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Why Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’ is such an unsettling piece of work



Anna O'Neil - published on 07/25/17

The mirror is not interested in truth, alone...


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 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 moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
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.

— Sylvia Plath

I can’t read more than two or three of Sylvia Plath’s poems in a row before I have to put the book down and get outside in the sunshine to shake off the mood, and brrr, this one is no exception. I can’t stop coming back to it either, though.

It’s an unusual set-up. It’s not a conversation, or the poet’s observations about the world. Instead, the mirror itself is the one speaking, and it’s quite a disturbing character. Now, it would be very offended if you suggested it was evil. No no, it is a god, “not cruel, only truthful.” See, a mirror doesn’t distort reality. It reflects it back, “just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.” Love and dislike, the mirror implies, are dishonest, and present a distorted image of reality.

The mirror doesn’t use flowery language. It uses lots of short, factual sentences to describe what it sees. The mirror itself? “Silver and exact.” The opposite wall? “It is pink, with speckles.” The woman? “I am important to her. She comes and goes.”

The woman is quite different, though. She goes to the mirror every day to find out “what she really is,” but she never seems to accept what she sees. Perhaps the problem is the lighting. Everybody’s skin looks better by candlelight; it has a way of minimizing defects. Or moonlight—you can’t see flaws well in moonlight, can you? But to the mirror, the candles and the moon are liars, hiding the features of her face that she doesn’t like. The mirror is far superior. It alone, impartial and dispassionate, can show her the truth.

It’s hard to object to that. Can you really blame the mirror for showing the truth, even if you don’t like it? But maybe the mirror isn’t quite as impartial and dispassionate as it claims. Actually, it slips up once or twice, and shows its true colors.

What about “She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands?” If the mirror was interested in truth alone, it would take the presence of tears as disinterestedly as it does the speckles on the wall. But it’s almost gleeful about the tears. That’s a bit unsettling. It’s not the worst part, though. Besides its smug, superior tone, it makes one gigantic blunder that betrays its true character.

“Now I am a lake.” Okay, Mirror, wait a second. You’re using metaphors now? And for an image that appears fairly innocuous, its actually has horrifying implications.

First of all, it’s a bad comparison. The mirror has already described itself as exact, four-cornered, and little. It has no depth at all; it just shows the outside world on its surface. A lake is expansive, powerful, and teeming with unknown life. And let’s not overlook the fact that people can’t breathe water.

If the mirror is a lake, then it will kill you. Your body needs oxygen, and it won’t get that underwater. The woman, long ago as a young girl, drowned in that lake. Now she’s being transformed somehow, bit by bit, into a creature dependent on the lake to survive. Of course, that’s not literally what happened. The mirror is being hypocritically inexact in its speech. But undeniably, a change has taken place in the woman whose mirror is so important to her. She is not one person anymore, she’s split—her own face “rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.”

Whether she will become completely reliant on the mirror, or whether she will reclaim her true self, and understand “what she really is,” is anyone’s guess, but we know, at least, that the mirror is not as innocent as it would like you to believe.

Twice a month, Anna O’Neil brings us a short, memorable poem and breaks it down for us. Find more in this series at Poetry Talk

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