Suddenly it seemed to him that he had reached the end of the road, that ahead of him, blocking the way, was a wall with a sign on it saying, STOP, ABYSS, and then he saw that he could not go back, that the road he had traveled had disappeared.
– Jose Saramago, The Double
The existence of a second self, a private one who possesses confidence, poise, and other admirable qualities perceived to be lacking in the actual or more public self, is a quietly nurtured belief among humans. Imagining ourselves as more enchanting, intelligent, and talented than we are and wishing that this imperceptible self could surface and supplant the ordinary, observable counterpart that interacts clumsily with the world allows us to indulge temporarily in playful self-deception. Most often, this imagined persona is a harmless derivative of hidden dreams and fantasies, a trick of the mind to bolster self-confidence and foster the setting and achievement of goals in some and to merely impel others out of bed in the morning. In some cases, however, the actual self is tragically fractured or split by psychological conditions or as a reaction to circumstances, and a second self emerges, not as a glorious version of our average self but as a fraud and derailer. According to psychologists, most cases of split or multiple personality reflect the subject’s desire and efforts to live under a different set of systems and values, thereby raising the question: Do we subconsciously seek our double?
In literature, a fictional character’s encounter with his or her double is a literary plot device used frequently by writers to destabilize an authentic identity and to portray and explore the inherent duality of the human psyche. [. . .] Typically, the premise of a literal, imagined, or metaphorical second self portrays an array of psychological conditions and conflicts, ranging from mild depression and restlessness to instability, delusion, fractured identity, and other more serious mental states, making the theme of the double fertile ground for character and plot development in fiction narratives. Tales of doubles are centered around characters struggling with fragmented identities, unrequited love, and feelings of isolation, insignificance, and superfluousness. Specifically, profound loneliness and an overall dissatisfaction with one’s life are often precursory to the discovery of a double in literature. The notion that characters are predisposed to the appearance of another with their exact countenance suggests that the double is invoked; after all, it is never the emotionally and mentally sound who encounter their doppelganger.
In Jose Saramago’s The Double, the narrator describes the possible mental and emotional state of one who appears perfectly fine but who “inside, [. . .] could well be tearing themselves to pieces as a result of loneliness, neglect, shyness, what the dictionaries define as an affective state triggered by social situations [. . .]” (37). Similarly, the protagonist in Vladimir Nabokov’s Despair reveals his madness from the onset of the tale, recalling the comment of a former acquaintance that a sudden and inexplicable darkness of spirit is a sure sign of lunacy (8). “From the opening paragraph of the novel, Nabokov invites the reader to examine Hermann’s aesthetic posturing not as allegorical truth but as evidence of a deranged psyche” (Pifer). Hermann also suffers from a pervasive loneliness, which he professes in the narrative to his imagined double: “I was always lonely, Felix, and I am lonely still” (83).
Excerpts from “The Self We Seek: Psychological Aspects of the Literary Double”
by Michelle Arch
English 547: Topics in Comparative Literature