Blog for April 2024: The Double: A Literary Universal?

LITERARY UNIVERSALS WEBLOG: A series of informal observations and conjectures aimed at fostering more reflection on and discussion about cross-cultural patterns in literature.

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

I recently re-watched Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique. It is the story of two women—one Polish, one French—who have (different versions of) the same name (Weronika and Veronique), are identical in appearance, have the same medical condition, and share some sense of connectedness. Though they never meet, Weronika catches a glimpse of Veronique when the latter happens to be visiting Poland. Veronique much later discovers Weronika’s image when she is looking at her photos from that trip. They never meet or have any other contact. When the film is over, we understand that, somehow, Weronika’s death from an (undiagnosed) heart condition served as a warning to Veronique, who avoids that fate. In this way, Veronique has a “double” life, not only because she has an alter ego in Weronika, but because she receives a second chance at life through what is in effect a sacrifice—Weronika dies and, as a result, Veronique lives. The idea is clearly suggested at the end of the film through the story told by a puppeteer with whom Veronique has fallen in love. In that story, entitled The Double Life of . . . (the puppeteer has not yet chosen the character’s name), there are two identical girls, born in different countries. One of the girls burns her hand on a hot stove. A few days later, the other almost does the same thing, but withdraws her hand before it is burned.

The life-giving death of Weronika is a version of a key motif from the sacrificial story structure, which recurs cross-culturally. This connection is reinforced by the link between Saint Veronica and the paradigmatic sacrificial story in Christendom, that of Jesus. Indeed, the name “Veronica” is particularly well-chosen here, for Veronica is also associated with a sort of doubling. The legend is that, as Jesus struggled to bear his cross along the via dolorosa to Golgotha, she gave him her veil to wipe his face. When he returned the veil to her, the cloth was imbued with his image. Moreover, “By some accounts, the name Veronica is itself a fanciful derivation from the words vera icon . . . meaning ‘true image’” (Britannica).

The integration of the doubling motif with the sacrificial story structure is, I believe, significant and consequential. Indeed, the first hypothesis I wish to put forward here is that one cross-cultural function of doubling involves just such integration into the universal genres. Consider a famous, early case, found in Euripides’ Helen. According to this work, the Helen who was living with Menelaus and who apparently absconded to Troy along with Paris was not a person at all, but a phantom (εἴδωλον [line 34]), a mirror image (see the entry for εἴδωλον in Eulexis-web [accessed 7 April 2024]), fashioned by Hera. The real Helen was, therefore, never unfaithful to her husband, never violated the ideals that governed wifely virtue at the time. Moving outside of Europe, we find a very similar case in Tulasīdāsa’s “reflection” (“pratibiṃba,” प्रतिबिंब) of Sītā (557)—alternatively, the “shadow” (“chāyā,” छाया) Sītā in Prasad’s Hindi rendition (558). This doubling allows Tulasīdāsa to deal more readily with the difficult issue of Sītā’s chastity when she was held captive by Rāvaṇa in Lanka. Put simply, she couldn’t have betrayed Rāma as she wasn’t even physically there. Interestingly, some other, early cases of the motif treat seduction rather than chastity. Thus, Zeus famously appears in the guise of Amphitryon in order to seduce Alcmena (see Powell 432-436). Indra, a roughly parallel figure in early Indian mythology, undertakes a related deception in order to seduce Ahalyā (see Doniger, selection number 28, and Daniélou 108).

There are many things that these stories tell us. But here I wish to stress that the stories of Sītā, Alcmena, and Ahalyā are all instances of the seduction/sexual-assault genre. The story of the phantom Helen arguably changes the original love triangle to a seduction/sexual-assault genre as well. Thus, we see the doubling motif in two of the prototypical, cross-cultural genres—sacrificial and seduction/sexual-assault. More precisely, in each of these cases, the motif contributes to making the basic story structure into a full-fledged, particular story. In the terminology of How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, in these cases, the motif is one of the techniques available to an author that may be integrated into the set of development principles, itself comprising alteration and specification principles. This is unsurprising, as serving in development principles is a common function of motifs.

Before going on to give instances of doubling from other cross-cultural genres, however, I should say how I have been implicitly defining the doubling motif. Doubles are persons/characters who are identical in some ways, but who also in stand in stark contradiction in other ways. Most often, the identity-features are highly salient (e.g., appearance), while the contradiction-features are highly functional, but not salient—for example, being good versus being evil, or being alive versus being dead (i.e., being a ghost). However, in some cases we find the reverse—salient differences with functional, unrecognized identity-features (this could be the case for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, insofar as we take them to be contrasting images of the same underlying person). In both cases, we would not predict the functional features from the salient features.

