Doubling Down on Twoness in Fiction

Two is often a significant number in literature. There can be duality (such as good vs. evil) in a pair of characters, there can be protagonists who are twins, and so on. All this can be fascinating, helping to give a novel a theme and a certain framework.

I read Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale last week, and her absorbing gothic novel has a strong focus on twins. In that bookish book (which mentions various classic novels), Margaret Lea is summoned by famed author Vida Winter to write the dying Winter’s biography, and a mystery unspools that includes intrigue about Vida’s twin sister. As we learn early, Lea also had a twin sister — who died young and continually haunts Margaret’s psyche.

Among the other novels with twins, whether they’re major or secondary characters, are Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (Estha and Rahel), Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (the Segundo brothers), Ian McEwan’s Atonement (Jackson and Pierrot), William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (Sam and Eric), J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (Fred and George Weasley — a delightful pair, but one is ill-fated), George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (Cersei and Jaime Lannister, who are also — eek — lovers), and even Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (Tweedledum and Tweedledee). Fred and George are shown with Rowling in the photo above this blog post.

Then there are the also-memorable pairings that don’t involve twins. Mentioning Rowling characters again, there is of course the good-vs.-evil duo of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, who are as different as can be yet have a strong underlying connection.

Mark Twain did the pairings thing twice with the dramatic life switches/role reversals in his novels The Prince and the Pauper and Pudd’nhead Wilson.

In Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, there are actually two sets of linked Allan Armadales — four people total!

And although its protagonist is actually one man with a split personality, among the most famous duality depictions in literature is in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about developer subterfuge and more — is here.

70 thoughts on “Doubling Down on Twoness in Fiction

  1. I have recently read and reviewed a book by a Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker titled The Twin. One twin died there when they were eighteen, and another one is consumed with regret and guilt for the rest of his life. It was an interesting read. I can also suggest Christopher Priest’s novel The Separation, which involves twins. I have to admit that I have not read this story, but I know the main characters are identical twins there and the story is their experience during the Second World War.

    Speaking of twinships and doubles, it is also worthy to mention Dumas and his book The Vicomte of Bragelonne. The last chapter is about the infamous Man in the Iron Mask and of course the premise is that the prisoner is the twin brother of Louis XIV.

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    • Thank you, Diana, for the mentions and excellent descriptions of those novels — including the Dumas one, which I read a number of years ago and forgot to include in my post! If I’m remembering right, “The Vicomte of Bragelonne” is one of the excellent sequels to “The Three Musketeers.”

      I just read your review of “The Twin.” Really well done!

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  2. Dave I was laughing at your mention of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (Tweedledum and Tweedledee). , sometimes trump`s two sons were compared to them. I loved the book and so many versions of the movie. What a classic.

    The Prisoner of Zenda (1894), by Anthony Hope, is an adventure novel . I have to admit I have not read the book but seen the movie brilliantly played by Stewart Granger
    Deborah Kerr .

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    • Thank you, bebe! Those Lewis Carroll characters are far superior to Trump’s two (older) sons in every way. Donald Jr. and Eric embody “Malice in Blunderland” (a phrase I’ve used before 🙂 ).

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  3. “And although its protagonist is actually one man with a split personality, among the most famous duality depictions in literature is in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

    Then there’s Orlando, and Myra Breckinridge…

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    • Another outlandish example: Von Stroheim’s great silent picture “Foolish Wives” in which the actor playing a supporting character died in the middle of shooting, and was replaced by another who looks sorta like him– as if the audience might not notice the difference. Despite such impediments (and there are others) to the suspension of disbelief, “Foolish Lives” is somehow a masterpiece.

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      • Very true, jhNY — Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t have a monopoly on dual-personality characters.

        And thanks for the interesting mention of “Foolish Wives”! Some TV shows, such as “Bewitched” and “Roseanne,” have also had another person play the same role — though the first people did not leave in a coffin and the replacements did not even look sort of like the replacees.

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        • I’m fairly certain that I mentioned one time about seeing Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway. We had first or second row orchestra seats, close enough to get the spray of sweat from the actor portraying both characters. It was fascinating how it was staged where the character of Jekyll/Hyde was made up and clothed right down the middle, and we could see him going back and forth between both characters just by turning each way. It was much more interesting than if they had two different actors playing both parts. One could really feel the differences and sameness between each one of them.

