Tag Archives: roots and branches

“William Wilson”

8 Jun

In the first chapter of City of Glass, Paul Auster writes about protagonist Daniel Quinn’s double life.  After Quinn’s wife and son meet a tragic end, he starts writing crime fiction under the name William Wilson.  The alliterative appellation, with its bitten-off syllables and rhythmic stresses, seems at first like the kind of name a pulp writer would choose for a nom de crime.  This book is by Paul Auster, though, a writer with more on his mind than mere authenticity.

William Wilson is also the title character in a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.  The boarding-school story of an inveterate gambler and his slow dissolution is less well-known than Poe’s other stories, but works with themes familiar to the writer, and is worth tracking down.

Poe’s use of the double and doppelganger has had a clear influence on Auster’s work, particularly in City of Glass.  Our protagonist has enrolled in school at the same time as a more popular boy with the same name.  The pair look enough alike that they could be brothers, and in addition to sharing a name, they also share a birthdate.  (For you Poe trainspotters in the audience, the day listed as their natal date is the same as Poe’s himself.)

Throughout his life, the narrator William Wilson is persecuted by his more popular double.  Poe works interestingly with the unreliable narrator trope.  Wilson frequently tells us that he is a great gambler and is able to fleece a nobleman, only to be shown up by his doppelganger, who exposes him as a cheat.  Is the “better” William Wilson a whispering conscience to our narrator’s debauchery?  The ending of the story, a climactic confrontation between the two men, certainly points in that direction.

After reading a fair amount of contemporary literature, I had to recalibrate my brain to fully comprehend the Romantic writing style of Poe’s short story.  On my first reading I found myself skimming through what I initially saw as the overwrought paragraphs to get to the plot.  The verbose approach to the subject matter serves the material well.  Poe is able to create a mood of suspense through the character’s frequent equivocations and his attempts to rationalize his behavior.  The deliberate writing style traces a guilty character’s frame of mind, and rations out the information Poe thinks we need to keep the readers hanging and trying to figure out what happens next.

Auster would not merely lift the character’s much-hated plebian name as Daniel Quinn’s pen name.  The theme of doubles echoes throughout City of Glass, most notably in the presence of “Paul Auster of the Auster Detective Agency”.  Daniel Quinn’s three personae – his own self, his pen name (and his tough-talking protagonist in William Wilson’s novels), and the role of “Detective Paul Auster” that he assumes – also speaks to the dual William Wilsons.

An annotated e-text of the story is available at Poe Stories.  There’s also a free audio version of the story on YouTube.

Auster’s fellow New Jerseyans, the Smithereens, recorded a song called “William Wilson” that likewise drew inspiration from the Poe story.  The song appears on their 1990 album 11.