The Monster in Plath's "Mirror." (Sylvia Plath)
Freedman, William, Papers on Language & Literature
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" (Collected Poems 174) for confirmation of the man-pleasing 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.
Viewed in these terms, "Mirror" may be read as a broadening and more sophisticated extension of poems like "Morning Song" and "Medusa," which question or reject the maternal role. "I'm no more your mother," announces the voice of "Morning Song," "Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind's hand" (Collected Poems 157). To say as much, however, is to acknowledge what it denies. The statement succeeds only in rejecting the maternal identity for one that is identical with it, for that of the vaguely insubstantial image (the cloud) that is ultimately erased from the surface of its other, equally effaced identity as maternal mirror. The escape from mirror and mother to cloud does not permit an escape from their mutual fate as depersonalized victims of erasure. And the ambiguity of "its own" suggests that the mirror as well as the cloud is effaced by the wind that blows the child into the mother's life. "Morning Song" ends with reconciliation and acceptance, an acceptance reflected in the developing animation of the poem's imagery: of the child from watch and statue to moth, cat, and singer; of the mother from walls and cloud to cow-heavy woman.
"Medusa" ends with the rejection that presumably motivated it, the rejection of the poet's own mother as a kind of terrible sea creature that poisons, paralyzes, and devours:
Off, off, eely tentacle! …