The Use of Doubles in Literature
As we are, perhaps reluctantly, swept back into the Candlemas semester, the memory of this past winter break grows gossamer thin. However, such a shift in surroundings, from my comfortable childhood bedroom to a damp, frostbitten flat in the badlands, has given me figurative chilblains of the heart. I have realised how opposed my hometown and university personas are; and even, being truthful, the different faces I don for different people. Put best by Sally Rooney’s introverted protagonist from Normal People, Connell: “I feel like I’m walking around trying on a hundred different versions of myself.” So, in the spirit of feeling unresolved in our identities as young people, I present you with book recommendations filled with themes of dualistic identity and literary doubles to either exorcise our muddled feelings or, assuage our self-doubts with some reassuring relatability.
My epiphany was, in fact, inspired by my reading of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and subsequently Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle during the winter break. A literary hall of mirrors, doubling itself and its protagonist over and over, Highsmith’s critically acclaimed 1955 psychological thriller follows a mysteriously tortured yet charismatic conman, Tom Ripley, as he attempts to outrun his past and financial struggles by becoming someone else entirely. Ripley, our twisted protagonist, is the epitome of the appealing villain as he slinks across a picturesque Italian backdrop, charged with returning a wayward artist, Dickie Greenleaf, back to his shipping magnate father in New York. It may be argued repressed homosexuality resides at the novel's core, Ripley both desires to be Greenleaf and to be kept by him, a potential reflection of Highsmith’s own queerness. It is safe to say that Highsmith’s combination of succinct and intelligent storytelling and romantic travel writing, allows the reader to become both a tourist of Ripley’s tortured mind as well as the Italian sites.
Just as the reader witnesses Ripley descend into a fracturing prism of stolen identity so too is Atwood’s protagonist, Joan Foster, presented as an endless series of juxtaposed pairs, alternating between memories of her past and scenes of her present; she is both a kitsch romance novelist and a critically acclaimed feminist poet; in her past, an overweight child abused by her mother and, in her present, a thin, conventionally attractive woman unaccustomed to the relentless advances of men; as a young woman, the mistress of a psychotic Polish count and later, the wife of a bipolar socialist. Even more wonderfully absurd, Atwood’s 1976 Lady Oracle sees Foster fake her own death in an attempt to outrun her web of identities, and in Ripley fashion, rebirth herself in the sun soaked heaven of Italy. Indeed, Atwood parodies gothic romances and fairytales with acerbic wit in this novel which, despite its strange farces and twists, becomes, in the end, all too relatable.
One of the most famous examples of the use of doubles in literature is Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 gothic novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Set in a dark and dreary London, the text follows the tale of the reputable Dr. Henry Jekyll and his relationship to the devious Mr. Edward Hyde. Indeed, Stevenson utilises the characterisation of Jekyll and Hyde to explore the good and evil that, he suggests, resides in the human subconscious. Granted, we may not all have a sadistic murderer lurking inside but I think a lot more of us would be taking on May dip sans swimsuit if we were being honest with ourselves. Indeed, the text is so entirely quotable, you may wish to save up some delicious phrases for when you’re feeling particularly conflicted. For example, “I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.”
Finally, I present one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s finest shorter works, The Double. Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novel follows the socially awkward and lonesome Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, a low-level bureaucrat in Saint Petersburg struggling to fit in and gain the respect of his colleagues. In fact, those sometimes lost for words, or who do not, “possess the secret of lofty, powerful language, of the sublime style,” may commiserate with Mr. Golyadkin. After an excruciating scene of public humiliation, Golyadkin is thrown out into a cold, stormy night, cursing his social shortcomings and wishing to completely disappear. In a perverse twist of fate, he encounters his own double; initially a welcome friend to Golyadkin, their relationship later descends into a nightmare which echoes similar themes to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
With the pressures to succeed academically, socially, and independently at university, it can be difficult to find time to consider our identity and establish a stable sense of self. Relationships begin and end, we reconsider our module choices, we become estranged from our academic families. We change and perhaps our identities do as well and, even, how we perceive ourselves; we may not need to fake our own deaths or kill our evil twins but what we can learn from this long standing literary tradition of doubles and dualistic identity is that these feelings are not uncommon.