Analysis of the Poem Mirror by Sylvia Plath: Plunge into the Troubled Water of the Looking-Glass

Mirror by Sylvia Plath was composed in 1961, just before Plath’s twenty-ninth birthday, two years before her suicide. It is part of the volume Crossing the Water. Her first volume of poetry, The Colossus, was released in 1960 but she’s best known for the publication of Ariel in 1965. Sylvia Plath was a twentieth century American writer and poet, born in 1932. She committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 29 years old. She is generally labelled as a « Confessional Poet » as her poetry depicts her personal states of mind, emotions and pains, imbued with « unconsciousness material« . Plath’s poems witness inner disturbance. She was also considered a feminist author. Her main themes cover gender, motherhood and marriage, betrayal and suicidal illness.
Characterized by an imaginative intensity, most of her poems deal with suffering and death. From the personal, her poetry rises to the universal, with an acute portrayal of the general human condition.

Painting Woman and Mirror by the French painter Francine Van Hove

Woman and Mirror, painting by the French artist Francine Van Hove.

She considered literature the exploration of the self, as exemplified by the strange psyche at work in her poems. She explains her creative process based on the reworking of her inner feelings as follows: « I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying – like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience – and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind. »

This poem is a lyric consisting of two equal stanzas containing nine lines each.
It is written in free verse, which means that it has no set pattern of rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables. However, Plath mingles various chiming effects, like sounds, repetitions and rhymes to create rhythm and convey various themes and impressions.

The mirror as a symbol of the « accurate » reality and « truth »

In the first stanza, which is an introduction of the mirror by itself, we notice the repetition of the personal pronoun « I » at the beginning of lines 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8): this is an anaphora. By emphasizing the first person, representing the mirror (which is the speaker) the author personifies this inanimate object.
This personnification is also marked by other literary devices such as a sensory language that makes the mirror very lively : he can « see », « swallow » (line 2), « look at » (line 7), « medidate » (line 6) or « think » (line 8).
However, it claims itself as insensitive : « unmisted by love or dislike » (line 4) and « not cruel, only truthful » (line 5). The mirror claims to embody a perfect objectivity and rationality.
It is even compared to the « eye of a little god ». This metaphor conveys the idea of a supreme judge, superior to simple human perception. The verb « meditate » also implies it is very wise. The verb « reflect » means to « think carefully » and the author very likely play clervely on the double meaning of this word.

The mirror sounds very confident and overpowering even overbearing. We may connect this feature to the use of assonance in line 1 (« I see » and « immediately », /i/ sound), the alliterations in line 1, 2 and 3 (« silver », « I see », « I swallow » : /s/ sound) and the internal rhymes in line 3 (vowel/consonant) between « is », « unmisted » and « dislike » as well as in line 4 between « cruel » and « truthful ». These various chiming effects give more impact and force to the mirror’s speech which is quite frightenning.
Although it states it feels no emotion, it talks about its heart, symbolized by the opposite pink wall. The description of this wall contains numerous consonances of /t/ in line 6, and in line 8, another internal rhyme between « part » and « heart ». Another consonance of /k/ in line 7 and 8, completed by a linked rhyme between pink and think. This creates a cold and metallic (/mɪˈtælɪk/) impression.
But this so-called heart is separated from him by « faces and darkness » (line 9) which is another consonance of /s/. We may imagine the mirror suffers from this situation as this last line of the stanza sounds melancholic and regretful. The repetition of « over and over » also foreshadows the more tragic tone of the poem in the second stanza.

The second stanza is like a reversed symetrical reflection of the first one (mirrored structure). Likewise, we find various anaphoras of the first person pronoun (« I am a lake » in line , « I see her back », « I am important to her » and « In me » repeated twice in line 17).

The Search of One’s True Self vs. Illusions and Appearances

This second stanza explores what it is hidden, underneath a reflective surface when you « pass throught » it. This is the other side of the mirror and of a reality more complex than what it seems at first glance. We may think of the book « Through the Looking-Glass « by Lewis Carroll based on the same metaphor.
Plath extensively uses the themes of transformation, shape-shifting, and water (a classical metaphor of reflection, as narrated in the myth of Narcissus, and actually the primary natural mirror used by human beings before the invention of the object!) to represent what it is underlying. Indeed, the mirror transforms itself into a lake and faces a new character : a woman.
This woman turns out to be the main character of the poem, portrayed through the mirror viewpoint.
Other metaphors or words refer to the water : « tears » (line 14), « she has drowned » (line 17) and the final image of « fish ». The surrealism of this second stanza enables the author to represent, very powerfully, unconscious feelings and inner experiences.
In the opening lines of this second stanza, we understand that Sylvia Plath wants to oppose outer appearance and inner self. In line 10, the lake is a more indefinite, complex and deeper surface, in contrast with the straighforward and basic mirror. The lake could represent the invisible and the mirror the visible world. Its depth may symbolize the inner self of a person (i.e her character, intelligence and artistic creativity), and more particularly the woman who looks at it, that we can imagine is Plath herself. Line 11 points out the woman’s urgent quest and questioning to see beyond physical appearance. Its euphony is particularly interesting with an internal rhyme (consonant and vowel) made of /sh/ or /ch/, /i/ and /z/ sounds : « searching », « reaches », « she is ».
The adverb « really » underlines its desperate need to view her true self through this reflection.
The mirror’s reflection could be false as it can’t show the real being, the core of a person. It is only superficial and shallow.
However it is difficult to see through the blurred surface of the lake and go beyond the simple reflection. Line 13, she mentions « the candles » or « the moon », labeled as « liars ». Sometimes it is easier to lie to oneself and yield to the temptation of flattering illusions. Their sweet, gentle and soft light may also represent the subjectivivity (and also empathy) of a judgement. Line 14 expresses, ironically (with the use of « reward ») the woman’s conflict with herself and her anxous dismay (« tears » and « agitation »).

