Doubles, doppelgängers and split personalities

It’s my turn to set the Culture Club agenda (we rotate this around the group). I’ve chosen as my theme: Doubles, Doppelgangers and Split Personalities, and we’re going to be looking at the following works:

  • The Confessions and Private Memoirs of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg (Novel)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde (Novel)
  • The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stephenson (Novel)
  • The Jolly Corner, by Henry James (Short Story)
  • The Secret Sharer, by Joseph Conrad (Short Story)
  • Black Swan (Movie)

There’s a selfish reason for me choosing this theme: I’m currently writing a screenplay about a Doppelganger, with the working title ‘Ghost of a Flea’ (after the William Blake painting of that name). So this is great research and background for my project and I’m immersing myself in works that are focused on the idea of ‘double identity’.

It turns out there’s a wide range of interesting stuff on this theme beyond the works I’ve chosen. In fact it was hard whittling it down to the titles listed above.

The doppelganger in 19th century fiction and beyond

I found a rich vein of 19th Century gothic novels and stories on the theme of doppelgangers, including The Double, by Fyodr Dostoevsky, The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allen Poe, the Lindenborg Pool by William Morris and Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. In these works (and those in our list) the double is a horror motif, emphasising the grotesqueness in split personalities.

Meanwhile, split personalities can be found in 20th century science fiction novels like Haruki Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Jeff Noon’s Vurt, as well as sci-fi movies like Journey to the Other Side of the Sun (aka Doppelganger) and The Man Who Haunted Himself.

Superheros as doubles

The most striking example of this theme in today’s storytelling can be found in one of the most popular and pervasive themes in contemporary cinema, the ‘superhero’.

Think about it – every superhero story is about dual identity: mild-mannered Clark Kent juxtaposed with his alter ego Superman; millionaire Bruce Wayne and his darker double Batman; scientist Bruce Banner and his raging counterpart the Hulk – it’s behind every one of them.

There are superhero movies that play with the ‘double’ theme more deeply. In Superman III our hero has to tackle an evil ‘doppelganger’ version of himself. The third instalment of a massive franchise, Iron Man 3, made much of the relationship between Tony Stark and his ‘self-creation’ Iron Man. Stark creates an autonomous version of the Iron Man persona, driving a wedge into his personal life and eventually creating a dangerous rift in his identity (it’s significant that the last line of the movie has Stark proclaiming ‘I am Iron Man’ – the schism is once again healed).


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