Dr. Beth Sutton-Ramspeck
Personification in “Mirror”
“As we grow older...the beauty steals inward” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, republished on Quotations Page). As one reads Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror,” it becomes clear that the speaker of the poem, a mirror, realizes this truth but cannot communicate it effectively to an aging woman that looks into the mirror. As the mirror describes what it sees throughout its “life” on a wall, the poem becomes gloomier because the woman ages. Given human qualities such as seeing, possessing a heart, and meditating, the mirror is also the objective judge of outward appearance. The woman wants to reject the truth revealed by the mirror because the truth is not always beautiful. By rejecting the truth, the character traits that make up the woman become horrible. In “Mirror,” a personified mirror reveals the character of a woman who becomes emotionally attached to it. The objective observations of the mirror tell the woman the truth about her image, while the personified mirror tells the reader about her character.
Throughout the poem, the mirror claims numerous human abilities. The first stanza contains most of these assertions. The mirror says that it can see (2,7), and it swallows what it sees immediately (2). Swallowing obviously can mean an act done when eating. There are two other applicable denotations of “swallow” which could point to humanness or non-humanness, which include to put up with or believe without question. The former implies a human quality because putting up with something or someone usually implies a need for patience, something humans possess. On the other hand, the latter definition implies a non-human object since no thought is involved. However, some humans think very little, so swallowing most directly points to humanness.
Another quality that personifies the mirror is the statement that the mirror is not cruel (4).
Only a living being can be cruel or perform cruel acts, so this definitely points to the humanness of the mirror. Next, the mirror says that it “meditates” (6), which, when analyzing its definition, is a pun. “Meditate” means to reflect on or contemplate. Although this also points to literal, physical reflection that the mirror performs for the woman, reflection in the human sense requires thought since one of its denotations is serious thinking. By using the second part of “meditate”’s definition, contemplate, one can conclude that this reflection is describing the human qualities of the mirror. In fact, the mirror even claims the act of thinking in line eight when it says, “I think it is a part of my heart.” Also contained within that assertion the fact that the mirror possesses a heart, again adding to the humanness of the mirror. Finally, the second stanza emphasizes these human traits when the mirror says it sees again (13).
These elements of personification mix paradoxically with a purely objective and truthful judge–the mirror. At some points the mirror acts as a human, and at others, it performs its inanimate duty of reflecting the truth of the woman’s image. So the mirror makes the claim that it is objective and truthful in its representation of beauty. It says that it is exact and has no preconceptions (1). The word “unmisted,” used in line three, is not even a word. However, breaking down the word into its prefix and base yields a plausible definition. The prefix “un” means “not” and “mist” means “fog or cloudy,” so “unmisted by love or dislike” suggests an unclouded or undistorted view or opinion. Then the mirror states outright that it is truthful in line four. If the mirror is telling the truth, or observing anything, for that matter, it could act human and inanimate simultaneously. This paradox between impartiality and personification strengthens the reader’s image of the woman.
In stanza two, assertions of truth continue. The mirror implies that it is truthful and other objects lie, when it states, “Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.” (12). Then “reflection” is used again when the mirror says, “I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.” “Reflect” has another denotation, which means to make apparent or manifest. “Faithfully” possesses two denotations, which include worthy of trust or belief and consistent with truth. “Faithfully” also suggests connotations which include a parent that is always looking out for one’s best interests or unconditional assurance of integrity and honesty. Combining both “reflect” and “faithfully”, the mirror makes the lofty claim that it only reveals the truth, in that it is looking out for the best interests of the woman. It is up to her to realize the truth of her dying beauty and fading character. The mirror also lets the reader know that it is giving the most factual information so that he can be acquainted with the woman’s traits. Again, the use of the word “reflection” points to the mirror’s personification and inanimateness concurrently.