I should note that the existence of such a doubling motif is just what one would expect, given general, human cognitive tendencies. For any two items (e.g., persons) that we compare, we can in principle allow for an almost infinite range of differences and similarities. Two of these are particularly important and thus particular targets of attention—the extremes of identity and contradiction. Our deeper concern in these cases is functional; however, we tend to rely on the salience of features in order to judge function. For example, a stranger’s benevolent or malevolent intent is likely to be our true (functional) concern, but we cannot readily ascertain this. Group identity markers, distinguishing in-group members from out-group members (e.g., skin color, language, religious paraphernalia, and so on) tend to be more salient and thereby to serve as proxies for good or ill will, as in the case of hostility attribution bias, which leads us to assume hostile intent more readily for out-group members (see Lukianoff and Haidt, 158).

Of course, this heuristic often misleads us, leaving us vulnerable to hostile intent from in-group members, and at times actually provoking hostile intent from unfairly distrusted out-group members. Given this, it is unsurprising that storytellers across cultures would find saliency-function conflicts cognitively intriguing and emotionally forceful. In addition, as Nigel Fabb points out, we don’t expect any two targets to be distinct and yet indistinguishable. Thus, the indiscernibility of two persons is already likely to provoke keen interest. Such interest will only be intensified by functional contradiction. Moreover, doubling may be applied and developed in such a way as to create increasingly complex cases. For example, for the viewer, the differences between Weronika and Veronique—most obviously, citizenship and language—are reduced in saliency, while the continuities between the two (physical appearance, health, musicality) are highlighted. Note that the former are common markers of group identity, while we generally consider the latter to be markers of individuality. Note also that, for the viewer, both Veronicas are individuals and are linked by that distinctive individuality. However, for anyone who imagines some (generic) Polish and some (generic) French person, these two imagined people would merely be instances of their (salient) national category, with little in the way of individuating characteristics. In this regard, Kieślowski’s treatment of doubling may suggest some of the problems surrounding social identity categorization, particularly in relation to individuation.

As to the other genres, the most common are heroic and romantic. In heroic works, doubling occurs in fairly straightforward ways across battlelines. The most obvious cases treat a good hero and an evil enemy who are so evenly matched that the audience cannot be certain of the outcome when they come into conflict. But some of the most interesting cases put the doubles on the same side. An excellent example of both may be found in Enkidu and Gilgamesh. Beck explains that Enkidu is connected with wild nature (112), while Gilgamesh is associated with the city. As Keppler discusses, the two begin as enemies, and as virtually equal in power. The result of their initial conflict is that the “fury” of Gilgamesh dissipates (Keppler 24), while Enkidu accepts a subordinate position, but one of unique bonding with Gilgamesh. In the end, Enkidu sacrifices his life to save Gilgamesh (though most obviously a sacrificial motif, this type of act is common in heroic stories as well). Enkidu’s death then becomes the key difference between them; it inspires Gilgamesh’s grief, the retrospective remorse that is so common at the end of heroic narratives and that, in this case, motivates Gilgamesh’s (failed) quest for immortality.

Obvious examples of doubling in the romantic genre may be found in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, where it serves primarily to show the irrational, almost hallucinatory quality of romantic love. There are more psychologically subtle suggestions of doubled characters among the women who fascinate the hero of The Tale of Genji.

Among the “minor” genres, we have already seen instances from the seduction plot. Plautus’s Menaechmi provides an exemplary case of doubling in a family reunion story. Keppler recounts an excellent example of the spiritual realization genre—the Jaina legend of Parsvanatha. Parsva is trapped in the cycle of rebirth “by his own fear and desire” (19). In each incarnation, his hateful twin brother, Kamatha, cruelly harms Parsva. Unbeknownst to Parsva or Kamatha, however, these repeated cruelties actually lead Parsva to detachment and ultimately to self-realization (Keppler 194). At that point, Kamatha–witnessing his brother’s imperturbable peace—is freed from his own attachments as well.

