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 ), Henry James (The Jolly Corner ) and by Guy de Maupassant (La Horla ) 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  and in Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat .
I. The White Castle  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.
II. 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.
III. The Double  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.
IV. The Double  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.
V. The Devil’s Elixirs  by E. T. A. Hoffmann
This very enigmatic book from the author of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King  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.
VI. The Prince and the Pauper  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  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.
VII. The Return of Martin Guerre  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  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  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?