Sylvia Plath 1963
First appearing in the New Yorker in 1963 and then the posthumously published collection Crossing the Water: Transitional Poems (1971), Plath’s poem “Mirror” exhibits many of the thematic and stylistic qualities which made her one of the best known poets of her generation. “Mirror” was written in 1961, just two years before Plath’s suicide—a two-year period which, ironically, was among the most productive of her literary career. Her poems from this time, many of which are collected in her most widely acclaimed book Ariel, are often dark, at times full of despair and anger at life, and many contain violent images and unsettling metaphors.
“Mirror” is written from a mirror’s perspective, and the poem presents, at first, what seems to be a light-hearted observation on the unfailing honesty and accuracy of its reflection. In its second stanza, however, the tone of the poem darkens, and the theme of honesty undergoes a dramatic change, as a woman finds her reflection in the mirror to be a unwanted reminder of her age and her mortality—and ultimately, a source of terror.
Plath was born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, the daughter of Otto Emil Plath, a German immigrant and professor, and Aurelia Schober Plath, a former student of his, twenty-one years his junior. Plath’s father died suddenly from diabetes mellitus in 1940
when she was only eight years old, an experience that would have a significant impact on her poetry. In 1950 Plath received a scholarship to attend Smith College, where she studied furiously, determined to achieve academic and social success. Suffering from recurrent depression, which would plague her throughout her life, Plath’s anxieties over succeeding and excelling eventually led her to electroshock therapy. The therapy, however, increased her anxieties, and in August of 1953 Plath hid herself in the basement of her home and attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. She was found two days later and was subsequently admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital and placed under the care of a psychiatrist.
Plath returned to college in 1954, graduated in 1955, and received a Fulbright grant to study at Newnham College in Cambridge, England, where she met her future husband Ted Hughes. Upon returning to America, Plath began teaching at Smith, and while her husband’s career began to take off, hers did not. In 1959 Plath and Hughes returned to England and had two children. In July, 1962, Plath learned of her husband’s infidelities, and after the two failed to reconcile, she moved with her children to London. The failure of her marriage led to further struggles with severe depression, and she committed suicide on February 11, 1963. Only a single volume of her poetry was published during her lifetime. Hughes edited many of the posthumous publications of Plath’s works, including The Collected Poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful—
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Were it not for its title, the opening lines of “Mirror” might seem to be clues to a child’s riddle. Such clues quickly make it evident that the first person speaker of the poem (“I”) is the mirror referred to in the title. The terse, chopped phrasing of the first line, along with language such as “exact” and “no preconceptions,” help to establish the mirror’s persona as blunt, honest, and unemotional.
Here, Plath presents the first of several unexpectedly violent images, as she depicts the mirror immediately swallowing all it comes into contact with—without regard to the emotional concerns of “love and dislike.” The mirror’s denial of its cruelty in line 4 seems based on the proposition that truth cannot be equated with cruelty—a proposition which will come under closer scrutiny in the poem’s final lines. This section of the poem also seems to call into question the nature of God; when the mirror calls itself “the eye of a little god,” Plath seems to be using the cold and unemotional reflection of the mirror as a metaphor for a distant and uncaring God.
Plath’s characteristically dry humor is present in these lines, as the mirror describes how it spends its days staring at the wall it faces. But in this humorous observation is also a further hint of the mirror’s meticulous and unforgiving nature, as it notes not only the wall’s color, but also its minor imperfections. Despite these “speckles,” however, the mirror seems to have formed an attachment to the wall whose image it so often reflects—an image that “flickers” because of the passing of days and nights. Plath’s choice of the word “flickers”—a word which most people would associate with a very short-lived source of light (such as a candle or a match)—to describe how the mirror views the passing of entire days, indicates how very differently the mirror views time and mortality in comparison to humans.
With the beginning of the second stanza, the poem takes on a much darker tone. The change is abruptly signaled by the presentation of a different type of mirror: the reflective surface of a lake. This recalls the mythological figure Narcissus, who fell in love with his own refection in a lake and died as a result of this impossible infatuation. Plath has good reason to use water imagery in these final lines, since it provides the same reflective qualities as the mirror, but also suggests depth, coldness, the unknown, and the threat of death by drowning.
These lines seem to suggest a yearning for truth, on the part of the unnamed woman, who ponders her reflection, in search of “what she really is.” But paired with this yearning for truth is a willingness to reject it. Not finding the reality of her reflection to her liking, the woman turns her gaze away—toward the softer, more forgiving, light of “candles or the moon.” Here, Plath seems to contrast the starkly accurate image of the mirror with the more romantic and less realistic (but perhaps more comforting) world of illusion.
Despite the woman’s apparent rejection of the mirror, it continues its work of reflecting her image
- Sylvia Plath. Videocassette. Voices and Visions Series, volume 9. Santa Barbara: Intellimation, 1988.
- Sylvia Plath: Personal Influences on Sylvia Plath’s Writing. Website. Http://www2.en.utexas.edu/slatin/sexton/plath.html.
- Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) Bibliography—Articles and Dissertations. Website. Http://www.informatik.uni-leipzig.de/pri.../beckmann/public_html/plath/bibliob.html.
“faithfully,” even when her back is turned. Her distress at being continually drawn to her own image in the mirror, and yet being repelled by what she sees there, is made increasingly evident by her “tears” and “agitation of hands.” As the mirror understands, however, the reflected image is “important to her,” and each morning she is compelled to return to it.
The closure to “Mirror” presents an example of the type of sudden, unexpectedly violent, imagery for which Plath’s poetry is famous. The lake imagery is developed, as the mirror becomes a grim reminder of the woman’s own lost youth; it is she, the poem suggests, who had been the “young girl” who was “drowned” in the lake. Here the lake seems to represent time: it is time that has “killed” the young girl and turned her into an “old woman.” Plath then employs a rather shocking metaphor, comparing the woman’s reflection to “a terrible fish” rising from the depths of a lake: her face has been made grotesque by the passage of time.
Looking back to lines 8-9, we can see that the mirror on the wall similarly represents the passage of time, marking the progression of “faces and darkness.” (In line 16, “face” and “darkness” are used again, in an image that suggests morning “replaces” the darkness—another marker of time passing.) This poem, then, is like a mirror: seemingly
Topics for Further Study
- From the same mirror’s point of view, record in a poem the comings and goings of one or two other people. How does each of them feel about what he or she sees? How does each of them change day after day?
- Explain what you think the mirror feels for the woman. How well does it understand her?
a static picture, it actually progresses. The silvered glass on a wall changes to the reflective surface of a lake, time passes, a young girl grows old. And it moves from apparent objectivity—the mirror is presented as “truthful” and unaffected by emotion (“unmisted by love or dislike”)—to the subjective experience of the woman’s distress at the sight of her reflection.
Identity/Search for Self
The individual’s search for self is represented in this poem on several levels, most obviously, by the woman who peers into the lake attempting to determine “what she really is.” The woman’s quest for self-discovery is genuine and the lake is “important to her,” but she cannot accept what is “faithfully” reflected in its depths and she returns morning after morning, hoping for better results. The young girl that she once was has been drowned, by the woman herself, and is now replaced, to her horror, by an old woman who rises from the depths “like a terrible fish.” Little wonder, then, that the woman prefers to delude herself with the more flattering representations provided by candlelight and moonlight.
Meanwhile, the identity of the narrator as mirror/lake is also in question. In the first stanza, the mirror takes on the qualities of a person, insisting that it is a disinterested observer that neither distorts nor evaluates what stands before it. Yet the reliability of this self-assessment is undermined by the mirror’s belief that the pink speckled wall it gazes at all day is a part of its own heart. The mirror’s association and identification with the wall become so complete that when people use the mirror for its intended purpose, their faces are considered intrusions that “separate” the mirror from a part of itself, its heart.
In the second stanza, the identity of the poem’s narrator is even more problematic, since it claims that it is now a lake. Its voice, though, is remarkably like that of the mirror. Although the surface of the calmest lake could hardly reflect images with the same clarity as a mirror, the narrator still insists that its renderings are true (as opposed to what’s offered by “those liars, the candles or the moon”). Its reference to the faces and the darkness, mentioned in the first stanza, provides further evidence that the mirror and the lake are one and the same. Again, though, the narrator’s knowledge of self is less than accurate. Cruelty is not its intention, but the result—measured by the woman’s reaction—suggests that the narrator is not the best judge of its own intentions.
Since most critics agree that the mirror/lake in the poem is a metaphor for poets and poetry, the disparity between the narrator’s stated motives and the obvious consequences of its representations suggest that Plath may be questioning her own identity as a poet who deludes herself about her own objectivity.
A well-documented preoccupation with death runs throughout much of Plath’s work and appears in “Mirror” as well. The idea that everyday objects, while seemingly benign, actually harbor the specter of death is a recurring theme in Plath’s poems. Here the mirror, in theory at least, maintains a passive and nonjudgmental demeanor, but then turns into a malevolent lake from whose depths an image of the woman’s own mortality rises “like a terrible fish.” This transformation is signaled even in the first stanza, by the mirror’s admission that it “swallows” whatever it sees, suggesting that it is not so benign after all. The lake, too, has swallowed the young girl who has been drowned in its depths by the old woman who replaces her.
