Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
Black and white photo of well-dressed man and his butler.

The Role of the Doppelgänger in Today’s Identity Crisis


Contrary to the official version, the individual can be divided; these are the current meeting points between one and his double.

Man is not truly one, but truly two.

-Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

If there is a concern inseparable from the modern individual, it is the perseverance of identity. A compulsive need to be part of something, whether it is brands that allow an individual to identify with a certain group of people, and thus differentiate from others, or with ‘lifestyles’ that connect them with their fellow beings. It is not absurd to suggest that what the individual really fears is facing himself.

Art has invited us to launch into fantastical and fearsome adventures by asking ourselves who we are, by questioning whether we are who we think we are. The figure of the double, or more specifically, the doppelgänger, is the fruit of a deep investigation into that question. The literary examples are especially revealing, as some of the most important authors of recent centuries were interested in the theme of the double. Among the most famous examples are Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, “William Wilson” by Edgar Allan Poe, Dostoyevsky’s The DoubleStrange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Stevenson, The Portrait of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde and some of Jorge Luis Borges’ best known stories.

The cinematographic examples are as interesting as the literary ones, perhaps because the medium of cinema, illusionist by nature, is made up of images that we consider real. Many personalities in art tend to be subject to the sudden apparition of people who confuse them. “A human coming face to face with their double transcends the physical resemblance to suggest higher things: the terrible evidence that there are facets of ourselves that are completely unknown; the realization that, as opposed to the official version, the individual can be divided; the proof that we do not know who we are: finally, the terror of realizing that what we call identity is a fragile, fickle and elusive entity” (Rebeca Martín Lopez).

The doppelgänger, a German term coined in 1796 by Jean Paul Richter (who defined it as “people who see themselves”) differs from the alter ego in that it does not need to have a material form (think of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which the doppelgänger is the bifurcation of the same person). But above all, the doppelgänger is characterized by having a notable esthetic component: a sinister elegance that shows what a person displaces from himself.

The ominous nature of the double, which takes on an irrational esthetic role, fits in well with the world we experience today. It is commonplace for a person divided by avatars and digital personae to doubt his own existence and begin to believe that he, and not the other, is the copy, the intruder, the impostor. “The metaphysical horror of the other! / This dread of the consciousness of another…” as Fernando Pessoa would say.

The double is the figure through which the younger generations express themselves. For many observers, digital activities are strongly ritualized: in many ways young people construct their identity by projecting (on a screen, a page, or a timeline) what they would like to be. These very symbolic representations, such as the selfie, given their importance on the road to adulthood, can be considered as rites of passage. The doppelgänger encapsulates one of the most recurrent themes of these times: the identity crisis. Between our avatars and ourselves is the proof that the individual can be divided.

Perhaps the climax of this dynamic splintering of a person will be when we see, in our virtual profile or in the mirror, that all that we displace in the desire to not face up to ourselves is taking on a twin life of its own that is more sinister than we imagine. In other words, your real double emerges from that which you jettison and not from that which you project.

A doppelgänger walks beside us like a shadow and, if literature is right, when we face it we drown in our own image, as befell Narcissus.

Related Articles