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  4. ETA Hoffmann’s “The Devil’s Elixirs” features, aside from diabolical potions, sets of doubles– twins, cousins, etc., who bewilder not only their fellow characters via mistaken identity and disguise and impersonation, but those of us just trying to follow while reading along.

    There have been, throughout the history of literature, many such works, but atop them all, though not literature, is the ultimate of its kind: Knightrider’s entry, as made immortal in the form of Garth, Michael Knight’s mustachioed evil twin.

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      • I remember being apprehensive about seeing the Broadway production of “The Lion King.” How could they possibly do justice to a play starring only African animals? Well, it blew me away when they first came down the two aisles for morning report (with my favorite Zasu), just with music, costumes and masks. It truly was magical!

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        • I’ve never seen “The Lion King” play — saw the movie — but I’ve heard wonderful things about it. And of course it has been wildly popular for years. Thanks for the great descriptive memory of it!

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  5. Mark Twain did the pairings thing twice with the dramatic life switches/role reversals in his novels The Prince and the Pauper and Pudd’nhead Wilson.
    I havent read this book, but sounds interesting, i like the name, well is not about the cover, but i will see what is inside..

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, ilonapulianauskaite!

      “The Prince and the Pauper” is definitely the better known of the two novels, but the uneven “Pudd’nhead Wilson” has its moments. It says a lot about racism amid its plot, and (if I’m remembering correctly) uses fingerprint analysis in a dramatic courtroom scene when that type of analysis was not that well known (in 1894, when the book was published).

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  6. OK, I just came up with my adult book that fits this column. This is about my favorite modern author, Lianne Morority. It’s entitled “Three Wishes,” and it has triplets as the protagonists, though two of them are identical, while one of them is fraternal. I didn’t really know that was possible, but made it rather more interesting The novel begins with one of them throwing a fork at one of the others, which then goes back in time and is often quite funny. I know it doesn’t sound funny, but Moriarty is so witty with her characters and prose that I kept giggling through the entire book. I think Sue at Work enjoyed this as well.

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    • Thank you, Kat Lit! Always happy to see a mention of Liane Moriarty, one of my favorite contemporary authors. Not just twins but triplets — a bonus! I also didn’t know that one set of triplets could be both identical and fraternal. Maybe Moriarty made that up?! 🙂 Anyway, very nice summary of “Three Wishes”!

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      • Yes, I loved this! I can’t believe I didn’t think of it. That lunch at the start/end of the novel was somehow quite horrific and funny at the same time.

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  7. It made me very happy that you mentioned Atonement, as that is one of my favorite novels. The movie is pretty well-done too. I’ve always been so moved by that story! In fact, I’ve read almost all of your mentions this week, which made me feel pretty well-rounded hahahaha! 🙂 I also just finished “American Pop” by Snowden Wright. It is about a fictional, famous soda-pop dynasty family, and it has a set of twins in it – a brother/sister duo. Their relationship is a very interesting one, a mountain range of ups and downs. It is especially interesting when told along with the rest of the family and all of their unique dramas and hurts. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up this book, but I must say it was quite unique and I really enjoyed it.

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  8. “The Other” by Thomas Tryon always comes to mind for me when discussing ‘twins’ in literature (probably says more about my psychology than my reading habits 🙂 ) It is set in 1935, and the sadistic relationship between two thirteen-year-old identical twin boys, one who is well-behaved, and the other a sociopath who wreaks havoc on his family’s rural New England farm property.

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    • Thank you, Jack, for mentioning “The Other”! Great example of this topic, and an excellent brief summary of that Thomas Tryon novel. Sometimes twins — in literature and in real life — are VERY different.

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          • Who is the older sister of singer Geoff Muldaur of Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band and Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, former husband of Maria, with whom she made two lp’s, along with band members Bill Keith and Amos Garrett. Maria is best known as the singer of “Midnight on the Oasis”. Garrett, who played the lovely solo on that track, was also a member of Better Days. Geoff and Garrett became a performing duo in the late ’70’s, and made at least one delightful record for the Flying Fish label. Small world, innit?

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  9. Oh Dave, how can you go past Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”? It’s ok, that’s a rhetorical question as I know you’re not the hugest fan of Shakespeare. I think “Comedy” is one of the better ones though. It’s been a million years since I read it, but I remember being very entertained by all the misunderstandings that occur due to there being not one, but two sets of twins who are constantly mistaken for one another. Despite it being written WAY before TV, it had a real “Fawlty Towers” feel about it.

