8 Books About the Eerie, Awesome Connection Between Identical Twins

Literary doppelgangers that will have you seeing double

M y toddler twin sons seem to believe they might be the same person or copies of each other. For the most part, they only use one of their names interchangeably; it has taken some doing to convince one twin to recognize that the discarded name actually belongs to him and he should reclaim it. For months during infancy, when one twin looked in the mirror, I am fairly certain he believed it was his twin he was seeing and not a reflection of himself. He took great delight in the puzzle of putting his hand on the mirror, and watching his “twin” copy him from the world on the other side. Observing their constant companionship, their hugging and squabbling and tormenting of each other — all in stark contrast to memories of my own childhood — made me think about all of the literature featuring twins I’ve read over the years.

As a visual medium, films can be better equipped than novels to make something marvelous out of the mere image of twins — the playfulness, the uncanniness, and the potential dangerousness of doubles. You only have to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s dread-infused Vertigo or Krystof Kieslowski’s poetic The Double Life of Veronique or Stanley Kubrick’s frightening The Shining to see the immense power of a doubled image to convey meaning. But fiction is powerful because it can reveal what’s inside each twin’s mind, rather than create meaning solely from appearance. The following eight works of literature suggest that the paths we take in our lives are not inevitable, not fated, not wholly dictated by how we appear as an image from the outside, but more often the sum of the individual choices with which we all struggle and how the world reacts to them. These works serve as excellent companions, reminding us we always have something in common with others, whether it is our appearance or our emotions, and that we are not alone.

Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare

Twelfth Night isn’t the first of Shakespeare’s plays to use twins and doubles. But it’s better than The Comedy of Errors, which features two sets of twins. It’s deeper, less wacky, and shot through with magic and melancholy. Twins supply both plot and atmosphere: Viola and Sebastian are fraternal twins who are separated during a shipwreck. Viola washes up on the shore of Illyria and disguises herself as Cesario, a boy servant to Duke Orsino. In spite of being in love with the duke herself, Viola/Cesario must woo the duke’s love interest Olivia. Viola’s a little too good at courting and eventually Olivia falls in love with Cesario. Hijinks ensue partly because of doubling, but also because of the gender play made possible by fraternal twins who look nearly identical: men and women as dualist constructs rather than essential forms.

The Double, Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Double is Dostoevsky’s 1846 novella about a government clerk Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, who is slowly going insane. He believes that his double Golyadkin Jr., also a clerk, has assumed his identity. As Golyadkin Sr. descends into madness it becomes clear that his double is far more extraverted and charming and capable. He believes that his double is going to ruin him. A strong thread of absurdity runs through The Double. Seeing a double — an alternate life and a more socially successful way of being for one’s physical body — becomes a symptom of madness.

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens presents more literal doppelgangers in A Tale of Two Cities, a novel roughly contemporary to The Double. British barrister, Sydney Carton, a dissolute drunk who has never achieved his potential, looks nearly identical to French aristocrat-turned-tutor Charles Darnay. At Darnay’s trial for treason, Carton realizes that their close visual similarity is the means by which Darnay’s lawyer can obtain Darnay’s acquittal, foreshadowing what happens at the conclusion. Carton as Darnay’s doppelganger is also what provides the moment at which we truly understand Carton as heroic and brave.

Lisa and Lottie, Erich Kästner

In Kästner’s 1949 German children’s classic Lisa and Lottie, identical twins separated at birth meet at summer camp, and are initially so horrified by the other’s existence that they can’t look at each other: “Lisa and Lottie did not dare look at each other the next morning when they woke up, or when they ran in their long white nightgowns to the washroom, or when they dressed at neighboring lockers… Only once did their eyes meet in a fleeting glance, and then, frightened, they looked quickly away again.” But in short order, Lottie and Lisa’s uneasy horror at meeting is replaced by delight and affinity. The girls’ twinness is the narrative engine of the novel, allowing them to switch places and try to reunite their estranged parents. Disney adapted Lottie and Lisa to make the 1961 film The Parent Trap, starring Hayley Mills as Susan and Sharon, but the movie amps up the pleasure of long-lost twins reuniting and shaves off the satirical edge of the original.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

Roy’s Booker Prize–winning novel The God of Small Things takes place in Aymenam, a village in the state of Kerala in India. Centering on fraternal twins Rahel and Estha, it starts with the funeral of their biracial cousin Sophie Mol who drowned one fateful night in 1969 while out on the river with them. At age seven, Rahel is dreamy and is perpetually reinventing the world with her original vision. Estha is silent. All the small things that led up to the drowning are revealed, including the molestation of one of the twins and their Syrian Christian mother’s affair with a Dalit. The novel culminates in a disturbing, but inevitable scene — the twins have grown up to be two lost halves of a whole.

Twins, Marcy Dermansky

Marcy Dermansky’s 2005 debut novel Twins is about blonde teenage twins Sue and Chloe. At the start of adolescence, Sue is obsessive, intense and determined to have her twin all to herself, to stay inside the mutual adoration and “golden bubble of happiness” she experienced with her twin as a child. Sue convinces Chloe to get a tattoo of Sue’s name on her back, while she gets Chloe’s name tattooed on her own. Level-headed Chloe reluctantly agrees, but secretly thinks: “The funny thing was, the tattoos made us different…After we got our tattoos, we were never really and truly the same.” And in fact, the tattoos kick off a chain of events in which the twins find that they aren’t quite who they thought they were. In many ways the novel feels like a startling adult remix of Jessica and Elizabeth from the Sweet Valley High series. If Elizabeth too often showed us that good girls are boring, Jessica rather often did what she wanted, and would, by today’s feminist standards, be something of an antihero, rather than a villain. The same dichotomy is complicated in Twins.

The Likeness, Tana French

In Tana French’s 2008 novel The Likeness, doubles are the source of a mystery. Detective Cassie Maddox is called to a murder scene, and when she looks down at the victim, she sees her double. Startlingly, the victim’s name is Lexie Madison, a handle Cassie had previously used as an undercover agent. Her boss has her pose as Lexie, a graduate student, to solve the crime. It’s a preposterous set-up, perhaps, but one that plays out in a rich, psychologically fascinating, and believable way if you’re willing to accept the terms of the game. Lexie’s roommates accept Cassie’s claim that she is Lexie and in her detective work, she infiltrates the group to such an extent that she could, conceivably, take over Lexie’s old life.

The Secret History of Las Vegas, Chris Abani

The Secret History of Las Vegas is a weird, riveting noir. It is partly the story of conjoined twins Fire and Water. Fire is talkative and snappy and much smaller than Water — he appears to be an appendage. Water is given to providing factoids instead of conversation. Most of their lives they’ve done an act called King Kongo in a sideshow just outside Vegas. When Detective Salazar finds them standing in a lake with a five-gallon drum of blood, they are brought in for questioning to determine whether they are responsible for the deaths of homeless men. They undergo a psychiatric evaluation with Dr. Sunil Singh who is haunted by memories of political violence and the loss of family and loved ones in South Africa. Sunil and the detective team up. The conjoined twins supply both the humor and sense of play, while also injecting the novel with archness and uncanniness, and ultimately subvert our expectations.

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