The woman who peers into the lake, hoping to get back a flattering image of herself is disappointed again and again. Her response to the brutal honesty of the reflection she sees each morning consists of “tears and an agitation of hands.” Since the woman believes that “what she really is” is determined by her physical appearance, she apparently accepts the stereotypical female role assigned to her by her culture. If she has no function but to reflect, like a mirror, the achievements of her husband and children; if she is not considered functional at all, but merely decorative; if her value as a person is dependent upon youth, beauty, and sexual allure; then she is right to be horrified by the image that rises up to her “like a terrible fish.” Although she bends over the lake in the manner of Narcissus, the woman does not fall in love with her own image as he did; rather, she is filled with self-loathing at what she sees.
Language and Meaning
“Mirror” is not only about reflection, it is also a self-reflective or self-reflexive text—that is, it is a poem about poetry. The narrator/mirror that boasts of its adherence to the literal, but then quickly switches to metaphor by “swallowing” everything it sees, is itself a metaphor for the poet, for poetry, or for representational art in general. The mirror’s claim of neutrality repeats the stance long taken by art and artists claiming to be realistic—they don’t invent, they merely reflect what’s out there. Thus, like the mirror/lake, they can disavow responsibility for the images and representations they produce.
Written in free verse, the poem’s lines vary in length from nine to fifteen syllables and use no pattern of rhyme. All but two of the poem’s lines are end-stopped, ending in either a period, comma, or dash. Whereas enjambed lines (phrases which carry over, without punctuation, from one line to the next) serve to increase the pace of a poem, end-stopped lines, such as the ones Plath uses here, tend to slow the reading of the poem, and in this case, add to its dramatic effect.
“Mirror” is composed of two stanzas, each containing nine lines; in this way, the form of the poem may be viewed as representation of a mirror’s image—with each stanza reflecting the other. In the first stanza, the voice of the mirror might be seen as playful, and the opening lines almost seem like clues to a child’s riddle. But there is a dramatic turn at the beginning of the second stanza, and the poem’s last nine lines, while nearly identical in form to the first stanza, present a far darker message.
The early 1960s, the period during which Plath wrote “Mirror” and many of her other most famous poems, marked the beginning of women’s attempts to achieve equality with men. In 1963, the year of Plath’s suicide, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan was published, launching the modern women’s rights movement and a wide range of feminist influences that still resonate throughout American culture. Friedan’s book outlined various forms of discrimination and victimization experienced by women as a group, and also exposed the cultural ideals by which women were encouraged to sacrifice their own identity in order to find happiness and fulfillment in the nurturing of husbands and children. Many women accepted the constraints imposed by the culture of that period, much like the woman in Plath’s poem who seems to buy into the notion that her value as a person lasts only as long as her ability to appeal to men. But for others, the search for identity and independence that characterizes “Mirror” and other Plath poems became a major concern. Plath’s work was thought to speak directly to that concern and became a staple in women’s literature courses throughout America.
Originating in this same period was the national obsession with image, appearance, and weight, particularly for women, that continues today. The quest for an unrealistically thin body, which has preoccupied a significant proportion of American women for the past three decades, had its origins in the early 1960s. In 1962, Royal Crown introduced its Diet-Rite Cola, which was followed a year later by Tab, Coca-Cola’s entry into the sugar-free soft drink market. In that same year (1963), Jean Neditch, a Queens, New York, housewife, founded Weight Watchers, a self-help organization that combined a diet program with a form of group therapy, that was designed to convince overweight individuals (mostly women) all over America and eventually all over the world that they could achieve and maintain an ideal body through will power and mutual affirmation.
Accompanying the desire to be thin was the desire to be young—another cultural obsession that began in the 1960s as the first of the baby-boomers entered adolescence. The young, by virtue of their sheer numbers within the population, could dominate American culture as a whole with the music and fashions of their choice, choices often inspired early in the decade by The Beatles.
This obsession with image and with youth is articulated in “Mirror” through the woman’s recurrent
Compare & Contrast
- February 11, 1963: Plath killed herself with cooking gas at the age of 30. Most of her poems were published posthumously and exhibited Plath’s preoccupation with death. She continues to be read and studied three decades after her death, to the point that some critics have referred to her following as a “cult.”
April 8, 1994: Kurt Cobain, lead singer and creative genius behind the group Nirvana, killed himself at the age of 27. Cobain’s songs of youthful angst made him, according to many critics, the spokesman for his generation, a label he accepted with reluctance.
- 1959: The first Barbie doll was introduced at the New York Toy Fair. By the early 1960s, the doll was given a variety of fashionable hairstyles and clothing, and in 1961, Barbie’s boyfriend Ken was introduced.
Today: Although feminists have long denounced Barbie as a sexist representation that contributes to a poor self-image in girls, the doll remains one of the most popular toys in America. Women’s groups have pointed out that the doll’s hourglass figure idealizes a body type impossible for girls and women to achieve without resorting to starvation diets and surgical implants. The constant introduction of new Barbie clothes and fashion accessories has drawn criticism as well, as has the fact that Barbie for many years had no apparent occupation beyond acquiring consumer goods and being Ken’s girlfriend. Barbie was, feminists claimed, a poor role model for young girls because she was defined solely by her physical appearance and her relationship to a man. In response to this criticism, Barbie, in recent years, has been given a variety of careers, such as flight attendant and teacher. In the 1990s Barbie dolls, their friends, and their many accessory items have turned into high-priced collectibles for adult women.
- Late 1950s-EarIy 1960s: London designer Mary Quant consciously began designing for the growing youth market, populated by the early baby boomers just entering adolescence. Quant’s success inspired imitation, and the look, consisting of youthful “fun” styles including the miniskirt, was exported from England to America. Soon so-called “mod” clothing was being worn not just by teens, but by women of all ages, lured by advertisers’ promises that they would look young if they dressed the part.
Today: Adult women complain of the lack of fashion choices available for mature women and for those whose body types are not flattered by styles created for young, very slim girls. The youth market, it is charged, has taken over the entire fashion industry, setting impossible standards that real women cannot hope to achieve.
- 1960: While over one-third of American women worked outside the home, they were almost all employed in low-paying clerical, retail, or teaching positions. By the end of the decade women’s median income was still less than sixty percent of the median income for men, and employed women were generally responsible for housework and child care too.
Today: Although women have been admitted to more and more occupational groups formerly reserved for men, the earnings gap has improved only slightly. In 1996, women earned seventy-five cents for every dollar earned by men. The Second Shift, a 1989 book by Arlie Russell Hochschild, maintains that women are still responsible for the majority of household and child care tasks even though most work outside the home full time.
visits to the lake, hoping each time that a more flattering version of herself will be reflected on its surface. When those hopes are unrealized, she cries and wrings her hands and eventually seeks comfort and self-delusion in “those liars, the candles or the moon.” The horror of growing old is brutally driven home by the image of youth being not just replaced by age, but destroyed by it.
“Mirror” has seen little discussion among critics, many of whom chose to focus, instead, on the poems contained in Ariel, which were written in the final months before the poet’s death. Still, students of Plath’s work will find these discussions of her later work useful. Critic Caroline King Barnard, in her study entitled Sylvia Plath, finds works such as “Mirror” to be part of a “transitional period” in the poet’s career—a period in which Plath’s poems not only lack the humor and honesty of her early work, but also fail to measure up to the dark power of her final poems.
Jon Rosenblatt, in “Sylvia Plath: The Drama of Initiation,” finds an ever-present struggle with death at the center of much of Plath ’s writing. He writes that in Plath’s poetry “each encounter between beings and the world is a ritual confrontation with death that is repeated on all levels of existence and in all activities. For Plath, death is a kind of spirit or god who incarnates in the objects and forms of the world....”
Jeannine Johnson is a freelance writer who has taught at Yale University. In the following essay, Johnson asserts that Plath uses the image of the mirror as a metaphor for poetry.
The title of Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” reveals the speaker’s identity, yet the poem still forces us to ask what precisely is being described. Plath uses the technique of personification to give an inanimate object—in this case a glass mirror—the human capacity for speech. From this unexpected first-person perspective, we learn a great deal about an everyday object that we might otherwise take for granted. We gather this information from the ordinary meaning of the words, or the literal level of the poem. But the poet also uses her discussion
What Do I Read Next?
- The poems Sylvia Plath composed in the two-year period immediately preceding her suicide can be found in reading reading Ariel (1965) and Crossing the Water (1971). The Bell Jar (1963) is an autobiographical novel published just before her death under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.
- In Plath’s writing, mirrors and other reflecting surfaces, such as water, crystal ball, mirage, moon, eye, bell jar, are an important and recurring image, through which the poet explores her central themes. A Disturbance in Mirrors: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath by Pamela J. Annas (1988) is a thorough study of Plath’s use of mirror imagery.
- Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were friends and fellow students in Robert Lowell’s poetry class. Sexton is another confessional poet whose work is often compared to Plath’s. See The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton (1981).
