Alain Delon as William Wilson in a screenshot from the 1968 French-Italian movie Histoires extraordinaires.

"William Wilson" is a short story by the American horror writer Edgar Allan Poe. It was first published in the October 1839 issue of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine of Philadelphia and in the 1840 issue of the annual The Gift: A Christmas and New Year Present. "William Wilson" was the first of Poe's stories to be translated into a language other than English. A French translation of the story was published in two installments in the Parisian newspaper La Quotidienne in December 1844.

The story's title character and narrator is a wealthy Englishman who shows an inclination towards wickedness from a young age. At boarding school, he meets another boy who is also named William Wilson. Apart from having the same name, there are also several other similarities between William Wilson and his namesake. William Wilson's namesake irritates him by giving him moral advice. For many years after he leaves boarding school, William Wilson finds that his namesake suddenly and mysteriously reappears whenever he attempts to commit a particularly wicked act.

There have been numerous adaptations of the story to other media.


In spite of his common name, William Wilson[1] comes from an aristocratic English family. From a young age, William Wilson dominates his parents. When he goes to boarding school, he dominates all of the boys who are his age and younger, apart from one. The boy who refuses to bend entirely to William Wilson's will is also named William Wilson. As well as sharing the same name, the two boys are the same height, look somewhat similar, are equal in abilities and both entered the boarding school on the same day. William Wilson later finds out that he and his namesake were both born on the same day, January 19, 1813.[2] One distinguishing feature of William Wilson's namesake is that he has a disability which means that he is unable to speak any louder than in a whisper.

For most of their time together at boarding school, William Wilson and his namesake are neither friends nor enemies. They are constant companions, although they both make fun of each other, play jokes on each other and sometimes fight. William Wilson is disturbed by the fact that his namesake is able to do a very good imitation of him. The namesake copies William Wilson's dress, his walk and his mannerisms. In spite of only being able to whisper, he is even able to imitate William Wilson's voice. Surprisingly, William Wilson's namesake only ever does this imitation in front of William Wilson and never in front of anyone else.

Front cover of an 1840 edition of The Gift: A Christmas and New Year Present, the first book in which "William Wilson" was published.

William Wilson's namesake often gives him advice. Although William Wilson later has to admit that the advice was always sound and that he should have followed it, he is greatly irritated by this. He comes to dislike his namesake more intensely. William Wilson and his namesake have a fight, during which the namesake insults William Wilson more bravely than usual. William Wilson suddenly has the uneasy feeling that he knew his namesake long ago, when he was too young even to have memories.

That evening, William Wilson decides to play a prank on his namesake while he is sleeping. The boys' school building is a large and oddly shaped one. As a result, it has some large rooms that are used as communal dormitories and some small rooms that are used as single-person dormitories. The namesake sleeps in one of the single-person dormitories. William Wilson enters the room and opens the curtains around the bed. He is horrified to see that the face of the sleeping boy is not that of his namesake but his own. Immediately afterwards, William Wilson leaves the school and goes to Eton.

At Eton, William Wilson behaves very badly. While having a drunken party late one evening, William Wilson is told that a visitor is waiting for him in the hall. The room is illuminated only by the pale light of the approaching dawn from a small window. William Wilson sees a young man who is the same height as him and who is dressed exactly like him. William Wilson cannot, however, see the young man's face. The visitor grabs him by the arm, whispers, "William Wilson" in his ear in an accusing tone and shakes his finger at him. William Wilson is startled. He then notices that his visitor has gone.

William Wilson tries to find out everything that he can about his namesake. He is only able to find out that his namesake left the boarding school immediately after he did. William Wilson ceases to worry about his namesake because he is busy preparing to go to Oxford University.

At Oxford, William Wilson spends a lot of his time gambling and is able to earn a lot of money from it. He is introduced to another student named Glendinning who is said to be very rich. William Wilson notices that Glendinning is not very intelligent and that it will be easy to cheat him out of his money.

A student named Preston holds a party which William Wilson, Glendinning and several other students attend. William Wilson contrives to get everyone to start playing cards. Eventually, the only two players remaining in the game are William Wilson and Glendinning. Even though William Wilson has already won a lot of money from him, Glendinning insists on doubling the stakes. William Wilson beats Glendinning again. By the paleness of his face, William Wilson realizes that Glendinning is completely financially ruined.

The doors of the room are flung open. That causes a draft which blows out every candle in the room. A figure who is the same height as William Wilson and who is muffled in a cloak can dimly be seen. Before leaving, he whispers to the guests that they should examine William Wilson's clothes, telling them that they will find hidden extra cards that enabled William Wilson to cheat in the game. This turns out to be true. Preston hands William Wilson what he thinks is his cloak and tells him to leave. William Wilson already has his cloak with him. The one which Preston gave him was left behind by the mysterious visitor. Even though William Wilson's cloak is one that he designed himself, the other one is exactly like it.