    There are some pretty important and powerful twins in Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles”.

    A fantasy series that I read when I was much younger had two very different twins. One was big and brawny and maybe a bit dumb. But loyal and generous. The other was a wizard who was the smart one, but physically weak. He was also loyal and generous… when it suited him. The two very different characters play off each other really well.

    In Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower”, there’s a whole town that is mostly twins. ‘Singles’ definitely being the minority. Sadly, because of vampire type creatures preying on the town, one twin is destined to have a pretty crappy life.

    Not quite literature, but I’m so excited for “Game of Thrones” to be coming back next week. The “Song of Ice and Fire” books aren’t the greatest literature on the planet, but I must give Martin credit for creating something that I care so much about. Jaime and Cersei probably shouldn’t be lovers, but I so want to them to get married and have beautiful babies and live happily ever after!

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    • Thank you, Sue! My excuse: I’ve never read or seen “The Comedy of Errors.” 🙂 Glad you have, and that you mentioned it! Two sets of twins — that can be confusingly dramatic, or dramatically confusing. And comparing that Shakespeare play a bit to “Fawlty Towers” is high praise indeed! I love John Cleese.

      Thanks, also, for the Anne Rice and Stephen King mentions. And for “Game of Thrones” fans such as yourself, the anticipation for the return of that TV series must be off-the-charts!

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      • Dave, I probably could have phrased my comment about Shakespeare better, as I made it sound like you’ve read them all but didn’t like them, where I think it would be more accurate to say that you haven’t read much of his work. Maybe because you haven’t loved what you have read, but also because of that never ending problem of too many books…

        John Cleese is incredible. I’m not normally a fan of physical comedy, but everything he does, even if it looks dumb, somehow looks intelligent. And it’s nice to see that “Fawlty Towers” was voted as UKs favourite sitcom right after I mentioned it.

        Only four more sleeps until the final season! I don’t currently have any kind of TV subscription, and the options for watching GoT in Australia are pretty limited. I’m hoping that I can sign up to something tonight. If you don’t hear from me for a few weeks, it’s because I’ve missed the first episode and I’ve crawled into a deep, dark hole…

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        • Thank you, Sue! I think I’ve read four (?) of Shakespeare’s plays — including “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” of course. 🙂 Liked them; didn’t love them. Maybe reading is not the ideal way to enjoy plays; I think I’ve only seen one of Shakespeare’s plays performed — in New York City’s Central Park many moons ago. And, yes, there’s only time to read some writers, not all. If only Shakespeare had written a play about blogging in Elizabethan England…

          John Cleese is indeed a master at physical comedy — and I like his cerebral comedy, too.

          I hope you don’t miss a minute of “Game of Thrones”!

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          • “I hope you don’t miss a minute of “Game of Thrones”!”

            That’s one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me! I seem to have some streaming app now installed on my computer. I can’t figure out how to make it work on my TV, but as long as I can see it, then I’m happy. Might need to dust the monitor off a bit though…

            I’m sorry, Dave. I’m not normally one to go on about TV shows. Especially on a site about books! But winter has been coming for a really long time. I’m so excited that it’s finally here!

            I’ve never actually seen Shakespeare performed. But you might be onto something suggesting that reading might not be the best way to go. In fact, when reading Shakespeare I’m sometimes a bit blown away with what he achieves with just dialogue. It would be interesting to see what he could have done with a novel. Of course, there have also been some great film adaptations, such as Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet”. Oh no. I’m somehow off the books and back on the screen again!

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            • Ha, Sue — nicely done screen start and screen ending to your comment!

              Yes, plays are meant to be performed, but — as you note — the dialogue can be scintillating when “only” read. Arthur Miller pulled that off well, too.

              Shakespeare as a potential novelist? Interesting. I guess plays and poetry were the dominant genres of his time.

              For fans, watching “Game of Thrones” on a computer beats not watching it at all. 🙂

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  10. One of the first series of books I read in my teen years were by V.C. Andrews,namely, “Flowers In The Attic”, “Petals On The Wind” and “If There Be Thorns.” The children were step ford like as I remember in my archives on microfilm at this point,blond,blue eyed,set of twins added to the dark,sinister world they lived in. Even more creepy as I remember the co-dependence the abused children had particularly the twins who were so alike.