- Kate Chopin was a writer who struggled with issues of female identity, creativity, and suicide at the turn of the century. Her work, long neglected after her death, has been rediscovered by feminists and republished in The Awakening and Other Stories (1970).
of the mirror to refer to another subject at the same time. The characteristics that the poet assigns to the mirror are indirectly applicable to poetry as well. In other words, while the poem literally describes a mirror, it figuratively or symbolically describes poetry itself.
Since the figurative meaning of a poem is not directly stated, we might ask, “how do we know that what the speaker says symbolically refers to poetry? A general answer to that question is that poetry often makes use of symbolism, and many (if not most) poems are in some sense “about” poetry, considering what a poem does, what it says, how it is constructed, why it is written, and other related issues. An answer specific to Plath’s poem is found in certain clues the poet gives us. We know that her poem is about a mirror and about poetry from the clues that reside in the poet’s word choices, in her metaphors, and in the formal structure of the poem. But before we can understand what Plath says about poetry, we must first understand what she says about the mirror.
Although it is personified, the mirror claims for itself a kind of nonjudgmental and unemotional character that human beings lack. It announces in the first line of the poem, “I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.” Thus the mirror possesses both human and non-human attributes. It has no hidden motives and it does not delay in reflecting whoever faces it: “Whatever I see I swallow immediately / Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.” The poet plays on the word “unmisted” to show that the mirror’s reflection is visually clear to one who looks into it, and also to reiterate that it offers a reflection that is truthful, even if the truth is painful. The looking-glass is not affected by feelings that might cloud (or “mist”) its judgment and compel it to change, for better or for worse, the view it provides.
The mirror not only passively reflects an image but actively sees with “The eye of a little god, four-cornered.” Its “eye” differs from a human eye in that it is god-like and square or rectangular. The glass also does not require the presence of a person in order to act. It tells us, “I meditate on the opposite wall” and furthermore that “I have looked at it so long /I think it is a part of my heart.” It appears that, for the moment, the mirror is no longer an unfeeling instrument of reflection, but a being with the capacity to “meditate” and one that possesses a vital organ, a heart. However, we should note that behind the word “meditate” is a pun on “reflect.” We would ordinarily associate a mirror with the word “reflect” in the sense of a visual phenomenon: a mirror’s reflection is something we see with our eyes. In order to have the looking-glass assert that it “meditates” on the opposite wall, the poet subtly calls up the sense of “reflect” as an intellectual activity or mental reflectiveness. A play on words makes it unclear whether or not we are to believe the mirror meditates as a human mind would.
These ambiguous associations between the mirror and human emotions prepares us for the transition to the second section, in which the mirror interacts with a specific person. The poem is divided into two sections, or stanzas, of nine lines each. A line break separates the two stanzas. To reinforce the distinction between them and to signal a new beginning, the second stanza begins with the word “Now.” The voice of the mirror announces that “Now I am a lake.” The change is important because it creates a metaphor or symbol for the mirror. A lake resembles a mirror in so far as they can both reflect images before them, but there are real differences between these two objects. A lake, unlike a mirror, has depth, and because its material is literally fluid, a lake’s reflection is potentially less stable than that of an immobile looking-glass. Also, a body of water, unlike a piece of glass, is penetrable. Furthermore, the reflective surface of a lake lies horizontally, while a mirror, generally speaking, hangs vertically. Finally, a lake is a natural object, while a mirror is not. These distinctions complicate our understanding of what the poet says about the mirror, but the poet emphasizes the similarities rather than differences between a mirror and a lake. By use of a metaphor, she can speak about these two things simultaneously.
The change from one kind of reflector to another parallels an even greater change in tone from one stanza to the next. In contrast with the mirror’s precise dispassion in the first stanza, the woman who appears in the second stanza displays a great deal of emotion. When the woman sees her reflection, the mirror ironically states that “She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.” The mirror reports that she acts with intensity, “Searching my reaches for what she really is.” The woman is not simply looking into the mirror to check her appearance: she is pursuing more profound information about her basic identity. She is particularly concerned with growing older, studying her face for evidence of aging. Her agitated responses show that, to her, a deteriorating physical appearance takes away from her sense of self-worth. Given that the woman seeks an affirmation of her fundamental selfhood in her reflection, the mirror understates the case when it declares that “I am important to her.”
Though the woman is dissatisfied with what she sees, it is clear that she returns again and again to peer into the mirror. When she turns away from her reflection, the mirror says “I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.” She momentarily appeals instead to “those liars, the candles or the moon.” The candles and moon are “liars” because the partial light they provide may obscure some of the woman’s signs of aging. By contrast, the mirror is fully “truthful” and its view welllit. Yet, the woman repeatedly approaches the mirror as if its truth might change.
Given the attitude of the woman, it makes sense to imagine the mirror as a lake, since it seems she hopes it holds deeper knowledge than it actually does. The tears that she cries over the mirror also provide the water to fill this “lake.” This metaphor allows the poet to offer two rather startling images in the last two lines. The mirror concludes, “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.” The young girl and old woman represent the woman in the poem at different stages of her life. Over the course of her life, she has watched her face change from youth to her present middle age, and she foresees her face as it will be when she is an older woman. The poet’s use of the word “drowned” suggests that the woman has not passively observed herself aging, but instead that she is responsible for having killed off a part of herself. Perhaps the woman’s concern with aging prevented her from enjoying her youth. Her tears of lament for what she sees in the mirror have “drowned” the person she once was. Those tears are also threatening to submerge her present self and to give way to the “terrible fish” of old age that is steadily nearing the surface.
The lake really stands for a mirror, and we have already proposed that the mirror, in part, stands for poetry. The mirror is “The eye of a little god,” just as poetry can provide the privileged view of the poet. This looking-glass is “four-cornered” like the nearly square shape of the poem we see on the page. (We might also say that the poem has two corners in each stanza, one at the top on the left end, and one at the bottom left, for a total of four corners.) The poem is even constructed so that each of the two, nine-line stanzas is a kind of mirror image of the other. We encounter this self-reflection visually, as we see the lines on the page separated into equal parts. Thus, the poem presents itself not only as the voice of a mirror but also as the imaginative shape of a mirror into which we, as readers, peer. Most important, in understanding this mirror, we must take into account both its literal significance and its figurative or metaphorical meanings. Reading a poem requires this same attentiveness.
Thus far we have been referring to “the mirror” as a specific object, but we should recall that the title of the poem is simply “Mirror.” Neither an article, such as “the” or “a,” nor an adjective, such as “that” or “this,” precedes the word “mirror.” This style is typical of Plath’ s titles for her poems, which include “Cut,” “Edge,” “Stings,” “Rhyme,” “Contusion,” “Event,” “Kindness,” “Words,” “Totem,” “Child,” “Tulips,” “Stillborn,” and “Departure.” One of the advantages of omitting an article or adjective before a word like “Cut,” for instance, is that it suggests more than one part of speech. That is to say, “a cut” is a noun, but “to cut” is a verb. Therefore the word “cut” by itself represents both an object (noun) and an action (verb) at the same time. Plath takes advantage of this type of ambiguity with her title “Mirror.” The title refers both to “a mirror” (in this sense a noun) and to the verb, “to mirror.” This mirror then is not simply a stationary object which we can look at and hold in our hands: it is also an action that works on us, as the poem in some sense mirrors our gaze.
In this way, the reader looking at the poem is like the woman peering into her mirror-lake. Certainly, the poem (along with the mirror) has no preconceptions like those of the reader (or the woman) who approaches that object with specific expectations of what he or she will find there. And our surprise at the sudden appearance of a “terrible fish” at the end of the poem matches that of the woman in anticipating herself as an unattractive older person. With this subtle parallel between the reader and this woman, the poet may be warning us that if we come to the poem for comfort rather than for the truth, we risk being disappointed. The poet may also imply that it is inappropriate or ill-advised for the reader to look too deeply into the veiled meanings of the poem, just as is the case with the woman who searches too strenuously in the mirror for something it cannot provide. For no matter what ideas or aims we bring before the poem, it will only reflect back to us what is truthful about them.
Source: Jeannine Johnson, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
The self-destructive qualities and flawed imagery presented by the use of the mirror in the work of Sylvia Plath is examined here.
For many women writers, the search in the mirror is ultimately a search for the self, often for the self as artist. So it is in Plath’s poem “Mirror.” Here, the figure gazing at and reflected in the mirror is neither the child nor the man the woman-as-mirror habitually reflects, but a woman. In this poem, the mirror is in effect looking into itself, for the image in the mirror is woman, the object that is itself more mirror than person. A woman will see herself both in and as a mirror. To look into the glass is to look for oneself inside or as reflected on the surface of the mirror and to seek or discover oneself in the person (or nonperson) of the mirror.
The “She” who seeks in the reflecting lake a flattering distortion of herself is an image of one aspect of the mirror into which she gazes. She is the woman as male-defined ideal or as the ideal manque, the woman who desires to remain forever the “young girl” and who “turns to those liars, the candles or the moon” for confirmation of the manpleasing myth of perpetual youth, docility, and sexual allure. As such, she is the personification—or reflection—of the mirror as passive servant, the preconditionless object whose perception is a form of helpless swallowing or absorption. The image that finally appears in the mirror, the old woman as “terrible fish,” is the opposite or “dark” side of the mirror. She is the mirror who takes a kind of fierce pleasure in her uncompromising veracity and who, by rejecting the role of passive reflector for a more creative autonomy, becomes, in that same male-inscribed view, a devouring monster. The woman/mirror, then, seeks her reflection in the mirror/woman, and the result is a human replication of the linguistic phenomenon the poem becomes. Violating its implicit claim, the poem becomes a mirror not of the world, but of other mirrors and of the process of mirroring. When living mirrors gaze into mirrors, as when language stares only at itself, only mirrors and mirroring will be visible.
