The narrator of this short story prefers that his real name remain a secret. For the present, he says, we should call him "William Wilson." The reason for this secrecy, he says, is that his real name would stain the purity of the white paper he writes upon; in this same vein, he also says that the story he will relate about himself has no parallel as a tale of evil. This exaggeration is one of the distinguishing features of Poe's style.
Wilson, it seems, did not become evil by degrees, as most men do. He became suddenly evil; "all virtue dropped bodily as a mantle." (As noted in the introduction to "Stories of the Psychotic Personality," Poe believes that any man is capable of performing irrational acts at any time and that every mind can instantly move from sanity to madness.) Because he is near death, the narrator has decided to tell his story, and he hopes, though rather futilely, that someone might extend a bit of sympathy to him. He was not, he insists, evil; instead, he was a "slave of circumstances beyond human control." What happened now seems impossible; in fact, it seems more like some fearsome dream than reality. But it happened, and thus he begins his story with a description of his early years.
Wilson grew up in a "large, rambling Elizabethan house" in a "misty-looking village of England." Here, note the abundance of adjectives which Poe uses to create a "totality of effect," and there can be no argument about their effectiveness. Poe's multitude of details are spell-binding and create a complete unity of effect for this tale. In his memory, Wilson recalls "gigantic and gnarled trees," ancient houses, the chilliness of deep shady walks, and the "deep, hollow notes of the church-bell." All this can be easily visualized, but Poe's genius is most evident when he creates such a catalogue as this; it is a descriptive stage setting for his story. Note in particular one feature — the gothic church steeple, he says, lies "embedded" in this sleepy atmosphere. It is as though Poe suddenly thrust a sharp symbol of unknown mystery into his already darkly picturesque chronicle.
The school that Wilson attended was an old one, surrounded by high walls that were topped with a layer of mortar and jagged glass. It was prison-like, extremely severe, and the only respite from its strict oppressiveness were the brief walking trips on Saturdays and the ceremony of the Sunday church services. Wilson has never forgotten the preacher-principal of the school, and neither should we. The man is a paradox. In church, he had a "countenance . . . demurely benign"; yet at school, he had a "sour visage" and administered the school's laws with extreme severity. The corrupt secret about Wilson's life which he will shortly reveal to us is also a paradox: At the school is a boy with the same name, the same birthday, and of the same height and build as Wilson and, moreover, he arrives at the school on the same day that Wilson does. This cannot be, and yet it is. In addition, the "double nature" of the Reverend Dr. Bransby is an inkling of what is about to happen to Wilson; ironically, it foreshadows Wilson's confusion about this "double" at the school. As another element of foreshadowing, we should also note how Wilson describes the building where the students eat and sleep and have their instruction. The old house has "really no end"; its corridors are like a labyrinth and double back on themselves. It is easy to get lost in its bowels, and standing outside the school, it is impossible to figure out where in its two-story construction (even the construction is "double") the students sleep. The house, then, is symbolic of the two William Wilsons who will appear, and the puzzle of where the students actually sleep suggests the mysterious dreamlike nature of the story which Wilson is going to tell us. The many corridors and "windings" further evoke Poe's favorite subject: the unexplainable dimensions and secret recesses of the human soul.
From the beginning, this other William Wilson, whom we shall call the Other, was a rival of Wilson. He competed with him in the classroom, in sports, and on the playground — all of which infuriated Wilson, for he considered himself a mini-dictator of sorts among his school pals. He also considered himself somewhat of a genius and a child prodigy, and it was embarrassing that the Other challenged him to a "perpetual struggle." Secretly, Wilson feared the Other because his rival didn't seem to have a burning desire to excel and dominate; he simply excelled and dominated with ease. And when Wilson did best him, the Other was so adroit at losing that he made it seem like he should have won. Furthermore, Wilson found it infuriating that the Other seemed to like him. Not surprisingly, Wilson confesses that, as coincidence would have it, he and the Other were "the most inseparable of companions." The only discernible difference between the two chaps was that the Other could not speak above a whisper. When he did speak, his voice seemed to be a weird and ghostly echo of Wilson's own voice.
Wilson is well aware that his frustration and fear and hatred of the Other was ridiculous. The Other seemed to mock him by acting like a caricature of Wilson, but no one seemed to notice — only Wilson did. Only Wilson seemed to be aware of the Other's "knowing and sarcastic" smiles. At any minute the school might realize what a joke the Other was making of Wilson — and yet it was unfair that they couldn't see through the charade he was making of Wilson.