1909 illustration for "William Wilson" by the British artist Byam Shaw.

William Wilson leaves Oxford and leaves England. He travels around Europe and Egypt. Whenever he tries to commit a wicked deed, his namesake appears and prevents it. The namesake is always dressed exactly like William Wilson. Somehow, William Wilson never sees his face.

At Carnival time in Rome, William Wilson attends a masquerade party at the home of the Duke Di Broglio. William Wilson and the old duke's young wife have arranged a secret rendez-vous with each other. While he is looking for the woman, William Wilson feels a hand on his shoulder and hears a whisper in his ear. He turns round to see someone dressed exactly like him, in a blue velvet cloak, with his face completely covered by a black silk mask and carrying a sword. William Wilson declares that he has had enough of being hounded by his namesake. He drags his namesake to a small room where they proceed to have a sword fight.

William Wilson easily defeats his rival and stabs him repeatedly in the chest. William Wilson is momentarily distracted by someone trying to open the room's door. When he returns, he sees what he thinks at first is a large mirror, although his reflection appears to be fatally wounded. It is William Wilson's namesake who has removed his mask. William Wilson realizes that his namesake's face looks exactly like his own. The namesake speaks. He does not whisper and his voice sounds exactly the same as William Wilson's. The namesake says, "You have conquered and I yield. Yet henceforth art thou also dead - dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope! In me didst thou exist - and in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself."


1913 poster for the film The Student of Prague.

The 1913 German silent movie The Student of Prague, directed by Stellan Rye and Paul Wegener and starring Paul Wegener as the title character, is loosely based on "William Wilson" as well as on a poem by the French writer Alfred de Musset and the Faust legend. The film concerns a penniless student named Balduin who makes a deal with a sorcerer named Scapinelli. The sorcerer agrees to make Balduin fabulously wealthy on the condition that he can take one thing away from the student forever. Scapinelli takes Balduin's reflection from a mirror. The reflection becomes Balduin's living double. The double makes it his business to ruin Balduin's chances of happiness. The film was remade in Germany in 1926 (directed by Henrik Galeen and starring Conrad Veldt) and 1935 (directed by Arthur Robinson and starring Anton Walbrook). A Czech-American English-language remake (directed by Spencer Collins and Ian McAlpine and starring Filip Dyda) was released in 2004.

"William Wilson" is one of three short stories by Edgar Allan Poe that were adapted for the 1968 French-Italian movie Histoires extraordinaires (released in the United States as Edgar Allan Poe's Spirits of the Dead and in the United Kingdom as Tales of Mystery).[3] The action in the "William Wilson" segment (directed by Louis Malle) takes place in northern Italy in the 19th century when the area is under Austrian occupation. William Wilson (played by Alain Delon) is an officer in the Austrian army. The segment also stars Brigitte Bardot as Giuseppina, a woman whom William Wilson cheats at cards.

A ten-minute Spanish-language animated film based on "William Wilson", directed by the Spanish director Jorge Dayes, was released in 1999. The film won awards at Animadrid and the Malaga Film Festival.

"William Wilson" was adapted as an episode of the American radio series The Weird Circle which first aired on the Mutual Broadcasting System on October 31, 1943. The action takes place in the present-day United States, primarily on a university campus. Unlike in Poe's original story, William Wilson's double never tells anybody else what he knows about William Wilson's misdeeds. Instead, the double continues to allow William Wilson to think of him as the only person who knows the truth about him. For that reason, William Wilson eventually decides that he has to dispose of his double. When William Wilson shoots his double, he finds that he is fatally wounded himself. He makes a full confession of his many wicked deeds before he dies. After his death, William Wilson finds that he is reunited with his double, who explains that he is half of William Wilson's soul.

An American comic book adaptation of "William Wilson" by Al Heweston and the Spanish artist Alfonso Font was published in issue #19 of Skywald Publications' Nightmare magazine from June 1974. It was reprinted in issue #1 of Eternity Comics' Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Stories from June 1988.

See also


  1. At the beginning of the story, the narrator states that he is writing under the pseudonym of William Wilson, which is similar to his real name. He states that he does not want to dirty the page by writing his real name, which has become a subject of scorn and horror.
  2. Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809.
  3. The 1968 film Histoires extraordinaires is made up of three segments, each based on a different story by Edgar Allan Poe and each with a different director. The other stories adapted in the movie are "Metzengerstein' and "Never Bet the Devil Your Head".

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