Analysis of Literary Works

Mirror // Sylvia Plath

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To read the poem, click here.

‘Mirror’ is a poem based on the idea of reflection, both at the outward and the inward self, in which Plath personifies a mirror as the speaking voice to best articulate the theme of self-exploration. There’s two levels of perspective that separate the poem in two stanzas which are of similar length – the first being seen with the physical feature and the second being seen through the psychic lens of the woman mirrored on the lake. Through these two levels of life, Plath designs an illustration of the unadulterated and unmarred nature of the truth, as well as commenting on time and how it surfaces forward ‘like terrible fish’.

The obtrusively direct beginning of the poem is deliberately put on by Plath to heighten the characterisation of her personified object, that is, the mirror which is forward, objective and open. The use of first person enables readers to truly view the mirror as a human object, which has no ‘preconceptions’ and is ‘unmisted by love or dislike’. The mirror is not only unadulterated in its way of showing the reality, but it is also dispassionate and non-discriminatory. The use of Plath’s diction is also very specific as it brings out images of consumption, where the mirror admits to ‘swallow things as it is’, presenting the reality as an item of consumption. The mirror then metaphorically alludes to itself as a small deity, which reinforces the idea of complete and utter truthfulness where we cannot hide anything from God, who knows everything. The mirror, likewise, is raw and pure in its portrayal of the truth with no layers of fabrication and yet, it understands that truth can be considered vindictive sometimes, and thus assures that it is not ‘cruel, only truthful’. Plath, however, still paints her poem with a certain level of poignancy in which she allows the mirror to be intimate with the wall opposite it – which is made to be feminine as it is painted with the colour ‘pink’ and has ‘little speckles on it –  as the mirror meditates on it, calling it a ‘part of my heart’. However, this relationship is broken down and disturbed when the room is darkened by night or something or someone moves in between them, portraying a loss of intimacy.

The next stanza sees a sudden change as the mirror transforms into a lake, not hard but exact , because while it still echoes the mirror’s character it receives her tears and her agitated heart, in which it shows the whole truth. Plath, here, brings in a woman who seeks this truth and which the lake believes to ‘reflect faithfully’. Yet, the woman turns to ‘the candles or the moon’ which the lake calls out as ‘liars’ as these only present the romanticised and half-hidden versions of the reality. But, the woman returns and Plath echoes on how the truth can be ‘cruel’ where she is seen ‘rewarding’ the lake with ‘tears and an agitation of hands’ as the word ‘reward’ – an inevitable and harsh reality where youth is consumed by the terrible upsurge of time. Here, Plath comments on time and aging, which she personally had a profound distaste of as she had never wanted to grow up, where the woman ‘drowns’ the young girl in her, as the ‘old woman’ slowly surfaces upwards ‘like terrible fish’ – using a simile to produce time as an unwelcome marine creature.

Plath’s use of imagery is very picturesque through the use of colours, metaphors and characterisation, where in the second and last stanza, we can almost visually see the woman ‘bend(ing)’ to ‘search for (the lake’s) reaches’. This brings out how we need to be close to our emotions and the truth to understand ourselves, and to turn back on the fabricated reality. Like the mirror merging seamlessly with the lake, Plath allegorises how our two personalities of the physical and spiritual need to merge seamlessly by looking at the ‘cruel’ reality. Plath makes use of free verse to give a spontaneous rhythm to her truly abstract poem, along with the use of limited enjambment to produce a strict and direct tone of voice for the mirror and the lake, which are both inanimate and yet, animate within ourselves the true sense of reality that we often hide from.

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