The Literary Double Through Mirrors, Psychoanalysis and Social Roots
Alice in Wonderland (1865)
1. Mirrors and the Function of SightMany novels rely on the use of images of mirrors, lens and reflections in order to convey the mysterious, dark sides of man and of the world, especially the dualism of the protagonists or the settings, creating the Doppelgänger effect, which is identifiable in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and in different other novels of the 19th and 20th century.
One of the most famous examples of the adoption of lens and mirrors in literature– even though for a different purpose – is Alice in Wonderland (1865) by the British writer and mathematician Lewis Carroll (1832-1898). He imagined the fantastic stories of a girl who lived extraordinary adventures when passing through a looking-glass, entering a new and unknown reality. Other hints at the sense of unseen worlds are found in Invisible Cities (1972) by the Italian author Italo Calvino (1923-1985) who spoke of a ‘negative mirror’ that provokes the end of all the certainties of man.
Reflections play an important role in Stevenson’s novel, since they are the means by which Dr Jekyll can see the change of his physical appearance after every transformation into Hyde and follow the progressive decay of his spiritual strength, turned into the greater and greater potential energy of his bad side, that also becomes stronger and healthier, as the scientist notices thanks to the mirror he has in his laboratory. So this object is not only useful to analyse the protagonist’s outward aspect, but it becomes fundamental to understand his mental state and discover the increasing power Hyde gains over Jekyll.
The great importance sight has for man, often incorrectly considered his main sense perception, has helped shape the idea that everything man sees has to be true: so, when a literary work questions the validity of our vision, a new light is thrown on our perception of the world around us, insinuating an all pervading doubt about our conceptions of space, time and life. The normal approach to the analysis and understanding of the world is useless in some situations, as happens in Gothic literature, since here the settings are no longer simple backgrounds for the actions, but influence the protagonists and highlight their soul’s profoundest fears and instincts. So time and space are no longer mere external and neutral structures in the development of a story, but ‘actors’ on the stage of the plot. This is why, in such cases, it is quite hard to recognise the real (or commonly accepted) succession of past, present and future and the relationship between cause and effect. For example, Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker (1847-1912) suggests the gradual loss of meaning undergone by the precise timing kept by one of the characters, Jonathan Harker.
When literature criticises the function of the typical human approach to reality, it also explores the limits of time and space with fantasy, showing the fundamental role of the hidden truth and of the dissolution of man’s traditional categories of evaluation, trying to foreground what is neither known nor seen.
2. The Mysterious Nature of Evil and the ‘Other’ SelfThis uncertainty is conveyed by some frequent images, such as ghosts, werewolves, monsters, double sides, reflections and cannibals: all of these are linked to unusual and abnormal psychological states, which can be also accompanied by confusion about animal, vegetable and mineral, but also about gender identities. Even though demonic elements can be found in all cultures of the world, one of the first cases in which they played an important role in English literature was in The Tragical History of Doctor Faust (1604) by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) where we see a rather neat distinction between good and evil.
In time literature became more and more ambiguous about the borders between positive and negative forces, especially in the sphere of the fantastic and from the Romantic age on. In fact, different authors pointed out the strange appeal evil can have: on the one hand, there is the repulsion of what is condemned by most people’s common sense and religion; on the other one, a strong and sometimes mysteriously ambiguous attraction is felt for something that has always been heard of, but has never been experienced directly. This is clearly expressed by the Scottish writer James Hogg (1770-1835) in his Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), in which he underlines the special fascination evil had on him. Actually this work belongs to a more general trend that recognises the fact that human nature cannot be easily labelled in a simple and plain manner without forgetting some of its essential and hidden characteristics.
This is the central idea that has led many authors to focus on the problem of the bad actions and behaviour of a person in a new way, highlighting its internal origins, rather than giving a supernatural justification for it. So there is no longer room for lost angels that attack the moral and spiritual purity of man, since now writers understand there is something that goes ‘wrong’ in the human structure itself, as the continuous development of psychology and psychoanalysis has suggested over the last two centuries. This literary production has concentrated on the unusual and unseen 'other' that emerges from a person’s soul and/or body as an outward projection that can either be accepted or, more frequently, rejected and veiled, even though it is a component of the same human being. In fact this leads to the problem of identity and thus to the unusual vision of the self as a combination of various and often opposite instincts and proposals that cyclically prevail over each other. In this light, the 'other' to be suffocated or rejected is similar to the Kristevan abject.
So there are some conventional and established features that characterise the typical life of a person, but sometimes unexpected changes take place, showing the presence of another self inside the known one. Evil does not come from outside, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n”, as John Milton (1608-1674) makes Satan say in his Paradise Lost, Book I already in 1667, showing a very modern approach to the problem of negative forces, though supernatural.
This process of internalization of the ‘demonic’ other prevents the author and the reader from undertaking a superficial analysis of the protagonists who become complex and have a lot of deep aspects. So this new definition of evil is even more disturbing than before, because it is impossible to define it in a universal and sure way. Hints at this new conception are in Faust (1808) by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1794-1832), who does not simply emphasise iniquity and immorality, but also underlines the demonic as the highest expression of the complete absence of meaning of life, since his Mephistopheles describes a world with no signification, empty, without any true objectives.
In all these cases wickedness is the attempt to go beyond the limits fixed by someone else: in Marlowe’s work and in Goethe’s more recent version, doctor Faust wants to obtain absolute knowledge, trying to become as wise and powerful as God, while James Hogg finds evil pleasant because it is rejected by official society. Actually it is always evident that most bonds can never be broken, so that the desire for infinite is turned into a frustrated aim that cannot be completely satisfied.