe Deschanel (actress)
- Christie Turlington (model) and Jessica Biel (actress)
Significance of Doppelgänger in Literature
Examples of doppelgängers can be found in the mythologies of many different cultures. For example, Ancient Egyptian culture had the concept of ka, which was a “spirit double.” Norse mythology included ghostly doubles called vardøger, which anticipate living people and perform the actions the real people will do in advance. In Finnish mythology we can find a similar concept called etiäinen, which means “first-comer.” Some cultures have also include doppelgänger examples which are personifications of death, such as in Breton, Cornish, and Norman folklore.
Clearly, the concept of the doppelgänger has had a tremendous impact on cultures for many millennia. However, it has only more recently become a part of Western literature. While in real life doppelgängers may not seem to be that strange or supernatural, they almost always signal a supernatural theme in literature. Doppelgänger examples can be used to explore what makes us human, and what makes us unique; the presence of a seeming twin challenges concepts of free will and personal identity. Therefore, when an author chooses to create a doppelgänger that the protagonist comes across, this usually makes the protagonist reflect on who he or she really is. Similarly, this doppelgänger may reveal sides of the protagonist that the protagonist did not know existed or never liked. Doppelgängers thus create conflict in their sameness and force the protagonist to more distinctly define him- or herself.
Examples of Doppelgänger in Literature
GHOST: 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.
(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
Hamlet’s father, the king, has been murdered just before the William Shakespeare’s play begins. Hamlet is confronted by the ghost of his father, who is a more literal example of doppelgänger than the other examples here. This ghost possesses King Hamlet’s memories and bears a strong physical resemblance to him. Yet, of course, he is a ghost and is bent on revenge, asking Hamlet to carry it out for him. Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most supernatural plays, with an emphasis on the witches and the king’s ghost, and their influence on the “natural” world. The ghost also brings into question Hamlet’s mental soundness, a theme that will continue throughout the rest of the tragedy.
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.
(“William Wilson” by Edgar Allen Poe)
Edgar Allen Poe is a famous Gothic writer, meaning that his stories and poems often dealt with supernatural and dark themes. His story “William Wilson” is one of the best doppelgänger examples in all of literature. The narrator meets his double, and this doppelgänger slowly begins to take over his entire identity. In the above excerpt, the narrator describes the uncanny nature of feeling like he has met his doppelgänger long ago, even in perhaps a past lifetime. The worry that the narrator has is that he will cease to exist because his doppelgänger will subsume his life.
It was, in the night, as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror.
It would not be true to say I had a shock, but an irresistible doubt of his bodily existence flitted through my mind.
(“The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad)
In Joseph Conrad’s story “The Secret Sharer,” a sea captain is confronted with appearance of a murderer named Leggatt. As the story goes on, the reader begins to doubt the reality of Leggatt, as he seems to be such a perfect doppelgänger to the captain that he may be just a figment of the captain’s imagination. The brilliance of the story is the ambiguity of Leggatt’s existence, and the way we begin to think that he is displacing his guilt onto an imaginary doppelgänger.
Test Your Knowledge of Doppelgänger
1. Which of the following statements is the best doppelgänger definition?
A. An evil side of the protagonist, which only comes out sometimes.
B. The villain, who highlights some particular quality of the main character.
C. A character who is either a physical look-alike of the protagonist or very behaviorally similar.
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2. Why might an author choose to create a doppelgänger example in his or her work?
A. To demonstrate a natural occurrence.
B. To challenge the main character to define him- or herself, or to create a supernatural mood.
C. To show that he or she is writing a piece of folklore.
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3. Which of the following quotes from Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “William Wilson” is the best indicator of the story being a doppelgänger example?
The words were venom in my ears; and when, upon the day of my arrival, a second William Wilson came also to the academy, I felt angry with him for bearing the name, and doubly disgusted with the name because a stranger bore it, who would be the cause of its twofold repetition, who would be constantly in my presence, and whose concerns, in the ordinary routine of the school business, must inevitably, on account of the detestable coincidence, be often confounded with my own.
I would not, if I could, here or to-day, embody a record of my later years of unspeakable misery, and unpardonable crime.
The vortex of thoughtless folly into which I there so immediately and so recklessly plunged, washed away all but the froth of my past hours, engulfed at once every solid or serious impression, and left to memory only the veriest levities of a former existence.
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