The evil twin as a trope in literature is fairly straightforward: A character is extremely virtuous and good, but a double appears, sometimes a twin separated at birth and forgotten about, sometimes a correlating person from another world or reality. This double causes all kinds of problems for the virtuous character, as the double is evil and churns things up, possibly by acting as the character so that others think her virtue is gone, possibly convincing the character to commit terrible acts herself, or any number of other possibilities.
The usual purpose of this evil double, especially a double so closely connected to the character biologically, is to cause the character to think about herself and get to know herself better through the ultimate rejection of the double, a rejection that more often than not ends in death of the evil twin.
What gets interesting is when the twin is portrayed as the more virtuous one.
In Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved, Louise thinks her twin, Caroline, is more loved. But she doesn’t exactly hate Caroline because of this. Instead, she hates herself. She “knows” that the reason Caroline is more loved is because Caroline deserves it – she is so much better than Louise is or could ever be.
There is a rare snapshot of the two of us sitting on the front stoop the summer we were a year and a half old. Caroline is tiny and exquisite, her blonde curls framing a face that is glowing with laughter, her arms outstretched to whoever is taking the picture. I am hunched there like a fat dark shadow, my eyes cut sideways toward Caroline, thumb in mouth, the pudgy hand covering most of my face. (20)
At first, Louise accepts this, the fact that Caroline’s life is more “dear” because she excels while Louise is “no better or worse than most” (23). But eventually, Louise could no longer accept that status quo, and “there were only two of us, my sister, Caroline, and me, and neither of us could stay” (4).
Although of course this line refers to the practicalities which prevent both Caroline and Louise from remaining on the island, it also suggests the tension between twins and doppelgangers. A similar line more familiar to contemporary readers reads “Neither can live while the other survives” (Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, of course), which is at times interpreted as meaning that both must die – which indeed they do, as in order to get rid of the piece of Voldemort’s soul lodged in him, Harry must die himself.
From the very first book, when Ollivander goes nuts over the fact that Harry’s wand contains a feather from the phoenix who gave only one other which went to Voldemort, the “twinness” of Harry and Voldemort is obvious. Fans have argued about whether Harry may have turned out to be a Dark Lord had his situation as orphan and half-blood resembled Voldemort’s only slightly more closely. The question underlying it is – how much of ourselves do we see in evil mirror images?
Jekyll and Hyde resulted from a desire to get rid of the evil contained within a single man. The doppelganger here was created by a split and projected outwards. But in novels such as Jacob Have I Loved and the Harry Potter series, the double is outside and needs to be absorbed to create a fuller person. When Louise is able to see Caroline and herself a little more clearly, she begins to move toward a fuller, non-binary perception of herself and her twin, of good and evil.
By the end of the novel, Caroline is not dead, as evil twins generally are in other books – because she has never really been the evil twin. A real-life twin-killing situation throws an interesting light on this.
June and Jennifer Gibbons were twins born in Wales in 1963. They never spoke to anyone else, instead creating a secret code to use between themselves, becoming known as the “Silent Twins.” They came to the conclusion that one of them had to die in order for the other one to be truly free and be able to speak. Jennifer had always believed that June was the better one:
Jennifer, born 10 minutes after June, imagined her older sister to be cleverer, prettier, more beloved. Jennifer feared she would be left behind. Later, June would write of Jennifer: “She wants us to be equal. There is a murderous gleam in her eye. Dear lord, I am scared of her. She is not normal … someone is driving her insane. It is me.”
Eventually, the twins decided to enact the inevitable and have one sacrifice herself so that the other could be free. Although the decision was not an easy one, Jennifer agreed to be the one to die – after all, June was the better one.
But it wasn’t simply a matter of who was better, of one living in the other’s shadow:
For them to look in the mirror was often to see their own image dissolve and distort into that of their identical twin. For moments, sometimes hours, they would feel possessed by the other, so profoundly that they felt their personalities switching and their souls merging. For June and Jennifer their shared identity became a silent war between good and evil, beauty and ugliness and ultimately life and death.
Something more was going on, a shared identity becoming a shared personhood. In order for June to go on living and to become a full self, Jennifer had to not exist.
The twins don’t say that Jennifer became a part of June when she died, and Louise does not absorb Caroline into herself in any way either, but the idea of a single self being split between two persons, and the story told from the perspective of the “evil one,” certainly puts an interesting spin on the trope of needing to get rid of the evil twin in order to become a fuller person.
What must happen to the good twin in order for the evil twin to live a full existence?
July 2007 article in The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/jun/28/fiction.classicalmusicandopera
July 2003 article in The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2003/jul/13/health.lifeandhealth
Paterson, Katherine. Jacob Have I Loved. New York: HarperTrophy, 1980.