The Psychology of the Shadow - Dostoyevsky's Novella "The Double"

The Story Line

The novella begins with Mr. Golyadkin as a titular counselor for a Russian government official. He is single, but lives with his servant Petrushka. He is every concerned with making himself look very dignified with the higher Russian classes, the government official that he works for, with his direct superiors in the government office (Anton Antonivich, Andrey Filippovich, Ivan Seymonovich), and most importantly with Klara Olsufyevna who is the daughter of the government official. At the same time, Mr. Golyadkin seems to be on the verge of a mental breakdown. The story commences with Golyadkin renting a suit and carriage to ride around town simply to look very sophisticated to everyone who sees him. He even stops by his doctor’s office to show off to his doctor, Kresten Ianovich. There he ends of staggering and stammering around, and Dr. Kresten Ianovich recommends that Golyadkin take some time off to preoccupy himself with relaxation and entertainment. He also reccomends to get some medicine for himself, and make sure to take it. Mr. Golyadkin cannot relax, though, because he has “enemies” who are after him, and his must address the problem. (It is not clear who these "enemies" are.) 

Later he tries to enter a government ball at the house of the government official, but is rejected at the door while his work superiors enter. He becomes very jealous, and hides in the back of the house on the porch watching the party through the window. For three hours he gets up the courage to sneak inside and finally does it, getting inside the ball. Once inside he trips and bumbles his way up to the official’s daughter, but goes blank and can't think of what to say. He is pushed to the side of the room by the crowd. He stands there, cries, and wishes that a chandelier fell on one of his male coworkers. He tries to force himself on the princess, and get her to dance, but she screams and the whole crowd throws him out of the building into the cold night. 

As he is walking home to his flat, there is a man who comes up upon him and overtakes him, but keeps running ahead in the same direction that Golyadkin is going. The man actually goes to Golyadkin’s flat. Mr. Golyadkin realizes that it is his double. It is another version of himself who has come to plague him. Petrushka seems apathetic about the two of them, like there is no real difference. The next day, the double comes over and has a dinner with Golyadkin in which they laugh and becomes the best of friends, with the double being so humble, deferential, and sincere to Mr. Golyadkin. He stays over, but the next morning he is gone and things seem to go astray. The double shows up at Mr. Golyadkin’s work and sits at his same table and is doing his same job, but no one seems to notice or care. He cries to Anton Antonivich (his boss) who seems to listen somewhat, but still does nothing. 

The double slowly and systematically begins to dismantle Golyadkin’s life, piece by piece. He rushes in to take his papers to present to the official, he bad mouths him to everyone at work, he physically taunts him and mocks him. The double is somehow very well liked by everyone, and gets to know all the people that Golyadkin wanted to get to know. He steals and ruins his work position. Then Mr. Golyadkin stops in to a restaurant to get something to eat and drink, only to find out that the double has run up his tab and been eating tons of food in his name. Later the double becomes friends with Mr. Golyadkin’s old friends and spreads rumors to them that Mr. Golyadkin has sullied a woman’s name as a prostitute, is of bad character himself, and is out of control. He has Petrushka drunk when he goes out trying to deliver letters back and forth from Mr. Golyadkin to others in order to "fix" his problems. Mr. Golyadkin also finds out that Petrushka has been robbing him and stealing from him. 

Mr. Golyadkin worries that his letters will get in the wrong hands and be misinterpreted, so he goes out to the official’s house to try to fix things. He finds, of course, the double already there and conversing with all the high level officials. Mr. Golyadkin ends up making a fool of himself before all the officials and gets himself kicked out. The officials begin to see that Mr. Golyadkin is somewhat insane. Later on Mr. Golyadkin is able to have a dinner with the double and tries to converse with him and call him out. He is temporarily taken in, and almost forgives him, before the double insults him again and takes off. 

Later on Mr. Golyadkin plans a secret mission to sneak into his work and have the letter retrieved. So he employs another copier to help him while he hides out in the basement. He receives a letter from this, and then sees the double again with the officials and chases after him. There is a scuffle on the carriage where they are fighting before eventually Mr. Golyadkin is thrown off into the street and mud. He goes to a nearby restaurant where he reads the letter which is from, supposedly, Klara Olsufveyna, and she is telling him that she wants to run away with him instead of being forced into another marriage and to have a carriage waiting outside their home in the evening. Mr. Golyadkin is beside himself and makes a huge scene in the restaurant before dropping his bottle of red medicine and shattering it on the floor. He then goes and cleans out his house and packs up all his things and has a carriage rented so they can escape. He waits in the yard behind a big pile of wood for a signal from Klara. Eventually all the people in the house see him hiding out there, and Kresten Ianovich comes out and leads him into a carriage which carries away Mr. Golyadkin to an insane asylum. 

Psychology of the Double

The story is very hard to follow and convoluted, which expresses the mental state of Mr. Golyadkin as he is experiencing all these events. He is always complaining about his “enemies,” which are out there and seem to be plotting against him, so it is clear that paranoia has set in for him. Is he on the edge of a mental breakdown for some reason? It seems so. 

Also, he is often having premonitions about certain events that happen to him, as if he can sense them. These are also accompanied by black outs for period of time where he doesn’t remember what he was doing, or when he suddenly comes to be aware of himself in the middle of something. So it is unclear whether or not these are showing that he is actually his own double who is doing these horrible things during his blackouts to himself and he doesn’t even realize it (and that is why no one is taking him seriously that there’s another version of himself out there). 

Also the double, at times, is more than one other person, but always seems to be everywhere before Mr. Golyadkin can get there and can multiply himself at will, again reflecting that it is actually Mr. Golyadkin himself behind everything. Though, the fact that he always maintains his innocence and good character, that he “doesn’t wear masks,” and ascribes the bad character to the double also suggests that he has split his personality between good and bad, maybe to deal with some evil that he has done. 

It is not clear what he has done to lead to his mental breakdown, just that it is happening, and while the double is at times his friend, his evil side ends up crushing his good side into total chaos and collapse. The appearance is a sign that his end or his death is coming soon. 

Reflecting on the Meaning

Please comment below with what you interpret the meaning of the story to be. My own thought is that Dostoyevsky is trying to show an aspect of human psychology that is present in everyone. There is always an aspect of us that wants to see us in chaos. If we are told to do one thing, that part of us wants to do the opposite. If we try not to think of something, those thoughts and images just relentlessly pop into our minds. When we try to succeed at something, there's always a part of us that simply wants to give up and just crumble the whole thing. For some people this side of themselves may be more active than others it seems. 

On the other hand, another way I interpret the story is that Mr. Golyadkin has done something so bad that his personality has split into two characters. The good part of him is trying to live his normal life, and be loved and accepted. Yet there is a secret part of him where something evil is hidden. This part is always trying to get out into the open and show himself to be the true Golyadkin and destroy everything. What that evil deed is, we aren't told by Dostoyevsky. What's interesting, though, is the red vile of medicine that he carries around and eventually broke. Is the medicine from the doctor? Was it supposed to help him? Why is it red? Did he actually take it or just carry it around? I'm not sure the answer to these questions.