What Does Doppelganger Mean
The term doppelganger is derived from German doppelganger meaning ‘double-walker’. In literature doppelganger refers to a character that is the look-alike who acts as a foil to another character. Doppelgangers of the main characters often have the ability to impersonate the original character but have vastly different intentions and spirits. You might have seen countless ‘evil twins’ who impersonate the main character or cause in TV melodramas. Although such plot twists are clichés, these characters are perfect examples of the doppelganger. The concept of the doppelganger is very common mythology, legends, films, and literature.
However, doppelganger should not be confused with alter ego and foil, which are similar devices. Alter ego refers to a one character with two opposing sides. Foil refers to two characters that are juxtaposed in order to highlight the differences in their nature. We mostly use the term doppelganger to refer to two people who bear an uncanny physical resemblance.
Doppelgangers can be used to explore the nature of human beings and their uniqueness; the presence of a doppelganger also questions the concept of personal identity and free will. The doppelganger may also reflect sides of the protagonist that the protagonist himself did not know existed. Therefore, doppelgangers create conflicts and force the main character to rediscover or redefine himself.
Examples of Doppelganger in Literature
Shakespeare uses the literary device of the doppelganger in his famous play Hamlet. Hamlet’s father has been murdered before the play begins. But Hamlet is encountered by the ghost of his father. This ghost can be considered as a doppelganger; he bears a strong physical resemblance and processes all the memories, but he is only a ghost – not the real person.
Edgar Allen Poe, who often wrote on supernatural and dark themes, uses a doppelganger in his novel, “William Wilson”. The narrator, as a young boy, meets his doppelganger and his whole life begins to be taken over by this doppelganger. Given below is an excerpt from this novel.
“Perhaps it was this latter trait in Wilson’s conduct, conjoined with our identity of name, and the mere accident of our having entered the school upon the same day, which set afloat the notion that we were brothers, among the senior classes in the academy. These do not usually inquire with much strictness into the affairs of their juniors. I have before said, or should have said, that Wilson was not, in the most remote degree, connected with my family. But assuredly if we had been brothers we must have been twins; for, after leaving Dr. Bransby’s, I casually learned that my namesake was born on the nineteenth of January, 1813 –and this is a somewhat remarkable coincidence; for the day is precisely that of my own nativity.”
Joseph Conrad in his story “The Secret Sharer,” also uses a doppelganger. The story revolves around a sea captain who encounters an ex-skipper of a ship named Laggatt. Laggatt is the doppelganger of the captain; however, as the story goes on it becomes clear that the character of Laggatt is only an imaginary doppelganger.
In A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, the characters of Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, who bear an uncanny physical resemblance can be also termed as doppelgangers.