This essay will explore the themes throughout Plath’s poem The Mirror in relation to several critics. The use of the following articles will be used to further discover the meaning of Plath’s poem and will help in the analytical process of Plath’s somewhat esoteric role as placing herself in o her poems as well as with her complex themes: Freedman’s The Monster in Plath’s ‘Mirror’, Hunter’s, Hughes’s ‘Pike’: Plath’s ‘Mirror’ and Uroff’s Sylvia Plath and Confessional Poetry: A Reconsideration.
Although Sylvia Plath’s poem The Mirror alludes to metaphor, the reader cannot help but assign many of the traits Plath uses to describe the mirror as traits which Plath may very well own as the speaker of the poem. Thus, the lines between metaphor and reality are bent in poem to be inclusive of Plath’s own identity. This idea of identity is elaborated upon by Uroff,
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.
In Plath’s own words, “I have no preconceptions” (Line One) the identity of the poem and poet is being formed. The poem is about a woman writing a poem and using her own use of self a guiding light, as Plath illustrates, “Whatever I see, I swallow immediately. Just as it is, umisted by love or dislike” (Lines 2-3). In this section of the poem, the reader is able to begin to design for themselves the way in which a female poet (Plath) is able to write about truth.
Plath’s statement in lines 2-3 aids in discovering that Plath is trying to deliberate on a feminist issue of the female poet. Plath is stating in these lines that the female poet is able to write about truth, without love or hate getting in the way, but that a truthful account of these emotions is the main objective of the poem, “I am not cruel, only truthful—” (Line 4). In this statement it is revealed that Plath is stating that although female writers are often times considered to be too dynamic in their writing of emotions, that is, they may be considered cruel in their revelations, Plath is merely stating that these female writers are being honest, not interpretative.
The image of the mirror in the poem is used as a catalyst for this idea of the woman writer, mainly, Plath. Thus, although a mirror is typically used to reflect the outside world, Plath is using the device of the mirror to show the inner world; a type of self-reflection, as Freedman states,
…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 non-person) of the mirror.
The first stanza of the poem is used to support this statement by Freedman: Plath using language to assert the dominance of the mirror as a pathway into which the inner workings of the female mind may be seen, “I have looked at it so long I think it is a part of my heart” (Lines 7-8).
Although the poem is most clearly about identity, the poem is also about trying to find oneself. Thus, although identity is the ultimate theme of the poem, it is a lack of identity that drives the narrative of the poem onwards past the motif of the mirror and into the more intricate design of the heart and soul through this device. It seems that the narrator is conflicted about how to interpret what they see in the mirror, or at least how to define its edges, “But it flickers” (Line 8). This could mean that the poet is trying to find her own identity in a literary world most usually dominated by men, “Faces and darkness separate us over and over” (Line 9).
Many motifs may be considered when reading this poem, but the theme of identity and a dual or dichotomized identity may best be suited for a strong interpretation. This dual nature of woman is seen firstly as a young girl who desires to be nothing but young. This character makes sure that she appeases the male myth of docility and sexual appeasement,
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 (Freedman 1993).
This dualistic interpretation can be recognized in Plath’s word choices of, “I see her back, and reflect it faithfully” (Line 13). Although the writer chooses to split her own self into these two factions she does not deny the other one’s existence.
The source of the device of reflection, in not only the object of the mirror but through self and other devices in the poem are astounding. In one line Plath writes, “Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me” (Line 10). In this line the reader may see that the use of a mirror was not large enough to encompass the personality (or personalities) of the female. It seems that this dual side of the female is not in true contention with each other but instead these two split ‘people’ are trying to be united and stronger, as Plath writes, “I am important to her. She comes and goes” (Line 15). In this line the reader may interpret the meaning to be that Plath is writing of unification, of a source of twining of these two split, or mirrored women.
In this idea of unity, Plath finishes the poem by alluding to unity only existing when the two female identities of the poem choose to recognize each other and become fully immersed with the other’s self, “Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness. In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish” (Lines 15-17). Thus, the concept of reflection seems to be a true question for the dominant female in the poem; will the reflection be that of a docile young girl, or an old woman?
Thus, although the mirror is a reflection of a split personality it is also a political view of women as being split in society to differ to different roles: mother, young girl, etc. The mirror is used in the poem to reflect how society sees a woman and how much of what a person sees in a woman is merely a reflection of what they imagine a woman to be, as Freedman states,
…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.
Thus Plath redefines the role of woman, or at least points out the ways in which a woman is too dependent upon the mirror or society, or more specifically man.
In this way the reader may read the poem to be self-suppressing in that the narrator is being tortured in the mirror because it is more of a cage than a reflection, since it’s reflection is false and only reflects what people want to see, not what is truly there. Thus, when Plath says, “terrible fish” she is asserting the breaking of the mirror since the reflection for man or society would have been a beautiful girl which would have been the lie. Therefore, the end of the poem relates back to the first stanza in which the narrator assures the audience that what she is saying is not cruel but only veracious, not a young girl but a fish.
Thus, the self in Plath’s poem is a vanishing truth according to the mirror’s reflection, “Plath’s “Mirror” narrates a lifetime of interactions with a nameless, faceless woman and imagines aging as disfigurement” (Hunter). Thus, the theme of truth is once again supported from a critic’s viewpoint. In conclusion, Plath’s poem delves into the feminine psyche using elements of the dual nature of the mirror in relation to the many sided roles of a woman in society. This idea of female as being representational of society instead of being truthful is what allows the poem to cross the lines of predetermined gender manipulation and with the inclusion of the word ‘I’ throughout the poem, the reader is permitted to think that the speaker is Sylvia Plath and that the poem is therefore an autobiographical message about the social implications of being a female and a poet in a profession typically dominated by men.
Freedman, W. The Monster in Plath’s ‘Mirror’. Papers on Language and Literature, V. 108, No. 5, October, 1993, pp. 152-69.
Hunter, D. Hughes’s ‘Pike’: Plath’s ‘Mirror’. Online. Accessed: May 3, 2007.
Plath, S. Plath: Poems. Everyman’s Library. New York. 1998.
Uroff, M.D. Sylvia Plath and Confessional Poetry: A Reconsideration. Iowa Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1977, pp. 104-15.