One night, close to the end of Wilson's fifth year at the school, Wilson got out of bed, stole through "a wilderness of narrow passages" and found his rival sleeping. He had planned to play a practical joke on him for a long time. Carrying a lamp and pulling aside the curtains, Wilson saw lying there before him in a pool of bright light, a figure who made his breast "heave," his knees "totter," and his whole spirit become "possessed with horror." The figure was Wilson, and yet it was not Wilson. His rival did not look like this "in the vivacity of his waking hours," and Wilson wondered if what he now saw "was the result, merely of the habitual practice of sarcastic imitation?" With a shudder, he put out the light and left the school, never to return again.
After some months, he enrolled as a student at Eton, where he quickly "washed away the froth of [his] past hours" and dived into a sea of "thoughtless folly." He will not describe his life of dissolution at Eton, but he does tell us of one strange incident that happened. One night after a week of partying, he and a few of his friends were drinking and gambling in his apartment when, near morning, a visitor was announced. Wilson staggered through the feeble light of dawn to the vestibule and there he barely perceived a young man, dressed as Wilson was, in the latest fashion. The stranger strode up, seized Wilson by the arm and whispered "William Wilson!" in his ear. Wilson became sober in an instant. Then the stranger's manner and, above all, his voice uttering "those few, simple, and familiar, yet whispered syllables" sent him reeling. Before he could "recover the uses of [his] senses," the stranger was gone. For weeks, Wilson "was wrapped in a cloud of morbid speculation"; had all this really happened? He inquired about the other Wilson at Dr. Bransby's school and learned that the fellow left on the same day that Wilson himself did.
The mystery seemed insolvable, so Wilson turned his thoughts to his upcoming departure to Oxford. Because Wilson's parents granted their son his every whim, he spent money wildly, indulging in every sort of vice possible, spurning "the common restraints of decency in the mad infatuation of [his] revels." In particular, Wilson was addicted to gambling, and he was quite good at it, especially at fleecing his "weak-minded fellow collegians." One of these fellows, in particular, fascinated Wilson: It was young Glendinning, rich and lacking intellect. Wilson began to let Glendinning win at cards, ripening the young man for a stunning reversal. To this end, he arranged a party of eight or ten, so that he could have an audience for his perverse plans. Glendinning performed exactly as Wilson planned, going ever deeper into debt, drinking heavily, and doubling the stakes. When the bet was quadrupled, Glendinning's face lost its wine-colored tinge, and he turned deathly pale; suddenly he became a pitiable victim to all who saw him. Just as suddenly, a stranger burst in with such a flourish that all the candles were extinguished. The stranger announced in a "low, distinct, and never-to-be-forgotten whisper" that Wilson was a fraud and a cheat. Before he vanished into the night, he challenged Wilson's friends to search their playboy gambler; they did and discovered hidden cards. Wilson's landlord stepped forward and handed Wilson his fur cloak. Wilson took it and then shuddered as he realized that his own cloak was already on his arm. Furthermore, both cloaks were rare furs, fantastically fashioned, and identical. Wilson placed the second cloak over his own and departed, leaving Oxford and going to Europe "in a perfect agony of horror and shame."
Wherever he went — Paris, Rome, Vienna, Moscow — he found fresh evidence that the Other pursued him. In desperation, he gave himself up to wine, and its "maddening influence" made him convinced that once and for all he must risk everything to gain control over this phantom who was attempting to drive him mad. During a masquerade carnival in Rome, the Other appeared, and Wilson got his chance for revenge.
Wilson remembers that he had been drinking heavily and the closeness of the room seemed to suffocate him. He was trying to force his way through a maze of people, trying to locate his host's young and beautiful wife, when he felt a light hand on his shoulder and heard that "ever-remembered, low, damnable whisper within my ear." The stranger, hidden behind a mask of black silk, was dressed in a Spanish costume identical to Wilson's. Wilson could bear no more: He raged at the stranger, loudly threatened him with death, and dragged him into a small antechamber. They struggled, Wilson drew his sword, and plunged it repeatedly into his opponent's chest.
When the doors were opened, Wilson found himself before a mirror, his pale image dabbled in blood. And yet what he saw was not a mirror: it was the Other, speaking no longer in a whisper, and Wilson fancies that he himself was speaking as the other Wilson said, ". . . in me didst thou exist — and, in my death . . . thou has murdered thyself."