This parallel between person and poem suggests that the glass (and lake) in “Mirror” is woman—and more particularly the woman writer or artist for whom the question of mimetic reflection or creative transformation is definitive. For the woman—and especially for the mother—per se, the crucial choice is between the affirmation and effacement of the self: will she reflect the child or more generalized “other” as it presents itself for obliging reflection, or will she insist on her own autonomous identity and perception. To do the latter is to risk looking into the mirror and seeing, not the pleasing young girl, but the terrible fish....
A passage from Jung’s “The Development of Personality,” which Plath transcribed, describes the phenomenon of crushing maternal self-annihilation that Plath experienced and transformed into poetry. “Parents,” wrote Jung,
set themselves the fanatical task of always “doing their best” for the children and “living only for them.” This claimant ideal effectively prevents the parents from doing anything about their own development and allows them to thrust their “best” down their children’s throats. This so-called “best” turns out to be the very things the parents have most badly engaged in themselves. In this way the children are goaded on to achieve their parents’ most dismal failures, and are loaded with ambitions that are never fulfilled.
The parents Jung describes assume contradictory roles, just as Plath’s image of the mother-woman-mirror as terrible fish assumes contradictory or at least contrary forms. On the one hand, it is an image of a monstrous autonomy that cannot perform the self-effacing function of infant-confirming mother. Instead, “reflecting its own mood or, worse still, the rigidity of her own defenses”, it generates in the child the threat of chaos that produces the disturbed obsession with distorting mirrors in Plath’s poetry. Conversely, this terrible fish or medusa may be the image of maternal self-annihilation, the mother’s guilt-inducing refusal of autonomy. The required self-denial of new motherhood, if perpetuated or exaggerated, may, as Jung suggests, be as threatening as its opposite. As virtually exclusive nurturer of the infant and small child, the mother cannot win. Caught between annihilation of self and annihilation of other, and lanced on the sacrifice of self that may efface the other, her denigration, rejection, and perceived monstrosity are all but insured.
The same near-identity of assertive autonomy with an at least seemingly contradictory self-annihilation characterizes the language of “Mirror” and colors the poem’s implicit treatment of the woman as writer. The poem is finally about language and imitation, about poetry and its relation to what it describes. As such, it is a poem that assumes a central place in the literature of female authorship, the literature that takes as its subject the woman as writer and her obligation to create for woman and herself a resistant and resilient language of her own. The popularity of Plath’s relatively few poems of aggressive threat and power, poems such as “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy,” misleads us. Far more of her poetry presents protagonists or personae who are basically passive and depersonalized, victimized and helpless. Like the mirror, the speakers in these poems—dolls, mannequins, stones, patients—are typically confined, often inanimate, absorbently passive, and devoid of personal initiative or will. They are, in short, images of the woman who ... inanimately animate the “mirror of the male-inscribed literary text”.
Much of Plath’s poetry, in other words, is a mirror of the male text as mirror, a replication of the passive images caught on its surface. Just as the mirror can only reflect reality, the woman writer can only reflect male ideals and desires. Devoid of subjectivity and the power of narrative, the woman in many of Plath’s poems “speaks” not only to the plight of woman generally, but, more particularly, to the woman as writer....
The image of woman as reflector functions in several ways. As mother or woman, the mirror’s principal and imposed obligation is to reflect infant and other—that is, she must present herself as the image mirrored in man’s eyes. But as speaking mirror, the woman becomes a narrating reflector of herself as mirror and of whatever passes before it. She becomes the writer who writes of the mirror in which she perceives herself and of the mirror she is. She becomes the text in which that recording occurs. Through these lenses, the question of the object of perception gives place to the now central question of the nature of the narrator. The mirror as woman or mother reflects the other to itself. The mirror as text or writer reflects self and world in language that becomes a kind of mirror itself. But in both forms the principal conflict is between a self-suppressing recapitulation of male expression and an autonomous resistance to the conventional truths and methods of his inscriptions. The connections are further entangled by the fact that a selection of a narrative technique inevitably determines the treatment of content. To let the mirror speak in self-defining ways that resist prior definition or restriction is to alter the image in the glass. That resistance is what is represented by the substitution of the “terrible fish” for the more attractive young girl in “Mirror.”
The mirror’s opening announcement of its identity calls that identity into question and begins to transform the mirror from a passive reflector into an active speaker. The poem mirrors language’s resistance to simple representation and reflects the resistance of the woman writer and the feminine text to the roles assigned them. It is this rebellion, this presumptuous arrogation of autonomy, that accounts for the shocking image of the terrible fish in the poem’s concluding line. The terrible fish is not just a symbol of approaching old age: it is the image of “monstrous autonomy” that stares back at the literary woman in so many of her texts, often out of the mirror of that text into which she gazes in embittered self-search....
There is, of course, a biographical dimension to this poem and its governing images, which intensifies the purely literary force of the work. Plath had a dual image of herself: she was a brightly silvered surface concealing a demonic form that threatened to tear the fragile membrane—in other words, both a mirror and a fish. The mirror, of course, is the brilliant surface Plath presented to the world, as both woman and poet. As poet, Plath the mirror is the precise measurer and recorder of minutiae, the four-cornered goddess of aesthetic control. As woman, Plath the mirror is the strict and tightly disciplined achiever who glitteringly fulfilled all expectations, a perfect mirror of acquired parental and social standards of elegance, beauty and achievement—the persona that emitted what Lowell called “the checks and courtesies,” her “air of maddening docility,” and what Alvarez called an “air of anxious pleasantness”. It is the persona that, as Plath herself described it, “Adher[ed] to rule, to rules, to rules,” that, seemingly untroubled by her numbered submission, “Stay[ed] put,” like the mirror fixed on the wall, “according to habit.” It is the side George Stade labeled the “social cast of her personality, aesthetic, frozen in a cover girl smile....” It is the ambitious but distinctly anti-feminist cook and housekeeper whose accents “are those of the American girl as we want her”.
This Plath, in short, is the mirror that reflects back what others wish to see and that is itself a perfect reflection of the feminine ideal in male eyes. But this Plath—it has become a commonplace—was only a facade, a fragile surface laid thickly over an inner turmoil Plath herself perceived as a slouching beast struggling for release. “There are two of me now,” Plath writes grittily in “In Plaster”: “This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one.” The white person, like the mirror, “had no personality ... she had a slave mentality.” But the old yellow one, “ugly and hairy,” is one of a profusion of monstrous forms threatening the placid surface from below....
In an autobiographical essay, “Ocean 1212-W” Plath recounts a crucial memory: “When I was learning to creep, my mother set me down on the beach to see what I thought of it. I crawled straight for the coming wave and was just through the walls of green when she caught my heels. What would have happened,” Plath wonders, “if I had managed to pierce that looking-glass?” The sea is a looking glass in which she claims to have discovered, at two and a half, the “awful birthday of otherness,” “the separateness of everything” and ultimately therefore of herself. The sea is the terrible country of the void, of the “darkness [that] is leaking from the cracks.” The true habitat of the horrific buried self, it is also the environ of her father. As Plath confessed in a BBC interview, “I probably wished many times that he were dead. When he obliged me and died, I imagined that I had killed him.” In a number of her poems, her father is the victim of
“Violating its implicit claim, the poem becomes a mirror not of the world, but of other mirrors and of the process of mirroring.”
suicide or murder, usually by drowning, for the sea is her father’s element, and it is there she takes her revenge....
That the appearance of the demonic in Plath’s poetry is typically associated with the imagery of sea and water helps explain, in biographical terms, the substitution of lake for mirror in the poem. The terrible fish is implicit from the outset. It is contained in the rebellious rejection of the mirroring role in the opening lines of “Mirror” that ostensibly accept and define it. It is implicit, too, in the barely concealed harshness of the relentless veracity of the mirror’s reflection, whose cruelty she unconvincingly denies. And it is explicit in the mirror’s urge to “swallow immediately” whatever it sees. But the image of the fish’s emergence requires that the mirror be transformed into water, Plath’s symbol of the hideous depths in which the monster lives....
Inside the woman-as-mirror, in other words, behind this physically restricted, passive, depersonalized reflector of the external world, lurks the minatory force that will emerge with full power and vengeance in some of the Ariel poems. To escape the obligations of literal truthfulness is not to escape the mirror of male texts that identify her as the obedient angel, but the opposite. It is to evade the monstrous truth the angel herself knows best and fears no less than does the male who protectively angelicizes her in order to prevent her transformation into monster. It is to look into the mirror and pretend one does not see the monster.
