“Mirror Image”: 7 Books That Focus on Doppelgängers/Doubles

To complement my previous post that was about books featuring identical twins, I am presenting this list of 7 books that feature doppelgängers and look-alike people. Doppelgängers or doubles sometimes appeared in folklore and paranormal stories and, famously, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German writer, saw his identical self on horseback. The way literature deals with this phenomenon is also curious, giving rise to very thought-provoking and interesting psychological situations, with characters or narrators sometimes questioning their own identity. In that vein, short stories by Edgar Alan Poe (William Wilson [1839]), Henry James (The Jolly Corner [1908]) and by Guy de Maupassant (La Horla [1887]) all focused on this theme, and this situation involving the meeting of two look-alike people also appeared in such novels as Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities [1859] and in Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat [1957].

white castle pamukI. The White Castle [1984] by Orhan Pamuk

In this book, Turkish author and Nobel Prize Laureate Orhan Pamuk introduces a young Italian scholar who becomes a prisoner in the Ottoman Empire. He meets Hoja (the master) and it soon becomes apparent that both men are virtually identical to each other in appearance. Fiercely intelligent, uncanny and mythical, The White Castle may a short novel, but it astutely portrays a curious situation whereby the two men grapple with each other, each other’s identities, each other’s knowledge and with their respective countries’ histories and cultures.

despairII. Despair [1934/65] by Vladimir Nabokov 

In this story, Hermann Karlovich meets a homeless man in Prague and this homeless man appears to Hermann to be his doppelgänger. One odd situation arises when Hermann tries to persuade Felix, his newly-found acquaintance-doppelgänger to impersonate him. Stylish and beautifully-written, this little novel will surprise and delight fans of psychological novels with macabre elements in them. 

the double saramagoIII. The Double [2002] by Jose Saramago 

In this story by one of my favourite authors, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, a teacher, sees his double/look-alike in a film which he rented from a store and becomes intrigued. Tertuliano decides to meet his double and finally find out which man is “an original one” and which one is merely “a copy”. Apparently, a meeting like this always has consequences. Imaginative and thought-provoking, The Double may not be Saramago’s best novel, but it is still very cerebral and fun to read.

the doubleIV. The Double [1846] by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 

The Double is a novella about one person’s psychological struggle and search for identity. It tells of Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, a governmental clerk in St Petersburg, who sees his exact double who appears completely opposite to him in character and attitude. Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin’s relationship with his double leads him to unimaginable places and realisations.  

the devil's elixirV. The Devil’s Elixirs [1815] by E. T. A. Hoffmann

This very enigmatic book from the author of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King [1816] is comprised of one or rather numerous complex narratives interwoven together – history repeats itself at every corner here as the main character Medardus, a monk, travels from his monastery to Rome pursued by his double. This book is said to be loosely translated from the German, and I will probably only be able to review it fully after completing a number of re-reads.  

the prince and the pauperVI. The Prince and the Pauper [1881] by Mark Twain

This tale is probably the best known on this list. Twain’s novel dramatizes a situation whereby two boys meet who are the same age and are identical in their appearance. One boy is Tom Canty, a pauper who lives in poverty in London, and another – the son of Henry VIII of England. Twain is interested to know what happens when these two boys decide to switch places “temporarily”. Naturally, since kingship is concerned, Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask [1839] comes to mind which also plays with the idea that Louis XIV had a twin brother Philippe, who was the real Man in the Iron Mask. Moreover, Russian medieval history is also full of impersonators such as False Dmitry I (1606) and Russian children’s book Tri Tolstyaka is based on the premise that a girl named Suok looks identical to one doll of one young prince, means that she has a chance to get into the palace by impersonating the doll that can dance and walk by herself.

the return of martin guerreVII. The Return of Martin Guerre [1983] by Natalie Zemon Davis

Since we are now talking about mistaken identities and identity thefts, The Return of Martin Guerre must also be mentioned. This is probably one of those rare cases when a film came before a book. Le Retour de Martin Guerre [1982] with Gerard Depardieu is a French-language film that tells of a case of one possible impostor in the 16th century France after one man returns from the war to his family. Natalie Zemon Davis, a famous historian, wrote a book about the case in 1983, and Hollywood movie Sommersby [1993] with Richard Gere and Jodie Foster was the remake of that film, but transporting the events to the American Civil War. 