(I am leaving aside the revenge and criminal investigation genres in the hope that readers will have some suggestions for relevant works—in those or, for that matter, any of the other genres. You may submit suggestions as well as more elaborate comments via the website, under “Submit,” or by email to

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The preceding cases indicate that the doubling motif yields a common technique for the development (specification or alteration) of story structures. As such, it can serve a variety of narrative, emotive, or thematic purposes. For example, the use of doubling in The Double Life of Veronique arguably intensifies the pathos of Weronika’s death, whereas that in Plautus’s play creates mirth, and that in Tulasīdāsa’s poem enables the devotee’s feeling of unqualified bhakti (devotion). But it seems clear that the motif of the double is not confined to an ancillary role, however capacious that role may be. It serves as a central concern in some narratives (whether or not those narratives also express one of the cross-cultural story prototypes). Moreover, this is the way the motif has commonly been treated in earlier critical studies, which in addition tend to focus on interpretation. This interpretive approach—commonly Freudian or Jungian–appears to be the sort of thing a wide range of people think of when I mention literary universals. Indeed, this is what first led me to consider doubling in the film as an appropriate topic for a blog at the Literary Universals Project. There are many motifs, such as doubling, that earlier writers treated as universal, but that I have hardly, if ever, touched upon. That does not seem right. After all, if there are genuinely cross-cultural motifs treated in the Freudian or Jungian traditions, thus outside of cognitive and affective science, they should appear in a cognitive-affective treatment of literary universals (e.g., in this website) as well, albeit with some plausible, cognitive and/or affective hypotheses about their recurrence. But that does not often seem to be the case. Why might such motifs be absent? And why has there been relatively little interest in interpreting those or other universals in a cognitive-affective framework?

As to the former question, I suspect that in some cases, the “archetypes” do not appear with the frequency a Jungian or Freudian analysis might suggest. For example, I am not sure I have ever come across a snake biting its own tail (the “ouroboros”) outside the pages of a book on archetypes. It may still be a significant, cross-cultural presence, but it is hardly one that I find myself pressed to explain.

However, we cannot always dismiss the putative universals of pre-cognitive psychology so readily. As we have seen, doubling does recur cross-culturally—at least enough to merit further study. Moreover, its explication by writers such as Otto Rank seems much less fanciful and much more insightful than some other writings in these pre-cognitive psychological approaches. Specifically, Rank sees the motif of the double as manifesting a fundamental conflict in humans’ relations to themselves. We are all faced with a dilemma. We know that we are destined to die. Our ancestors died; our contemporaries are in the process of dying. There is no exception. Yet, we still think that it couldn’t possibly happen to us. In the double, Rank tells us, we face the unbelievable, yet also undeniable fact of our own nothingness. This seems plausible and universal because this is a dilemma faced by all humans, at least all humans over a certain age. On the other hand, it still seems clear that even Rank overstates the scope of his interpretation. Certainly not every instance of a double treats the conflict surrounding the possibility of “being-toward-death,” as Heidegger would put it. Moreover, Rank’s fully developed examples are all relatively late, European works. In connection with folklore, he does touch on non-European cases, but it is often difficult to say what these mean. It may clarify things if we keep with established literary works, where the doubling motif seems more readily interpretable.

Here, I would like to return briefly to Zeus, Indra, Helen, and Sītā. These four cases are hardly adequate to undergird an interpretation of the motif as a whole. They are nonetheless suggestive. They do not have much, if anything to do with being-toward-death (though that is not true for The Double Life of Veronique). They are, rather, fabrications undertaken to deceive others—either to prevent or to facilitate immoral sexual conduct. In fact, they recall a pattern that Rank’s analyses point to, but never acknowledge—a conflict not between death and life, but between shame and acceptance. (I take shame to be produced by a sense of other people’s disgust at one’s self [see Sapolsky, 502, and Tangney and Tracy, 447–448].) Both the phantom Helen and the shadow Sītā serve to prevent the home society from feeling moral disgust for an important woman in the story. The bed-tricks of Zeus and Indra could be viewed similarly (if we take the focal characters to be the [inadvertently unfaithful] wives). In any case, the doubling in the first two cases (Helen and Sītā) is between an immoral, illusory character and her moral, non-illusory counterpart. In the other two cases, both the illusory and the real husband are moral (or at least not immoral). The moral contrast appears not between the real character and his double, but between, on the one hand, the two illusory characters and, on the other hand, the real characters who make deceitful use of those illusory characters. Thus, shaming seems to be suggested in all these stories. It enters particularly clearly in the case of Indra, who is punished for his misbehavior by having his body covered with female genitalia (see Doniger, selection number 28, and Daniélou 108).