Because it recognizes the danger both of reflecting and ignoring the world, “Mirror” can be seen as the turning point in Plath’s development.... “Mirror” represents a kind of middle-ground between the extremes of passivity and action, numbing self-cancellation and aggressive self-assertion. It achieves its special position and effect by adopting the former guise in ways that renounce it for the latter. To assume the mirror’s role is implicitly to accept the male-proscribed image of woman and mother. But the poem’s method and equations situate the terrible fish within the lake and mirror and quietly establish an identity between them. The poem’s implicit rejection of the mirror’s claim to literal reflection is what generates the image of threatening female autonomy that the poem ostensibly disavows. The fish that is in effect in the mirror from the outset charges towards the mirroring surface at the end, its identity and import disguised by a subject that deflects our attention to figures apparently external to the speaking mirror.... “Mirror,” in other words, lends to the monster in the attic (or basement) the face of the angel in the house.
The dread fish is identified with the passive mirror by its presence within or behind it. But their identification with one another may have another source as well. The speaker sees herself “in” the mirror or lake in two senses: She is the fearful image in the depths beyond the glass and she is the mirror itself. The implication here is that Plath found her defenses hardly less repulsive than the assault they were erected to ward off. The terrible fish observed in the lake’s depths and rising toward its surface is identifiable with the mirror that reflects, neutrally and passively, whatever swims before it. The monster in the depths, in other words, is also the monster on the surface, perhaps more accurately the monstrosity of mere surface or lack of depth. The identification of the mirror with the terrible fish, then, erases the separation the dual identity was constructed to sustain. It suggests on the one hand that the mirror contains the fish, that beneath the angel in the house lurks the monster in the depths. But it may propose as well that a two-dimensional image of the angel is also is a form of monstrosity....
The monster is seen not only in the mirroring self, but “in” that self as surface reflector. The woman as the passive, selfless reflector is inscribed in psychoanalysis, motherhood, and the male text and is submissively adopted by the woman as her own identity. But Plath shows it to be a monstrous evasion of reality and suppression of self. A woman who adopts the reflecting role is cruel primarily to herself. It is therefore inevitable that the last image the reflector swallows is that of the terrible fish, which is at once its concealed opposite and its concealing self.
The mirror is an image of the woman writer in her two conflicting roles as wife/mother and as author. In the first she is the selfless reflector of man and infant, in the second the self-conscious, self-centering reflector of herself and of the world as she willfully perceives it. Traditionally the roles were seen, by women as well as men, as not merely conflicting but mutually exclusive. It was, in fact, the collective view of psychoanalytic theory that the woman who has “created” a child required no other creative exercise or outlet, and women felt the power, if not always the validity, of that argument in their lives. Some women writers have so internalized this argument that they have felt the fear Susan Suleiman describes: “With every word I write, with every metaphor, with every act of genuine creation, I hurt my child.” The guilt this idea elicits necessarily produces feelings of aggression. In Plath’s “Mirror,” and in many more of her poems on motherhood and entrapment, this aggression wins out over any feelings of tenderness....
The fish is the woman as autonomous person and author. It is the role-rejecting woman/mother who, even as she proclaims her acceptance of the task, refuses passively to mirror man, infant, or whatever else is set before it. And it is the woman-as-writer who, even as she proclaims her obedient adherence to the mimetic model, adopts that model only to tease and overturn it. “She accepts the woman’s role as accurate reflecting mirror in order to transcend it, to show how that very role inevitably thwarts and transcends itself.” The mirror as woman and as writer takes on the figure of the four-cornered glass in order to shatter it against the non-mirroring language with which she affirms the comfort of the fit—to shatter it, too, by focusing on herself, making herself the subject of her own attention and the poem. It is the nature and occupation of the mirror self-effacingly to reflect the other. In “Mirror,” however, the glass is both subject and speaker at once. The poem begins with “I,” a pronoun that appears five times in the first four lines and, together with “me” or “my,” seventeen times in this poem of only eighteen lines. The mirror/woman, who is by definition without identity, defines and identifies herself. The persona that has no story, tells it, and in the defiant mirror-breaking act of doing so, she becomes the terrible fish of assertive selfhood. To tell one’s own story, even if it is, as it must be, the story of absence and effacement, is to establish a presence and to display, perhaps for the first time, the face behind the angelic silver mask.
Plath’s emergent monster, then, is not an imagined other, a beckoning fulfillment of hopeless ambition. It is the reconstruction of the speechless woman whose language deconstructs her verbal confession of mere reflective silence. This reconstructed self still bears the conscience of the compliant, and therefore the image of autonomy is not a thoroughly positive figure of assertive strength. The woman continues to subscribe to the male dread of female sexuality and to the male identification of female defiance or aggression with bestiality. The monster, then, does not so much dwell on the other side of the mirror; she is the other side of the mirror, the perpetuation of the mirror’s male-inscribed ideal in a form that otherwise rejects it. The contradictions travel in both directions. The announcement of a mirroring silence or self-effacement implicitly rejects the identity it affirms. Yet the monstrous shape this autonomy assumes attests to the persistence of the woman’s sense of self as dependent and faceless.
The woman achieves autonomy in Plath’s “Mirror” and comparable works by rejecting the phallocentric language whose fixed truth fixes woman as the mirroring or speechless other. The rejection of the false and insulting “truth” of woman’s identity is effected in a language that undermines the very possibility of definable identity and truth. Woman achieves freedom from male definition at the price of all definition, freedom from the name with which the masculine text identifies her in the affirmation of unnamablitity. Yet, as in [Joseph] Conrad[’s short story “Heart of Darkness”], the unnamed, too, may be a form of monstrosity or horror: the chilling truth at the heart of the darkness may be an unnamed evil or the evil of unnamablitity itself, the fearful prospect of truth as mere illusion. The stakes are perhaps lower in “Mirror,” the curse a mixed blessing of menacing independence and creativity. But the merging dichotomy is present here as well. In these terms, the terrible fish is not only the monstrous autonomy of woman as personally or artistically creative self. It is also the impossibility of all autonomy or self-definition. Defining herself in and as that which cannot be defined, the woman writer comes perilously close to her previous condition of subjectlessness. That is the price of creative autonomy viewed in terms of resistance and dissociation.
Source: William Freedman, “The Monster in Plath’s ‘Mirror,’” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring, 1993 pp. 152-66.
This essay examines the use of mirrors in the work of Sylvia Plath, especially in “Mirror,” and the use of it as an instrument of self-examination and destruction.
Not surprisingly, given the intense self-reflective quality of her work, mirrors figure prominently in the poetry of Sylvia Plath. What Dan Jacobson observes in his review of Winter Trees [in Listener, vol. 86, 1971] is hardly less applicable to her writing in general. In more than half of the poems in the collection, as Jacobson remarks, “there appears the image of a mirror, or of water as a mirror. In some of the poems it is the central image; in others it is relatively marginal, but it is almost obsessively present.”...
No poem of Plath’s is so much a funhouse maze of destabilizing self-entrapment as “Mirror”; ironically, since it is also the poem that insists most vigorously on the unaltering precision of the mirror’s reflections. The self that is mirrored here is this poem, perhaps all poetry, and the language of which it is made. Nearly inevitably, for we may define the poem as a “self entrapped,” not unreal, but owing to the enclosing nature of language, “unable to reach towards anything other than its own image.” The mirroring that occurs in and constitutes this poem is not primarily of the physical world or of the self (for self too is a feature of that world), but of mirroring itself, of the act and nature of the perceptual relation that “never offer[s] a stabilizable image,” but shuttles between percipient and percept, poem and world, language and its putative referents. What is reflected here are mirrors and mirroring, often of themselves or other mirrors, and the reflected image assumes the form of a cancelling transfiguration, a violation of the familiar codes of mirroring, a mirror that will not mirror. In the end, as we’ll see, it becomes, in effect, a metaphor for metaphor and the broad range of confusing relations the metaphoric interplay entails.
The poem begins with the defining announcement, “I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.” Since the title of the poem is “Mirror,” we assume it is the mirror speaking. But since we are accustomed to the belief that mirrors do not speak, we begin immediately to consider metaphoric possibilities. Perhaps the speaker as honest woman, more likely the speaker as candid, even brutally candid (“I am not cruel, only truthful”) poet, for did not Plath perceive herself so, and did she not feel the need to defend herself against assaults on her seeming negativity and assaultiveness? And the mirror, of course, may also be the poem such a poet writes, or language, the seemingly innocent medium of poetic and all other verbal communication....
Whatever hypotheses we have tentatively formulated about the mirror’s identity, its claim is mortally shaken in the succeeding lines. “Whatever I see I swallow immediately / Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.” The continuation of speech is the undoing of prior speech. For the words “swallow” and “unmisted” vitiate the claims to unvitiated silvery exactitude of reflection. The mirror, defining itself as a perfectly passive instrument of precise reflection, the ultimate literalist, begins to speak figuratively, transformatively, metaphorically. The mirror, of course, however we construe it, does not literally swallow. Nor do love or dislike physically mist these sudden victims of active incorporation.
The effect is immediate. The poetry that asserts its perfect literality, the language that affirms its capacity for simple reference, cannot sustain the charge....