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  11. Have you read The Memory Keeper’s Daughter? This was a story set in early 60’s when a doctor delivered his wife’s twins in a snowstorm. The son is healthy but when he noticed the daughter had Down syndrome, he gave her to his nurse and told his wife the baby died. The nurse was instructed to take the child to an institution but when she didn’t like what she saw there, she kept the baby and raised her as her own. Interesting premise for a book – a bit unbelievable at times.

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  12. Some great books there, Dave! The Weasley twins are some of my favorite characters.

    For a slightly different type of doubling, I thought I’d mention the paralleling between women and non-human animals that often takes place in Russian literature. Most famously, Count Vronsky accidentally destroys his beloved Thoroughbred Frou-Frou, foreshadowing his destruction of Anna in “Anna Karenina.” Similar things happen in “A Hero of Our Time” and “Quiet Flows the Don.” And in Zakhar Prilepin’s “Pathologies,” the hero Yegor alternates between reminiscing about how he destroyed his relationship with his beloved childhood dog Daisy and his first serious girlfriend Dasha. The fact that both names also start with D in Russian underscores the doubling. And then there is actually another pair of (unnamed) dogs in the narrative that also serve as doubles…

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  13. The first books I remember reading as a child were The Bobbsey Twins. There were two sets of fraternal twins, Nan and Bert who were 12, and Freddie and Flossie who were six. I have a couple of older editions that I picked up at flea markets, and I’ve got the first nine of a series of reissued hardcover books from sometime in the 2000’s (I can’t find any dates on these). I would often call my best friend and me the Bobbsey Twins, as we’d sometimes dress in the same clothes, except different colors. I’ve got an overwhelming fondness for book series I read as a pre-teen, e.g., Cherry Ames, Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, the Hardy Boys, and the Dana Girls.

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    • Thank you, Kat Lit! “The Bobbsey Twins” — of course. 🙂 Never read those books, but they’re really a perfect example of this topic.

      Yes, children’s and/or YA series like that bring back fond memories. Though she’s aging out of them, my younger daughter has been enjoying “The Boxcar Children” books.

      Glad to see your “Kat Lit” alias has returned!

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    • While not twins, the Dana Girls were sisters, who were one year apart. The older one was Louise, the pretty one, and had the same name as my best friend (her middle name) with dark hair, and the younger one whose name was Jean (my middle name), an attractive blonde. It was fun to imagine us as the Dana Girls, rather than the Bobbsey Twins. They were a bit older than the older twins, once we passed the age of 12. Sorry, Dave, I’m having a walk down memory lane. Mainly because I can’t think of any other twins that I’ve read about! Though it might come to me as I wake up in the middle of the night.

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        • I happened across a photo today of my best friend and me who had met up in Minneapolis for some reason that escapes me now, but we were both wearing almost identical yellow raincoats that she had bought in Chapel Hill and I’d bought in Minneapolis, unknowingly. We were definitely the Bobbsey Twins in this photo!

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  14. Howdy, Dave!

    — Your favorite novels that fit this topic? —

    The first three works with generous dollops of duality therein that popped into my singular head — Ow! Ow! Ow! — were in chronological order Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” (a short story), Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Double” (a novella) and Thomas Tryon’s “The Other” (a novel).

    And the mention of Tryon brings to mind a duality of another kind: I can recall a lot about the creepiness of “The Other” and the even more creepiness of “Harvest Home,” but I can remember just a little about the nature of “Crowned Heads: A Novel.” It is a common phenomenon within my neurocranium, a braincase I have been unable to crack the past half a century or so. Hopefully, my doppelganger will have better luck . . .

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

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  15. You’re welcome, Dave! I also loved “Her Fearful Symmetry” by Audrey Niffenegger (who also wrote “Time Traveler’s Wife”). This book has two sets of twins, old and young, and takes place in a house inherited with “strings attached” and located near a cemetery in London. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that this one is CREEPY in more ways than one!

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    • Thank you for the comment, Becky!

      I liked “The Time Traveler’s Wife” a lot; glad Audrey Niffenegger wrote another excellent novel. “Her Fearful Symmetry” sounds like a GREAT, intriguing example of this topic — and I loved your comment’s duality-laden last line!

      Liked by 1 person

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