Other cases of the double preserve the moral contrast and the sense of shame, but do so in a way that complicates or challenges standard moral views. A fine example of this may be found in Cao Xueqin and Gao E’s 18th-Century novel, Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber or Story of the Stone). The main character is Jia Bao-yu. He is a complex character; for example, in sexual preference, he is bisexual; in gender, he might be viewed a transgendered or as what we might today call “gender queer.” You probably won’t be surprised to learn that he does not get along well with his father, who is in fact cruel to the boy. At one point in this multi-volume novel, Jia Bao-yu learns that he has a double, a boy who looks like him in every way. The double’s name is Zhen Bao-yu. Critics invariably point out that the name, “Bao-yu,” means “precious jade” (see Schonebaum 21), while “zhen” means “true” and “jia” means “false” (see Lu 280). This reverses the reader’s experience. It indicates that Jia Bao-yu—the one we know and probably like (since we have continued reading hundreds of pages about him)–is false when compared to the truly “precious” individual, Zhen Bao-yu. Why would Cao and Gao indicate this? I believe it is because our Bao-yu would be socially viewed as false when compared with his counterpart. This contrast is particularly brought out by the fact that Zhen Bao-yu gets along very well with Jia Bao-yu’s father. Indeed, when conversing with Zhen Bao-yu, the father sends for his son (Jia Bao-yu), in order to “exhibit” to his son “this paragon of virtue, as both stimulus and admonition” (Cao and Gao 272). This is likely to remind readers of the ways in which the senior Jia shames his son, even though the reader is likely to take Jia Bao-yu as the superior character.

At first, Jia Bao-yu is enthusiastic about encountering a potentially like-minded youth. But he is soon disappointed, finding his “true” twin insincere and sycophantic, a mere “career worm” (Cao and Gao 274), sententiously invoking “loyalty” and “filial piety” (Cao and Gao 277).  As Ferrara explains, this is connected with larger tendencies and conflicts in Chinese society, for Zhen Bao-yu appears to the reader as an arguably rather shallow Confucian, while Jia Bao-yu aligns himself with the more antinomian teachings of Buddhism and Daoism. Indeed, his difference from his alter ego (the career worm) is, in the end, largely explicable by this difference in philosophical orientation. Jia Bao-yu is, in fact, seeking “a more spiritual plane” (Cao and Gao 275) when he finds himself disappointed with Zhen Bao-yu. Moreover, his “falsity” takes on further significance when we read about his dream of encountering Zhen Bao-yu, who had just dreamt about Jia Bao-yu, dreaming . . . . As Ferrara points out, this sequence—like the “Meng” or “Dream” of the book’s title—alludes to Zhuāngzǐ’s famous question (after apparently waking from a dream of being a butterfly) whether he was, in fact, Zhuāngzǐ dreaming he was a butterfly or was rather a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuāngzǐ. This sense of paradox is clearly favored by the authors, pointing again to the social and moral complexity of this presentation of the double, even as it criticizes common social norms and leads us to recall the feelings of shame associated with those norms.

Another instance of this sort, with a further twist, may be found in Rabindranath Tagore’s 1892 short story, “The Living and the Dead.” (Tagore was clearly familiar with European literature and probably had encountered doubles in that literature. Given the colonial context in which he was writing, then, I would not count his use of the double motif as evidence of the universality of the motif. It is, nonetheless, a valuable story to analyze in this context.) The story concerns Kadambini, a young widow who passes out and is assumed by her in-laws to be dead. She wakes up on the cremation ground (before the incineration begins), but finds that she no longer has a place in the world. She spends some time wandering about, not quite dead, but also “exiled from the land of the living” (34). In the end, she commits suicide. Though superficially strange, the story is actually an almost literal criticism of widowhood strictures as practiced in Bengal at the time. Specifically, the widow was forbidden to remarry, to wear clothing that had been dyed, to wear jewelry, to be present on occasions where her presence would be viewed as inauspicious; she was subjected to stringent restrictions on what she could eat, and so on (see, for example, Lamb on continuing practices). In short, when it came to interactions with the living, she was treated as if she were dead. But her spirit remained tethered to the world of the living. By making Kadambini neither truly dead nor truly alive, Tagore fashioned a striking metaphor for the condition of widows in Bengal at the time.

But, of course, all this time she is just Kadambini; so, where is the double, you might ask. This is what makes Tagore’s use of the motif so striking and creative. The double is in the minds of the people around Kadambini, the members of the society that abandons her at the moment of her misfortune, that turns her into “an empty shadow” (36), as if she were a mere chāyā Kadambini, no more real than the chāyā Sītā. Both persons of the double are Kadambini–one as she is, the other as she is seen by society. As she puts it herself, “I am my own ghost” (34), haunted by social shame–over not having children, and over not having been able to keep her husband alive, (a recurring accusation made against widows at the time; see, for example, Tagore 85).