By the time we arrive at the mirror’s aggressive swallowing of its world, the subject has already been metaphorized. What is added here is the destabilization of our figurative substitutions: it is their claim to objective exactitude that is undone by their own assertiveness, their own forceful activity. That too is what we mean by metaphor or the act of figuration. It is a way of seeing that is a mode of incorporation, the enveloping of one thing or concept by another. But metaphor, of course, has preconceptions, the preconceived title that makes the “I” a mirror, the preconceived “I” that makes it something else. And it can never swallow its object “just as it is,” for neither this poem nor metaphor has a way of speaking of anything with such indifference. Both swallow immediately what they see and make it not merely theirs, but them. “Mirror,” in other words, by failing to be a mirror, becomes a mirror of metaphor, a precise reflection of what by definition does not precisely reflect.
When we read, therefore, the defensive affirmation of the fourth line, “I am not cruel, only truthful—”, we sustain its credibility only by denying what it seems to maintain. Only by rejecting the pretense to literal truthfulness that seems to motivate the claim can we accept its truthfulness....
From this point on, even the pretense of literality seems to collapse, and figures break onto the surface. The “I” becomes “the eye of a little god, four-cornered,” where the pun blurs the distinction between perceiver and the organ or instrument of perception. Metaphor, the poem, the language—all are both the I and the eye of a little god. All are apparently that which is looked through; but that which is looked through, as we have seen, assumes a formative role. The seeming instrument, whether it be poem, metaphor, or language, becomes creative determinant, becomes a little god, four-cornered like the material mirror, but also like the poem upon the page for which the mirror is metaphor. By calling itself the eye of a little god, the mirror, already implicitly other than it is, confesses its own otherness....
The remaining lines of the opening stanza intensify the metaphoric transformation that has occurred, pulling us farther and farther from the abandoned opening affirmation of passive literalism. The opening “I” of the poem undoes the claim it initiates, but by this point the undoing has become an unravelling. Already transformed from mirror to little god, from seeming literalism to overt metaphor, and from mere reflection or reference to a kind of restrained omnipotence (“little god, four-cornered”), all semblance of silvery exactitude devoid of preconception is absorbed into metaphoric extension and intensification. “Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall. / It is pink with speckles. I have looked at it so long /I think it is a part of my heart.” The mirror that is no longer a mirror, but that is in so far as it mirrors certain non-mirroring relations, begins to hypothesize, to transform the wall into an organ that is part of itself, the source of its own life. The transformation of wall to heart is the internalization of the external, the integration into the self as the self’s own lifeblood of what is passive, unpassable, and dumb....
The silver mirror cannot be depended on to reflect exactly and without preconceptions; it cannot even be relied on to remain a mirror past the first effort to define itself. But the relations between poem and world, the metaphoric and the literal, and the nature of metaphoric reformation are likewise unstable. Is the wall absorbed into the heart, or is the heart part wall? Is this a fixed condition that has been discovered, or a transformation that takes place under the pressure of prolonged concentration? Even as we ask these questions about wall and heart, the two parts of this metaphor, we realize that we are caught entirely in the realm of metaphor, for we have already construed wall as other than wall, heart as other than heart, and we know that while an “I” may have a heart, in any even quasiliteral sense a mirror and an eye may not. So we have a metaphor that is made of metaphors, but one part of it at least, the wall, is a metaphor for what the poem has established as the non-metaphoric. It is a metaphor for the inert, the
“The self that is mirrored here is this poem, perhaps all poetry, and the language of which it is made.”
external, for what the mirror claims to be and to reflect yet is not and does not....
Nothing will hold still for us, not even the nature of transformation or of metaphor itself, surely not tenor and vehicle as we have called them. “But it flickers. / Faces and darkness separate us over and over.” I will return to these sentences further along; the point at the moment is that the “it” that flickers is no longer the wall alone. It is everything that makes and is this poem, all poetry perhaps, perhaps all discourse, all things that presume to mirror in any way.
In the second stanza, where the speaker is suddenly a lake, Plath enacts a characteristic transformation from mirror to water and expresses a habitual identification between them. The association is frequent in her work, almost predictable. Where one appears, it drags the other after....
“Now I am a lake,” begins the second and last stanza, distorted mirror image of the first, and the questions begin again with the claim. Now who is a lake? The mirror or what the mirror speaks and stands for? Is this to be read as a fantastic metamorphosis of a mirror into a lake, the mirror’s assumption of a new metaphorical identity as a body of reflecting water, or merely the substitution of one figurative identity for another, both masks for the unrevealed face of poet, poem, poetry, language, or whatever else may be both mirror and lake? The answer is all, the question unresolvable, the only certainty that we continue to inhabit a world of uncertain and perpetual transformation, of sliding identities, of that which is by not being, of that which mirrors only its own melting reflections of itself.
“A woman bends over me, / Searching my reaches for what she really is” generates another apparent contradiction. We know by now that one cannot find in this mirror anything that “really is,” if by that we mean some stable identity or referent. And we have always known that a lake is at all events an unlikely vehicle of such precise discovery. The lake as we know it, bring it to the poem, is what the mirror as we did not know it has become: an inexact reflector of images. The world beyond the poem, it seems, is a reflection, even a mirror image of the world of the poem, but only because the world of the poem, the mirror as it undoes its own mirroring in the first stanza, refuses to mirror what we think we know of the world, of the physical mirrors in that exterior world. Again, the poem reflects by not reflecting, mirrors by not mirroring, and in still another sense as well....
Like the woman who bends over the lake, the mirror sees itself reflected there for what, within this poem, it really is: that which generates its own identity and meaning within the four corners of the little god upon the page, and that which in large part does so not by reflecting a world outside it, but by refusing to do so, by being ’other’ in terms of both correspondence and interior coherence or consistency. The writer or reader, then, who bends over the poem in search of what she really is will discover herself in these swirling depths as both mirror and woman discover themselves in the lake: as that which cannot precisely mirror and as that which can be mirrored only as one distorting or transfiguring mirror in another. When, at the end, the woman who is said to have “drowned a young girl in me” now perceives an old woman rising toward her “like a terrible fish,” the lake’s claim to faithful reflection, like the mirror’s, is shattered by the metaphor that all speech is revealed to be. As in metaphor most obviously, all relations in this poem are mere resemblances, all seeming references and reflections forms of transformation or approximation.
The poem’s final inquiry into the nature of reflection, or the poetic nature of reflection, is conducted through the special relationship between the two major images or figures: the mirror and the lake. I have already dealt to some extent with the reflective interactions between them. But there is more, and what remains holds us—as everything does, though still more tenaciously—inside the poem as an enclosing system of mirrors and mirrorings. It is a challenge to the very point and value of metaphor in poetry.
The development of the poem from the first to the second stanza is from the narration of the mirror to that of the lake, from “I am silver and exact” to “Now I am a lake.” Now a convention of metaphoric substitution, indeed of all pointed substitution, is that it introduces substantive change. If the change has been made, if one focal metaphor has been abandoned for another, it is for a reason discoverable in the differences between them. Apparently there is such a distinction here, for we are told at the end of stanza 2 that “in me an old woman rises toward” the poem’s searcher “like a terrible fish.” Such an occurrence is more readily appropriate to a vision in a lake than in a mirror. But the difference, as the poem absorbs it, is quite negligible, even on the face, or in the depth of it. For we have been told by the mirror speaking in the first stanza that it swallows immediately whatever it sees. The mirror, then, has a depth, even a devouring or absorptive depth, even a predatory depth accordant not only with a body of water but with the “terrible fish” that rises to the poem’s climactic ending....
What we expect of a mirror we do not look for in a lake. If a mirror is assumed passively and perfectly to reflect the passing world, the lake, we know, distorts. And yet this one does not. Indeed, the very point of the poem as we at first understand it is carried by the persistence of unflinchingly faithful reflection into the capabilities of the lake. The poem works not by contrast but by complementary or incremental repetition, a repetition of repetitions. Yet that replication is achieved first by undercutting the poetic convention that change implies difference, replacement signifies augmentation, and second by violating the received character of the lake as initial stanza violates the received and proclaimed nature of the mirror. The aging woman turns from the lake dismayed by her reading of its revelations precisely because, we are told, it does not distort. On the contrary, as the lake reports, “I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.” Once more an expectable difference has become, or proven, sameness. As the two-dimensional mirror “swallows” into a third dimension and thereby begins the incorporation of the lake and the potential increment of its substitution, the lake turns its own back on what we believe of the physical world and “reflects faithfully.” The lake that should be in only metaphoric or resembling relation to the mirror is instead mirrored in it—both in its claim to perfect rectitude of reflection and in the ultimate falsity of that claim. Mirror and lake, opening and closing stanza, reflect each other dervishly, drawing attention from shores of reference and statement into whirlpool of their interplay....
As we have understood it, metaphor is the assertion, in a broad sense, of difference as sameness. But “Mirror” makes that almost platitudinous point by violating or ignoring the received distinctions between the literal and the metaphoric which stabilize the resemblance. We do not really know if mirror and lake are both literal images, both figures, or whether the latter is a figurative transformation of the former, of the actual mirror who allegedly speaks the poem. However we read it, the point about the sameness of seeming difference that seems to rise out of the utterances of mirror and lake is the product of a series of violations of the poetic language, norms, and conventions that provide a context in which such a definition of metaphor makes sense. Lake and mirror have crossed the border of conventional substitution and comparison. The lake is the mirror to such an extent that it seems to make little sense to say so. And yet of course we “know” they are different, or believed we did until the poem brought everything into question, until every seeming certainty rose to devour us like a terrible fish.
