The best life is the examined life

On Doubleness

“Everything he has feared and foreseen had now become cold reality. It took his breath away and made his head whirl. The unknown, still in hat and overcoat, was sitting before him, on his own bed, with a slight smile on his lips; narrowing his eyes a little, he gave him a friendly nod. Mr. Golyadkin wanted to cry out but could not, to make some sort of protest but his strength failed him. His hair stood on end and he collapsed into a chair, insensible with horror. Mr. Golyadkin had recognized his nocturnal acquaintance. Mr. Golyadkin’s nocturnal acquaintance was none other than himself, another Golyadkin, but exactly the same as himself–in short, in every respect what is called his double…” (173)

In his psychological thriller-comedy, The Double, Fyodor Dostoevsky depicts the pitiful life of Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, a common clerk working in a government office who encounters his double, Golyadkin junior, a person who looks just like him, but who attempts to take over his life, foiling Golyadkin at every turn. From the beginning of the story we know that Golyadkin is slowly slipping into madness, but upon seeing his double, his psyche finally splits apart and he loses himself in a full-blown existential crisis, where he struggles to reconcile his internal conflicts, stop an imaginary plot to destroy his reputation and character, and to befriend his double who does everything to harass and undermine him. 

There are many ways to understand this story. One way is to see it as a case study of someone descending into madness. But we can also see it as a metaphor for our own doubleness. Doubleness captures the ways in which our own identity is split, fragmented, divided, and in conflict. The doubleness of believing things about ourselves that are not true. The doubleness of our personal lives and professional lives. The doubleness of living a socially constructed life, but wanting to live an authentic one; a life built from within, not imposed from without. 

The Double is set during a time when rational bureaucratic systems from Europe were being implemented in Russia, and Goyadkin, and his doubleness, is a product of these systems.* Dostoevsky, through his character’s mental breakdown, shows us the painful internal conflicts that arise when someone’s social identity comes into conflict with who they are and who they want to be. Golyadkin wants to assert himself and realize his own ambitions, but his independence comes into conflict with how society wants him to be. That is, someone who is meek, ready to do his superior’s bidding, and who subordinates his own goals to the goals of the bureaucratic system in which he is embedded. This system treats Golyadkin like a cog in a wheel, a means to end, not as a human being who has his own feelings, desires and goals.

We see this conflict in Golyadkin when he dresses up in faux-fine attire and orders a carriage to take him to his imagined lover’s (Clara Olsufyevna) birthday party. He sits boldly in his carriage for everyone to see, but when he sees someone from work, he cowers in the darkest corner of the carriage hoping that they did not catch sight of him. He changes out his large rouble notes into smaller ones in order to fatten his wallet, but can’t bring himself to buy anything. He stands for hours at the backdoor of the party, conflicted whether he should go in or not, and then bursts in and makes a mockery of himself when he tries to dance with Clara and she screams. Then when he meets his double, he vacillates between wishing him dead, and desperately wanting to befriend him, even in the face of brutal humiliation. 

Golyadkin’s double is free from Golyadkin’s guilt and internal conflicts. In fact, he is what Golyadkin wishes to be, but also does not wish to be. His double pretends to be honest, trustworthy, obedient and meek, but is a social climber who does everything he can to increase his position at work and his status amongst his colleagues. Golyadkin desperately tries to reconcile these conflicting values within himself, to create a coherent self, but he can’t do it. Not from lack of trying, but from the fact that it is impossible. He is left with talking in moral cliches, not knowing the meaning of the values he’s espousing.

Doubleness is a sign of living with inconsistent values, of wearing, as Golyadkin puts it, different “masks” (137). Doubleness can arise from organizational structures that create, and reinforce, identities and values that run counter to one’s own identity and values. For example, when a business organization prioritizes monetary and competitive values over the values of honesty, integrity and trust, it can create an identity crisis in the employee. At work, she puts on the mask of a self-interested, competitive profit maximizer, but when at home she puts on the mask of the good neighbor who puts others interests ahead of her own. Once these masks are internalized she ends up like Goyadkin; anxious, guilt ridden, and with an identity cracked down the middle ready to break apart at any moment. How can we stop this from happening to us? One way is to take Aristotle’s advice and create a coherent self. 

Aristotle believes that a happy life is a flourishing life (eudaemonia). A flourishing life is one in which a person has a coherent self. That is, a self that has a consistent set of moral values (e.g. courage, wisdom and justice) that is aligned with its desires and actions. We would say that such a person has integrity and has an excellent character. This person does not have a double self, and does not put different masks on throughout the day, but is a single, whole self. For Aristotle, good social organizations are also necessary to build and cultivate good character (NE 1.2). As bad social organizations create doubleness in its members, good organizations creates wholeness and coherency between individual and organizational values. Building a coherent self is not easy. The first step is to answer the question: “Who is my double?” Upon answering this question, you may need to rethink your career goals, and then join or create organizations whose values align with your own. It may also mean doing the deep, hard work of examining your life and figuring out what you really value and finding ways to build your life around them.

At the end of the story Golyadkin is put into a carriage and driven off to an asylum.

“For a short time a few figures could still be seen flitting round the carriage as it bore Mr Golyadkin away, but little by little they dropped further and further behind and at last vanished altogether. Mr. Golyadkin’s unworthy twin held on the longest of all. With his hands in the pockets of his green uniform trousers he ran on with a pleased expression on his face, jumping up first on one side of the carriage and then on the other; sometimes, grasping the window-frame and hanging on by it, he even thrust his head inside and blew kisses in farewell; but he began to grow tired, his appearances became fewer and fewer, and finally he too vanished altogether” (286).

If you don’t want to be “doubled” like poor Mr. Golyadkin, take the time to create a coherent self. You’ll be happy you did. 

*I received interpretative help from my colleague Tim Ketcher, and from those who participated in the Art of Living workshop where we discussed the book. I also drew from Joseph Frank’s interpretation of the work in his biography of Dostoevsky: “Dostoevsky: A Writer in his Time” (Princeton University Press, 2010)


Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” (Oxford University Press, 2002)

Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Notes from Underground and The Double,” (Penguin Books, 1972).



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