There is a fine line between the realm of reality and of delusion that Dostoevsky’s “The Double” brazenly crosses. It delves deep into the frenzied mind of Golyadkin; a world entirely of its own, yet painfully inextricable from the world that he fails to succeed in, fettered with suspicion and fear of the watchful eyes of others. It is the rambling, fantastical story of a titular councilor obsessed with his place in society, scurrying to create a reputation that would garner him the respect and admiration that he sincerely feels he deserves.
What is most striking is that within this stream of action runs a counteractive consciousness; the acute desire to avoid being singled out, which for him ultimately means the humiliation of being subject to the ridicule that inevitably arises from any contact with the social milieu that surrounds him. To this end, on even the slightest suspicion of derision, he moves instinctively to defend his actions, to appear, perhaps from the sinking feeling of his own failure, to be like everyone else. However, at the same time he detaches himself from the society that he seeks acceptance from, establishing a moral difference between himself and those that “wear masks,” identifying his refusal to sully his higher moral fiber to be the reason he is not successful in society.
His reason, though not at all without truth, allows him to nurse his pride; making it a matter not of his own shortcomings, but of society’s depravity. Still, since his existence is latched entirely on what others think when they see him, viewing himself and his actions in terms of the external vision, he is unable to escape that abject humiliation that comes with the knowledge of his insignificance. It is this humiliation that colours the actions of others with malevolent intent and scornful condescension. The jarring paradox of his ambitious yet wretched nature seem evident even to Golyadkin himself at a subconscious level, so that he meets each experience with both an indignant assertion of his will and a meek, pathetic flinch when the eyes of of the world fall upon him as he carries out that will. The hold of the judgement of others is so strong upon him that it breeds paranoia of an enemy that seeks to ruin him; yet again dividing the world between himself and "the other side."
This dichotomy, both internal and external, is the very source of the dangerous instability in his character that gives birth to Golyadkin junior. This doppelganger appears at the precise moment of Golyadkin's most humiliating efforts of ingratiating with the "well-bred." The split between the two occurs as a result of a power struggle of sorts. The very fact that the two not only have the same appearance, but also the same name and the same job, makes the entire situation seem even more like a case of identity theft, steering the story into the realm of the absurd, where Golyadkin junior is a mask that Golyadkin had failed to use to conceal his weaknesses from society. The original Golyadkin is left with nothing but the desperate sense that he must retrieve the place in society that his copy has wrongfully usurped. But not only does the copy take Golyadkin's place, he manages to achieve everything that Golyadkin could not.
The appearance of this double, coupled with Golyadkin's paranoia and the omission of the voice of any other character involved in the plot, creates an uncertainty, even mistrust, of Golyadkin's vision. Delusions and actuality blur into one single stream of events. But perhaps, to a certain extent, the question of distinguishing fact from illusion is besides the point. The story remains within the discourse of Golyadkin's stream of existence, and to a great extent that consciousness is an entity separate from reality, for illusion and fact are interchangeable. What matters is solely the fear of being replaced, of being completely ostracized as a member of society, and for someone like Golyadkin that would be akin to a non-existence. In the end, Golyadkin is sent away, and his assertion that "there isn't room for both of us" in his letter to his doppelganger comes true. His ultimate defeat in the face of an enemy he is unable, despite extreme effort, to harmonize with smacks of a ruthless society where the artificial prevail, and those that cannot live up to expectations and social decorum (even if they desperately aspire to them) have no use.
Golyadkin's chilling fate is one that offers great insight into the complexities of man's relationship to his world, but it does not necessarily inspire great sympathy for the protagonist. His is a fate too wretched, selfish and petty, perhaps in a way too wanton in its desires and too hypocritical in its ambitions, and therefore too close to the truth of human existence to instill compassion in any reader. He is, in essence, a "nasty, dirty boot-rag," but, as the text further illucidates, "pride and feelings might have remained concealed deep in its filthy folds and been unable to speak for themselves, but all the same they would have been there" and this is where the anguish of his struggle lies.