Perhaps not every certainty is eroded, for a nearly certifiable truth—a truth of poetry and expression—may emerge from these cancelling depths. Physical reality as we believe we know it the reality and nature of mirrors and lakes—is violated. In that flurry, our expectations about the nature of reflectors and reflection are likewise abrogated. Similarly, the rules of ordinary, logical, and poetic discourse are ignored or overturned by a substitution that does not fulfill the conventional requirements of pertinent substitution. And the result of these swervings is the convergence of difference into sameness, a sameness beyond mere resemblance, beyond the achievement of metaphor simplistically understood, yet not quite an identity. Perhaps, “Mirror” ultimately suggests, this is the quality of mirroring which the lake/mirror that is/is not poetry/language achieves in relation to the reality we read “on the opposite wall,” a reality that seems when long gazed upon, but which may or may not be, the heart of the mirror that reflects and meditates upon and swallows it. With the only trace of certainty it has somehow managed to preserve for itself, the poem affirms through all its ringing changes that mirrors are radically less stable or reliable than we have imagined, and that such mirrors encompass and demarcate our world.
Source: William Freedman, “Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’ of Mirrors,” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 23, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 56-69.
Barnard, Caroline King, Sylvia Plath, Twayne Publishers, 1978, pp. 47-57.
Rosenblatt, Jon, “Sylvia Plath: The Drama of Initiation,” Twentieth Century Literature Vol. XXV, No. 1 (Spring 1979), pp. 21-36.
Axelrod, Steven Gould, “The Mirror and the Shadow: Plath’s Poetics of Self-Doubt,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 26, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 286-301.
Suggests that Plath and other modern writers use mirrors not as symbols of immortality, but as omens of death.
Axelrod, Steven Gould, Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
The definitive study of Plath’s work, including new interpretations of her poems.
A feminist/mythic study of Plath’s writing.
An insider’s intimate account of the Boston circle of poets that included Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.
Markey, Janice, A New Tradition?: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich: A Study of Feminism and Poetry, New York: P. Lang, 1985.
Claims that Plath’s obsession with death was actually motivated by her appreciation of life.
Oates, Joyce Carol, “The Death Throes of Romanticism: The Poems of Sylvia Plath,” The Southern Review Vol. IX, No. 3 Summer, 1973, pp. 501-22.
Examines the “I” in Plath’s poems, including Mirror.
From the earliest recorded history, humans have been fascinated by reflections. Narcissus was supposedly bewitched by his own reflection in a pool of water, and magic powers are ascribed to mirrors in fairy tales. Mirrors have advanced from reflective pools and polished metal surfaces to clear glass handheld and bathroom mirrors. They have been used in interior decoration since the 17th century, and reflective surfaces on cars and in hotel lobbies are still popular in modern design. Mirrors are used for practical purposes as well: examining our appearance, examining what is behind us on the road, building skyscrapers, and making scientific research instruments, such as microscopes and lasers.
The nature of modernn mirrors is not fundamentally different from a pool of water. When light strikes any surface, some of it will be reflected. Mirrors are simply smooth surfaces with shiny, dark backgrounds that reflect very well. Water reflects well, glass reflects poorly, and polished metal reflects extremely well. The degree of reflectivity—how much light bounces off of a surface—and the diffusivity of a surface—what direction light bounces off of a surface—may be altered. These alterations are merely refinements, however. In general, all reflective surfaces, and hence, all mirrors, are really the same in character.
Man-made mirrors have been in existence since ancient times. The first mirrors were often sheets of polished metal and were used almost exclusively by the ruling classes. Appearance often reflected, and in some cases determined, position and power in society, so the demand for looking glasses was high, as was the demand for the improvement of mirror-making techniques. Silvering—the process of coating the back of a glass sheet with melted silver—became the most popular method for making mirrors in the 1600s. The glass used in these early mirrors was often warped, creating a ripple in the image. In some severe cases, the images these mirrors reflected were similar to those we'd see in a fun-house mirror today. Modern glassmaking and metallurgical techniques make it easy to produce sheets of glass that are very flat and uniformly coated on the back, improving image clarity tremendously. Still, the quality of a mirror depends on the time and materials expended to make it. A handheld purse mirror may reflect a distorted image, while a good bathroom mirror will probably have no noticeable distortions. Scientific mirrors are designed with virtually no imperfections or distorting qualities whatsoever.
Materials technology drastically affects the quality of a mirror. Light reflects best from surfaces that are non-diffusive, that is, smooth and opaque, rather than transparent. Any flaw in this arrangement will detract from the effectiveness of the mirror. Innovations in mirror making have been directed towards flattening the glass used and applying metal coatings of uniform thickness, because light traveling through different thicknesses of glass over different parts of a mirror results in a distorted image. It is due to these irregularities that some mirrors make you look thinner and some fatter than normal. If the metal backing on a mirror is scratched or thin in spots, the brightness of the reflection will also be uneven. If the coating is very thin, it may be possible to see through the mirror. This is how one-way mirrors are made. Non-opaque coating is layered over the thin, metal backing and only one side of the mirror (the reflecting side) is lit. This allows a viewer on the other side, in a darkened room, to see through.
Glass, the main component of mirrors, is a poor reflector. It reflects only about 4 percent of the light which strikes it. It does, however, possess the property of uniformity, particularly when polished. This means that the glass contains very few pits after polishing and will form an effective base for a reflective layer of metal. When the metal layer is deposited, the surface is very even, with no bumps or wells. Glass is also considered a good material for mirrors because it can be molded into various shapes for specialty mirrors. Glass sheets are made from silica, which can be mined or refined from sand. Glass made from natural crystals of silica is known as fused quartz. There are also synthetic glasses, which are referred to as synthetic fused silica. The silica, or quartz, is melted to high temperatures, and poured or rolled out into sheets.
A few other types of glass are used for high-quality scientific grade mirrors. These usually contain some other chemical component to strengthen the glass or make it resistant to certain environmental extremes. Pyrex, for example, is a borosilicate glass—a glass composed of silica and boron—that is used when mirrors must withstand high temperatures.
In some cases, a plastic substrate will do as well as a glass one. In particular, mirrors on children's toys are often made this way, so they don't break as easily. Plastic polymers are manufactured from petroleum and other organic chemicals. They can be injection molded into any desired shape, including flat sheets and circles, and can be opaque or transparent as the design requires.
These base materials must be coated to make a mirror. Metallic coatings are the most common. A variety of metals, such as silver, gold, and chrome, are appropriate for this application. Silver was the most popular mirror backing one hundred years ago, leading to the coinage of the term "silvering." Old silver-backed mirrors often have dark lines behind the glass, however, because the material was coated very thinly and unevenly, causing it to flake off, scratch or tarnish. More recently, before 1940, mirror manufacturers used mercury because it spread evenly over the surface of the glass and did not tarnish. This practice was also eventually abandoned, for it posed the problem of sealing in the toxic liquid. Today, aluminum is the most commonly used metallic coating for mirrors.
Scientific grade mirrors are sometimes coated with other materials, like silicon oxides and silicon nitrides, in up to hundreds of layers of, each a 10,000th of an inch thick. These types of coatings, referred to as dielectric coatings, are used both by themselves as reflectors, and as protective finishes on metallic coatings. They are more scratch resistant than metal. Scientific mirrors also use silver coatings, and sometimes gold coatings as well, to reflect light of a particular color of light more or less well.
Surface regularity is probably the most important design characteristic of mirrors. Mirrors for household use must meet roughly the same specifications as window panes and picture frame glass. The glass sheets used must be reasonably flat and durable. The designer need only specify the thickness required; for example, thicker mirrors are more durable, but they are also heavier. Scientific mirrors usually have specially designed surfaces. These surfaces must be uniformly smooth within several lOOOths of an inch, and can be designed with a specific curvature, just like eyeglass lenses. The design principle for these mirrors is the same as that of eyewear: a mirror may be intended to focus light as well as reflect it.
The mirror design will also specify the type of coating to be used. Coating material is chosen based on required durability and reflectivity and, depending on the intended purpose of the mirror, it may be applied on the front or back surface of the mirror. Any subsequent layers of protective coatings must also be specified at this stage. For most common mirrors, the reflective coating will be applied on the back surface of the glass because it is less likely to be harmed there. The back side is then frequently mounted in a plastic or metal frame so as to entirely seal the coating from the air and sharp objects.
For scientific use, the color, or wavelength of light, which the mirror will reflect must be considered. For standard visible light or ultraviolet light mirrors, aluminum coatings are common. If the mirror is to be used with infrared light, a silver or gold coating is best. Dielectric coatings are also good in the infrared range. Ultimately, however, the choice of coating will depend on durability as well as wavelength range, and some reflectivity may be sacrificed for resilience. A dielectric coating, for example, is much more scratch resistant than a metallic coating and, despite the additional cost, these coatings are often added on top of metal to protect it. Coatings on scientific grade mirrors are usually applied on the front surface of the glass, because light which travels through glass will always distort to a small degree. This is undesirable in most scientific applications.