Woman and Mirror, painting  by the French artist Francine Van Hove.

Woman and Mirror, painting by the French artist Francine Van Hove.

A feminist criticism of the tyranny of Beauty in the (patriarchal) society

The end of the poem develops further this woman’s identity crisis and her concerns. It unfolds its fear of the passing of time and aging. Everyday, she can’t help but checking the decline of her beauty, even though it is a great suffering. This repeated painful routine is depicted on line 16 by the back and forth movement before the mirror as « she comes and goes« , on line 16 with various time adverbials « over and over » on l.9, « each morning » and « day after day » line 18. Line 16 also plays with an internal rhyme between, « face », « replaces » and « darkness », which calls to mind the sound of a slippery and insidious animal like the fish at the end. The two last run-on lines reveal clearly her fear of aging symbolized by the final climax with the apparition of « terrible fish » line 19. This sudden creature, which materializes the woman’s anxiety, plays a pivotal role in the poem by taking it into the realm of the monstrous and the astonishment, not unlike the « sublime » described by Edmund Burke in his treaty.

The loss of her beauty and of her youth means death, not only the physical death but also her social death. And that’s why she feels so terrified at it. Some critics interpreted these lines as a protest against social pressure and especially, the strict masculine vision of the woman idealizing her physical beauty and her youth, which objectifies her in the process. A woman’s worth only depends on her beauty, and this historical view was still true at Plath’s time and remains quite relevant today unfortunately ! Women lost their value when they are no longer young and attractive. This poem could be Plath’s response to the oppressive modern society and the shallow truth of dictated physical appearance.

To conclude… Behind its seeming quiet tone, this poem conceals a real violence that gradually heightens to reach its terrifying final apex. « Mirror » is a bitter even tragic poem that brings into focus the tensions between inner and outer selves, especially from a feminine viewpoint. It also stresses the conflict between reality and perceptions, objectivity and subjectivity, emotion and rationality. The choice of the mirror, a typical feminine object, reinforced by the mirrored structure of the poem, enhance particularly the issues and the dichotomy she lays bare.
William Ryland Drennan calls this technique « doubling »* relying on « polarities », élike the negative and positive poles of electricity – to shed light on characters and events ». This poem could be Plath’s response to the oppressive modern society and the dictate of beauty standards and physical appearance
The critic Jo Gill noted that the poem is « catoptric », meaning that it describes while it represents its own structure ; this is done through the use of the two nine-lines stanzas which are both symmetrical, and indicative of opposition. [Alexandra Galakof]

*In the first place we have two stanzas of equal length. In the first stanza the speaker is a mirror, and in the second the speaker says, « Now I am a lake. » Again, in the first stanza the mirror refers to itself as being « silver and exact, » and then in lines 6 and 7 says, « Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall. / It is pink, with speckles. » So you have the doubles of mirror and « lake, » and also of « silver and exact » and « pink with speckles. » You also have the double that comes from the first stanza, line 4, where the mirror says, « Whatever I see I swallow immediately / Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike, » compared with the second stanza line 15, where the mirror (lake) says of the woman, « I am important to her. » So the double there is the mirror who is « unmisted by love or dislike » versus the woman, who sees the mirror as « important to her. »
Another double in line 15 is where it says of the woman, « She comes and goes. » She « comes. » She « goes. » That is another double. Again in the first stanza the mirror states, « I am not cruel, only truthful, » and in the second stanza, line 12, refers to the candles and the moon as « liars. » It says, « Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon. » So the double here is compounded – you have the truthful mirror versus the lying candles and moon, and you have the act of turning. When the woman faces the mirror she faces truth, when she turns to the candles or the moon she faces « those liars. » Of all the doubles in this poem, probably the most explicit is found in the last two lines of the poem, where it says, « In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish. » Here the double is between a drowned young girl and an old woman, who « rises toward here day after day, like a terrible fish »

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