Do you know any other books that centre on doubles or feature this theme? Do you find them fascinating?

27 thoughts on ““Mirror Image”: 7 Books That Focus on Doppelgängers/Doubles

  1. Fascinating list, Diana! I haven’t heard of most of these books, but I am particularly interested in the phenomenon. I’m especially drawn to the ones of Pamuk and Hoffman, and I’m pleasantly surprised at hearing that Saramago and Dostoyevsky had penned those novels—and with exactly the same titles, at that! More to add to my list during the quarantine. Great post, and hope you stay safe during this time.

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    1. Thanks and I hope you are staying safe as well! I really enjoyed Pamuk’s novella – I highly recommend it, especially if you like stories with intricate psychology. Hoffmann’s book is very challenging – it was for me, anyway. It is difficult to see the bigger picture there or the wood for the trees, shall I say, because all the details and repeated narratives and characters sway you from the bigger theme. I have heard that the translator Ian Sumter took at lot of liberty when translating and was even inventing some things as he went along – I am not sure how much of that is true since I do not read German. Still, it is a very intelligent work which I would want to re-read in future.

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      1. It’s called “The Case of the Dead Ringer,” and Perry’s lookalike speaks in a salty, British seadog accent 🙂 (I’ve seen lots of episodes multiple times too, and it seems true that this one is rarely played.)

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  2. So thrilled to see Saramago get a mention! He’s one of my all-time favourite authors too, and yet so few English readers seem to know about him apart from “Blindness” . . . “The Double” was a little hit-or-miss for me, but I find Saramago is always worthwhile.

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    1. Yes, I think Saramago can never get too much attention or emphasis 🙂 Yes, I do recognise that “The Double” is far from his best work but still I understand how he wanted to present a very strange situation there. “The Cave” is probably my favourite work of his.

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  3. Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey, and The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart (which seems to be inspired by the former … ) — suspense novels that hinge on lookalikes and deception. I do find this a fascinating theme with the questions it brings up about identity, social relationships vs. who we are in our core.

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    1. Thanks for these suggestions – I especially want to read The Ivy Tree now! I also love doubles in thrillers and suspense and I agree that they do make you think differently about the nature of identity. I have also heard that Tana French’s “The Likeness” (2008) includes some of this theme, but I am yet to read it, and of course, another example is Boileau-Narcejac’s “From Among the Dead” (1954) on which the movie “Vertigo” was based.

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  4. Ha! Coincidentally I’ve just read The Prisoner of Zenda, of course about another double taking the place of a king. I was glad that the author gave a biological reason for the identicalness (new word? 😉 ) since I often find it hard to accept if it’s left purely to coincidence.

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    1. Really? The Prisoner of Zenda is actually a great suggestion – fits rather nicely with the theme! I love the word “identicalness” – cooler than “doubleness” 🙂

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  5. These all sound fascinating! I’m definitely going to have to pick some of them up.

    The only story like this that I can think of off the top of my head is a TV show, not a book–Orphan Black, where the doppelganger element has roots in a cloning experiment and one actress phenomenally plays ALL of her doubles (an American soccer mom, a rebellious British girl who gets in trouble with the law, a Minnesota graduate biology student, a cult member from somewhere near Russia, and so on…). Super cool show, if you’re looking for something non-bookish 🙂

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    1. I hope you enjoy the books you pick, and thanks for bringing this TV show to my attention – I will certainly try to track it down! I love exploring this theme through TV and films as well and I guess a separate list is required to do this justice – Black Swan (2010) and The Prestige (2006) are some of the films that come to mind first.

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        1. What an interesting choice! I vaguely remember this film had Kevin Costner, but that’s about it. I need to see it then – it sounds like it is going to be very psychological and intriguing, many thanks!

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      1. Awesome! If you have Amazon Prime, you can stream the show free on Prime Video. And if you put up a list of shows/movies with this theme, I’ll definitely check those out as well–I’m always SO behind on both of those, and yet I’m always on the lookout for recommendations anyway!

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  6. I’ve read The Double (both Dostoevsky and Saramago) and enjoyed both. There’s an excellent Canadian novel called Belleville Square by Michael Redhill that’s about a doppelgänger as well.

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