Cutting and shaping the glass
- 1 The first step in manufacturing any mirror is cutting the outline of the glass "blank" to suit the application. If the mirror is for an automobile, for example, the glass will be cut out to fit in the mirror mount on the car. Although some mirror manufacturers cut their own glass, others receive glass that has already been cut into blanks. Regardless of who cuts the glass, very hard, finely pointed blades are used to do the cutting. Diamond scribes or saws—sharp metal points or saws with diamond dust embedded in them—are often used because the diamond will wear down the glass before the glass wears down the diamond. The cutting method used depends entirely on the final shape the mirror will take. In one method, the blades or scribes may be used to cut partway through the glass; pressure can then be used to break the glass along the score line. In another method, a machine uses a diamond saw to cut all the way through the glass by drawing the blade back and forth or up and down multiple times, like an automated bandsaw. Cutting is usually done before the metal coating is applied, because the coating may flake off the glass as a result of the cut. An alternative to cutting the glass to form blanks is to mold the glass in its molten state.
- 2 Blanks are then placed in optical grinding machines. These machines consist of large base plates full of depressions that hold the blanks. The blank-filled base is placed against another metal plate with the desired surface shape: flat, convex, or concave. A grinding compound—a gritty liquid—is spread over the glass blanks as they are rubbed or rolled against the curved surface. The action is similar to grinding spices with a mortar and pestle. The grit in the compound gradually wears away the glass surface until it assumes the same shape as the grinding plate. Finer and finer grits are used until the surface is very smooth and even.
Hand grinding techniques exist as well, but they are extremely time-consuming and difficult to control. They are only used in cases where mechanical grinding would be impossible, as is the case with very large or unusually shaped surfaces. A commercial optical grinder can accommodate 50 to 200 blanks, which are all polished simultaneously. This is much more efficient than hand grinding. Even specialty optics can be made mechanically in adjustable equipment.
Applying the reflective material
- 3 When the glass surfaces are shaped appropriately and polished to a smooth finish, they are coated with whatever reflective material the designer has chosen. Regardless of the coating material, it is applied in an apparatus called an evaporator. The evaporator is a large vacuum chamber with an upper plate for supporting the blank mirrors, and a lower crucible for melting the coating metal. It is so called because metal is heated in the crucible to the point that it evaporates into the vacuum, depositing a coating on the surface of the glass much like hot breath will steam a cold window. Blanks are centered over holes in the upper plate that allow the metal vapor to reach the surface of the glass. Metals can be heated to several hundreds or thousands of degrees (depending on the boiling point of the metal), before they vaporize. The temperature and timing for this procedure are controlled very precisely to achieve exactly the right thickness of metal. This method of coating creates very uniform and highly reflective surfaces.
- 4 The shape of the holes in the upper plate will be transferred to the glass in metal, like paint through a stencil. This effect is often used to intentionally pattern the mirror. Metal stencils, or masks, can be applied to the surface of the glass to create one or more patterns.
- 5 Dielectric coatings—either as reflective layers or as protective layers over metal ones—are applied in much the same way, except that gases are used instead of metal chunks. Silicon oxides and silicon nitrides are typically used as dielectric coatings. When these gases combine in extreme heat, they react to form a solid substance. This reaction product forms a coating just like metal does.
- 6 Several evaporation steps may be combined to make a multiple-layer coating. Clear dielectric materials may be evaporated on top of metal or other dielectrics to change the reflective or mechanical properties of a surface. Mirrors with silvering on the back of the glass, for instance, often have an opaque dielectric layer applied to improve the reflectivity and keep the metal from scratching. One-way mirrors are the exception to this procedure, in which case great care must be taken not to damage the thin metal coating.
- 7 Finally, when the proper coatings have been applied, the finished mirror is mounted in a base or packed carefully in a shock resistant package for shipping.
How good does a mirror have to be? Is it sufficient to have 80 percent of the light bounce off? Does all 80 percent have to bounce in exactly the same direction? The answer is dependent on the application. A purse mirror might only be 80 or 90 percent reflective, and might have some slight irregularity in the thickness of the glass (like ripples on the surface of a pond). The image would be slightly distorted in this case, but the distortion would be barely visible to the naked eye. If, however, a mirror is to be used for a scientific application, for example in a telescope, the shape of the surface and the reflectivity of the coating must be known to a very specific degree, to insure the reflected light goes exactly where the telescope designer wants it, and at the right intensity. The tolerances on the mirror will affect the cost and ease with which it can be manufactured.
Batch mirror uniformity is the first and fore-most job of quality assurance. Mirrors on the edge of a grinding plate or evaporator chamber may not have the same surface or coating as those in the center of the apparatus. If there is a wide range of metal thicknesses or surface flatnesses in a single batch of mirrors, the process must be adjusted to improve uniformity.
Several methods are employed to test the integrity of a mirror. The surface quality is examined first visually for scratches, unevenness, pits, or ripples. This can be done with the unaided eye, with a microscope, or with an infrared photographic process designed to show differences in metal thicknesses.
For more stringent surface control, a profile of the mirror can be measured by running a stylus along the surface. The position of the stylus is recorded as it is dragged across the mirror. This is similar to the way a record player works. Like the record player, the drawback to a mechanical stylus is that it can damage the surface it is detecting. Mirror manufacturers have come to the same solution as the recording industry: use a laser. The laser can be used for non-destructive testing in the same way a compact disc player reads the music from a disc without altering its surface.
In addition to these mechanical tests, mirrors may be exposed to a variety of environmental conditions. Car mirrors, for example, are taken through extremes of cold and heat to insure that they will withstand weather conditions, while bathroom mirrors are tested for water resistance.
As glassmaking techniques improve, mirrors find a more elaborate place in art and architecture. Stronger, lighter glasses are more attractive to designers. Some one-way mirror manufacturing techniques allow windows to be manufactured that are mirrored on the outside. This creates a distinctive appearance on a building and also makes the building's air conditioning system more efficient by deflecting heat during the summer. This type of mirror is now commonly seen on office buildings.
Where To Learn More
Hecht, Eugene. Optics. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1974.
Korsch, Dietrich. Reflective Optics. Academic Press, 1991.
Londono, ed. Recent Trends in Optical Systems Design: Computer Lens Design. SPIE-International Society for Optical Engineering, 1987.
Derra, Skip. "Spin Casting Method Makes the Grade for Telescopic Mirrors." Research & Development. August, 1989, p. 24.
Folger, Tim and Roger Ressmeyer. "The Big Eye." Discover. November, 1991, p. 40.
Hogan, Brian J. "Astronomy Gets a Sharper Vision." Design News. August 26, 1991, p. 110.
"Custom Optics." Laser Focus World. December, 1992.
Nash, J. Madeline. "Shoot for the Stars." Time. April 27, 1992, p. 56.
Walker, Jearl. "Wonders with the Retroreflector, a Mirror That Removes Distortion from a Light Beam." Scientific American. April, 1986, p. 118.
—Leslie G. Melcer
- Alasnam’s mirror indicates to Alasnam a girl’s virtue. [Arab. Lit.: Arabian Nights, “Prince Zeyn Alasnam”]
- Alice’s looking-glass Alice passes through this into dreamland. [Br. Lit.: Through the Looking-Glass ]
- Cambuscan’s mirror warns of impending adversity; indicates another’s love. [Br. Lit.: Canterbury Tales, “The Squire’s Tale”]
- Lao’s mirror reflects the looker’s mind and thoughts. [Br. Lit.: Citizen of the World ]
- Merlin’s magic mirror allows king to see whatever concerns him. [Br. Lit.: Faerie Queene ]
- Mirror, mirror magically tells arrogant queen who is the most beautiful of all. [Ger. Fairy Tale: “Snow White” in Grimm, 184]
- Perseus’s shield he uses it as a mirror so that he will not have to look directly at Medusa. [Gk. Myth.: Howe, 214]
- Prester John’s mirror allows him to see happenings throughout his dominions. [Medieval Legend: Brewer Handbook, 710]
- Reynard’s wonderful mirror imaginary mirror; reflects doings a mile away. [Medieval Lit.: Reynard the Fox ]
- Vulcan’s mirror showed past, present, and future to viewer. [Br. Lit.: Orchestra, Brewer Handbook, 710]
mir·ror / ˈmirər/ • n. a reflective surface, now typically of glass coated with a metal amalgam, that reflects a clear image. ∎ fig. something regarded as accurately representing something else: the stage is supposed to be the mirror of life. ∎ (also mirror site) Comput. a site on a network that stores some or all of the contents from another site. • v. [tr.] (of a reflective surface) show a reflection of: the clear water mirrored the sky. ∎ fig. correspond to: gradations of educational attainment that mirror differences in social background. ∎ Comput. keep a copy of some or all of the contents of (a network site) at another site, typically in order to improve accessibility. ∎ [usu. as n.] (mirroring) Comput. store copies of data on (two or more hard disks) as a method of protecting it. DERIVATIVES: mir·rored adj.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, Who is the fairest of them all? in the early 19th-century translation of the Grimm Brothers' Fairytales, the customary invocation of Snow White's wicked stepmother, which in due time received the reply that Snow White rather than herself now held the palm of beauty.
See also smoke and mirrors.