Since the mirror is objective, it strengthens the feelings the woman has when she sees herself in the mirror because she does not want to accept what she sees. In describing her reactions to the reader, the personified mirror deepens the reader’s knowledge of the woman and allows the reader to see her more clearly. The mirror states that the woman “bends over me,” (10) which has numerous denotative meanings. “Bend”’s definitions include “to render submissive, to subdue, to apply oneself closely, to concentrate, or to stoop” (American Heritage College Dictionary). Certainly one can assume the most obvious meaning here–that the woman literally stoops over the mirror to concentrate on her reflection. However, one could also apply the submission definition to conclude that the woman is a slave to her image in the mirror. She feels so strongly about her appearance that her life revolves around the mirror’s reflection. This
definition brings about a connotation of an extreme, strong emotional attachment to the mirror, almost as if in a trance. Also contributing to this argument of passionate attachment to the mirror is one meaning of “woman” (17)–a female servant or subordinate. Combined with “old” in line 17, and the fact that a young girl used to exist (“In me she has drowned a young girl” (17)), this suggests that the woman is becoming more and more emotionally attached to the mirror as she advances in age. Additionally, in the first stanza, the mirror states that it acts as “The eye of a little god,” (5) which, when one has considered the definitions of eye (vision) and god (image), can conclude that the mirror is a way for the woman to see herself. However, because the word “god” is used, it also suggests connotations of worshiping an image and idealizing oneself. Clearly, this woman is attached to the mirror.
Only through personifying the mirror and choosing specific, descriptive words in observing the woman’s reactions does the reader gain insight into the extreme emotional attachment that the woman has to the mirror. The mirror’s human observations and truthfulness combine to augment the emotional attachment to the mirror when the woman “comes and goes” (15) because “I am important to her.” (15). There is more evidence supporting this attachment when the mirror states, “She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.” (14). “Agitation”’s meaning of extreme emotional disturbance definitively points to a woman that is severely affected by what she sees in the mirror and then wrings her hands in response to what she sees, all the while crying. There is another denotation to “hands,” in that it can also mean a style or individual sample of writing. This could mean that the woman writes in a journal furiously in response to what she sees in the mirror. Journals have often been associated with being places of emotional outlets in written form. Also, the mirror states that the woman is
“Searching my reaches for what she really is” (11), which implies that the woman is currently on some journey and has not found her true self. The reader, however, comes to know her through the mirror’s observations.
When the mirror continues to make observations, it only talks about the outward appearance of the woman and the room it hangs because it only sees the superficial. However, because it has been personified, it can reveal much more about its environment. It sees pink (7), which can literally mean a pink wall or flowers, with speckles. However, this speckled pink begins to flicker, and the mirror sees faces and darkness instead of the pink (8-9). Then the mirror sees a lake (10), a woman (10), her back as she looks out a window(12-13), and her aging body that at times resembles a terrible fish rising out of the lake’s water (17-18). Eventually, she drowns her young self in the lake that the mirror has become (10,17). Many of these images could have deeper or symbolic meanings, just as a person has more than their appearance. These meanings arise out of the accurate observations of a personified mirror.
mirror reflects more than the outward appearance, as evidenced when one
considers the alternative denotations to what it sees. The mirror sees a speckled pink in the first
stanza, but when it sees a lake, things become gloomier. “
qualities are used in conjunction as the mirror states, “Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.” (16). Finally, the mirror reveals even more when it says that “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.” (16-17). Before, the mirror stated it saw a lake, which also reflects like a mirror, and can symbolize the outward appearance of a person. Used with lines 16 and 17 quoted above, the mirror is saying that it sees a terrible person rise out of that water. The fish can simply describe what the woman looks like in the mirror, but it could also come to take on the less obvious denotation of “a person, especially one considered deficient in something” (American Heritage Dictionary). Because the mirror is personified, it allows the reader to observe this deficiency in the woman–the need to only be beautiful. Her character, symbolized by the fish coming out of the depth of the lake, is rising out of the superficial appearance of the lake to show the reader not only her dying beauty, but also her poor character underneath. She has drowned herself, literally, in her reflection in the mirror, and figuratively, as her character deteriorates.
Combining the literal and symbolic meanings of the mirror’s observations, it is clear that the woman develops a strong emotional attachment to the mirror because it is both humanlike and inanimate in its ability to tell the truth. The mirror asserts its humanness in a number of ways, including seeing, possessing a heart, and meditating. It also says it is exact, not cloudy in its representations, and only truthful. However, the one truth that the woman fails to “hear” the mirror tell her is that there is more to a person than the outward appearance. The mirror even states that she is still searching for who she really is. Only in analyzing the observations of the personified mirror thoroughly does the reader even realize this truth the mirror is communicating. The mirror sees this in the fish that rises out of the lake, or the deficient
character that rises out of an aging woman. The reader knows this from the observations made by a personified mirror. This woman should take the advice of the mirror, and that of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and realize that as one ages, beauty is found underneath, not in outward appearance.