This story suggests that the ultimate grounding of the double motif may be less in the issue of mortality than in the more fundamental division between the first-person point-of-view that we have on ourselves and the third-person point of view that we have on others. Indeed, this distinction is precisely what makes our understanding of death contradictory. We witness deaths only of those toward whom we have a third-person point-of-view. But we understand that all those persons had a (seemingly eternal) first-person point-of-view on themselves, and that we ourselves are the (mortal) objects of a third-person point-of-view for everyone else. This division is also what allows the possibility of self-conscious emotions such as shame, for these emotions make us the object of third-person attributions and assessments. (For a fuller treatment of these points-of-view, see Personal Identity and Literature.)

One further variant may be found in Percival Everett’s novel, Erasure (2001). In this novel, an African-American fiction writer—named Thelonious Ellison (after the jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk, and the black novelist, Ralph Ellison)–finds it difficult to achieve real success, despite widespread acknowledgment of his talent. The main problem appears to be that he does not write Black English Vernacular and treat impoverished communities living in a Hobbesian world of “state of nature” violence. In response to this situation, he writes a parody of pseudo-authentic, “black” fiction. He submits it to his agent with the pseudonym, Stagg R. Leigh. To his dismay, the book is a runaway success, which makes him fabulously wealthy. Unsurprisingly, this is all rather seductive, all the more so because he does not use the money self-indulgently, but makes generous gifts to people in need and pays for his mother’s nursing care.

At the end of the novel, as he prepares to announce that Stagg R. Leigh is a pseudonym and that his book, entitled Fuck, is a parody, Ellison at first seems to experience some sort of hallucinatory episode. We soon realize it is a dream, as he walks “through dream sand” (264). But it also appears to be provoked by and representative of an identity crisis: He comes to “a small boy, perhaps me as boy, and he held up a mirror so that I could see my face and it was the face of Stagg Leigh” (264). Leigh quotes a passage from Ralph Ellison: “’Now you’re free of illusion,’ Stagg said. ‘How does it feel to be free of one’s illusions?’” (264-266). The passage occurs at the end of Invisible Man, and there too it is in a dream. Subsequently (in Erasure), Thelonious looks again at the mirror, but the surface is no longer visible to him. He comments, “I could only imagine the image the glass held” (266). Three lines later, Everett’s  novel ends with a  quotation from Isaac Newton: “hypotheses non fingo.” There are different ways of translating “fingo.” The usual choice seems to be “feign.” I would opt for “imagine”—thus, “I do not imagine hypotheses.” This translation connects the quotation with Thelonious’s effort to “imagine” the “image” in the mirror. He does not know what is there.

I take this ending to suggest the loss of a sense of identity. Thelonious adopts a version of the Zeus/Indra doubling. He fashions a self-image that is false, a disguise. However, he does not do this in order to deceive others for selfish, unethical purposes. Moreover, though he subsequently cooperates in deception (acting the part of Stagg R. Leigh), he never does so for immoral or objectionably egoistic reasons. Rather, he does so to criticize the social preference for his double. If it seems odd to say that Leigh is a double of Thelonious, I should point out that Thelonious’s cooperation means that the few people who meet with Leigh see someone who is physically identical with Thelonious (since they are actually meeting Thelonious). This is also why he sees Stagg R. Leigh in the mirror: Stagg R. Leigh’s face just is the face of Thelonious. Nonetheless, there is a difference between seeing this face as Stagg R. Leigh and seeing it as Thelonious Ellison. Thelonious’s apparent loss of personal identity at the end is not entirely dissimilar to Kadambini’s situation, when she cannot conceive of herself as alive or dead. In both cases, the insistent pressures of socially imposed identity category (such as “widow” or “black man”) disrupt ordinary processes of self-identification.

[Here, too, my analysis is incomplete. I hope that readers will suggest other works of this second, autonomous sort, as well as interpretive analyses of those works.]

In sum, the motif of the double might reasonably be claimed as a universal in two modes. The first is as a technique for the alteration and specification of other story structures, prominently including the cross-cultural story genres. The second is as a minimal structure for the generation of stories that are more distinctive, and that often raise thematic (thus, real-world) concerns bearing on the relation between our status as objects in the world (first of all, for others) and our status as subjects defining the limits of the world (first of all, for ourselves). These concerns prominently include our experience of such self-conscious emotions as shame, as well as our attitude toward and understanding of death.

(I am grateful to Nigel Fabb and Joanna Madloch for comments on an earlier draft of this blog.)

See also “The Double” (Addendum).


Works Cited

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