Dual Personalities and Alter Egos

Selase Buatsi and Melody Siebenmann


According to Erik Erikson’s Social Development Theory, humans go through a series of social stages throughout their lives. Among these is a stage in which the individual struggles to ‘find himself’ and discover his role in society. Dual personalities and alter ego are fascinating to humans because the struggle to understand one’s self and the struggle to find one’s place in society is a struggle that they can relate with because everyone experiences that same feeling. For this reason, the topic has been used in a number of different books and movies. It has the effect of not only entertaining, but also allows the author to juxtapose different feelings, beliefs, or actions in an individual to reveal a disparity in the actions of society.

What is it?


Dual Personality:

  • a form of mental disturbance in which someone assumes alternately two different identities- medical dictionary

Alter Ego:

  • another side of oneself; a second self- medical dictionary
  • a literary character or narrator who is a thinly disguised representation of the author, poet, or playwright creating a work- literary terms and definitions

Historical Context:

- Origin

Alter Ego

“Alter ego”, or the meaning of the word, was first used by Cicero in the first century BC. Then, it is first recorded in the english language in 1537 in a letter from Richard Layton to Thomas Cromwell:

"Ye muste have suche as ye may trust evyn as well as your owne self, wiche muste be unto yowe as alter ego."

It wasn’t an official word in society until major psychological breakthroughs in the 20th century using it for medical purposes. Specifically, used to describe people with Schizophrenia (The Meaning and Origin of the Expression)(Alter Ego Definition and Meaning). However, the theory of having another version of self has been around for centuries because every person on the planet has to discover who their true identity is since the beginning of humanity.

Dual Personality

Some psychologists believe that stories of demon possessed humans may have been the first recorded cases of dual personality disorder, however the most influential studies on dual personality did not come about until the late 18th century to 19th century. These cases include that of Mary Reynolds observed by Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchel in 1816 and Estelle observed by Despine in 1840 (A History of Dissociative Identity Disorder). Despite these cases, many prominent figures in psychology, including Sigmund Freud, refused to acknowledge the disorder and it wasn’t until the 20th century, after the publication of two momentous works concerning dual personalities (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Sybil), that the American Psychiatric Association recognized multiple personalities as a disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder History and Incidence).


Activity: Can you Recognize these super alter egos?

- Influence on Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was an acute student and became established as a writer at a young age. He then moved to England, got married, and had two kids. However, it was an “Open Secret” that he was a homosexual which caused problems for him, especially because he lived in the Victorian era (Oscar Wilde). His ire was insulted when his father called him a sodomite and thus Wilde sued for libel which became his greatest undoing. The case turned on him and he ended up imprisoned for two years for his homosexual affair with a certain Douglas. Prison broke him and when he got out he had severe psychological trauma, was financially depleted, and emotionally depressed which lead to his early death a short time later at the age of 46. His most known work, The Picture of Dorian Gray represents his ego and how he analyzed his own life. If the book had been published in the 21st century, it would probably be accepted as normal, however, because it was published in the Victorian Era, it was seen as morally wrong and frowned upon, exactly like his life practices where at the time (Appella).

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Cultural Connection with A Picture of Dorian Gray

In "A Picture of Dorian Grey", Dorian is depicted to have two personalities or two egos. There is a beautiful, youthful, innocent and pure Dorian and there is a selfish, corrupt and morally foul Dorian Gray.

In the beginning, the light and innocent version was seen in the portrait that was painted of him and in his personality, until he cursed himself with a wishful prayer. He desired to stay beautiful forever... even if it meant selling his soul.

Thus, afterwords, he was granted everlasting beauty and youth on the outside, when the portrait of himself represented who he truly was on the inside, what personality he was assuming. A haggard, wizened, hideous, and dark version continued to transform the original brilliance of the picture every time he did a sinful deed.

However, (*Spoiler Alert), in the end when Dorian (the good one still fighting it) tries to destroy the portrait to breaks the "curse" on the portrait, the roles are reversed. Dorian becomes the portrait;s depiction of him while the portrait returned to its initial purity.

Two Dorians are prevalent throughout, and eventually because he sold his "soul" (personality), he transforms into someone, something, else.

Movie Depiction

Dorian Gray (2009) Official Trailer # 1 - Ben Barnes HD
The Picture of Dorian Gray (Original Theatrical Trailer)

Works Cited

"A History of Dissociative Identity Disorder." A History of Dissociative Identity Disorder. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2015. <http://www.fortea.us/english/psiquiatria/history.htm>.

"Alter Ego." The Free Dictionary. Farlex, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2015. <http://www.thefreedictionary.com/alter+ego>.

"Alter Ego Definition and Meaning: What Does Alter Ego Mean?" Alter Ego Definition and Meaning: What Does Alter Ego Mean? N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2015. <http://www.what-is-definitions-and-meanings.info/what-is-an-alter-ego-definition-and-meaning/>.

Appell, Felicia. "Victorian Ideals: The Influence of Society’s Ideals on Victorian Relationships." Victorian Ideals. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2015. <https://www.mckendree.edu/academics/scholars/issue18/appell.htm>.

Crocq, Marc-Antoine. "Milestones in the History of Personality Disorders." Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. Les Laboratoires Servier, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3811086/>.

"Double Personality." TheFreeDictionary.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/double+personality>.

"Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll." The Picture of Dorian Gray. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <http://doriangrayzine2.weebly.com/dorian-gray-and-dr-jekyll.html>.

Duggan, Patrick. "The Conflict Between Aestheticism and Morality in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray." N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.bu.edu/writingprogram/journal/past-issues/issue-1/duggan/>.

"Literary Terms and Definitions A." Literary Terms and Definitions A. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2015. <https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/lit_terms_A.html>.

"The History Of The Psychiatric Diagnostic System." Mental Help The History of the Psychiatric Diagnostic System Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/the-history-of-the-psychiatric-diagnostic-system/>

"The Meaning and Origin of the Expression: Alter Ego." Alter Ego. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2015. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/alter-ego.html>.

"The True Story behind Sybil and Her Multiple Personalities | CBC Books | CBC Radio." CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 08 Oct. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <http://www.cbc.ca/books/2011/12/sybil-exposed.html>.

"Multiple Personality Disorder - History And Incidence." - Mpd, Believe, American, and Patients. Net Industries and Its Licensors, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2015. <http://science.jrank.org/pages/4495/Multiple-Personality-Disorder-History-incidence.html>.

N.p., n.d. Web. <http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/dual+personality>.

"Oscar Wilde." Biography.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <http://www.biography.com/people/oscar-wilde-9531078>.