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Literary Essay Example: Explication of Sylvia Plath's Poem, Mirror

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Vanderbilt University
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Sylvia Plaths poem, Mirror, is a conflict at two distinct levels. On the surface, it appears to be a conflict between subjective and objective realities with the poem insinuating that the female observer is dissatisfied with her reflection in a neutral mirror. On a deeper level though, the sinister intentions of the mirror are revealed, and the conflict morphs into one between the woman's perception of herself and that of the mirror, who by now, has adopted a male gender. At this point, the poem effectively becomes a conflict between a womans objective assessment of herself and expectations of her by a patriarchal society (Ghasemi 58). The poem has numerous interconnected parts that altogether reveal the truth about the mirror and the female observer. The Mirror contains numerous themes and symbols making it an irresistible read.

The first stanza introduces us to a personification of the mirror. It portrays itself as lacking in preconceptions and intimates that it doesnt change what it sees but reflects everything back with exactness bereft of cruelty (Plath 1-2). While this could be an objective assessment of itself, the continuous repetition of its neutrality comes off as an attempt by the mirror to praise itself. It goes on to detail how it swallows immediately and that its reflections are impaired by neither love nor hate (Plath 3) reinforcing its claim in the first line that it is exact. The choice of the word swallow, however, is slightly unsettling. The use of swallow rather than kinder alternatives like reflect reveal that the mirrors intentions are less than honest. In lines 4 and 5, the mirror once again reminds us that it only takes in and reflects what it sees without taking anything else into account. It compares itself to the four-cornered eye of a god (Plath 4-5). Conway contends that the use of god ascribes the male gender to the mirror and therefore whatever follows is really an insight into the perception of women by the male gaze (40). The personification of the mirror is continued in line 6 where, rather than facing or reflecting it, it contemplates the opposite wall (Plath 6). The next two lines go into detail about the object of the mirrors meditation, the wall, with the last line in the stanza giving us insight into the emotional state of the mirror. Faces and darkness separate us over and over denotes the mirrors sadness and loneliness when alone with the wall (Plath 9).

In the second stanza, the mirror takes the form of a clear lake in which a woman sees her reflection (Plath 1-2). The significance of this new form lies in the fact that this woman, in looking at her reflection in the lake, also searches the depths of the lake. This implies that the woman, in looking at the lake, is looking for more than personal appearance, perhaps an insight into her own being and worth (Ghasemi 59). However, she either does not find it here or does not agree with what she sees, and instead, the woman turns to candles and the moon- objects which the lake refers to as liars (Plath 12-13).

The reference to the moon and candles as a liar is an antithesis to what the mirror claimed at the beginning; that it only offers objective truths without judgment. It turns out that the mirror's only intention is to highlight the flaws in the woman. Its opposition to the woman using candles and the moon- flattering light sources which help hide the horrors the woman is encountered by in the mirror, shows that the intention of the mirror is to devalue her on the basis of her looks (Conway 40). The woman eventually turns back to the lake rewarding it with tears and an agitation of the hands (Plath 14). Despite the emotional state of the woman, the mirror seems to enjoy her sadness as it reflects its success in devaluing her. This, coupled with the inference in the first stanza that the mirror could be a man, reinforces the position that the poem is really about the harsh perception of women in a patriarchal society. The mirror then relays, what it is convinced, is its indispensability to her (Plath 15-16). That fact coupled with the fact that the mirror is eager to highlight the womans flaws reveal that the true intention of its efforts to devalue her is actually to exert control over her. The mirror is successful in that, in spite of everything, she comes back every day; she is completely reliant. The mirror then details the womans aging. It compares her creeping old age to a rising terrible fish (Plath 17-18) bringing the lake metaphor into a full circle. The symbolism in that line is in line with the belief in the patriarchal setting that the value of a woman is in her youth and that aged women are worthless (Conway 40).

The poem, Mirror is written in free verse. It follows no set pattern of rhyme or rhythm. Instances of rhythm and rhyme in the poem are deliberately used by the poet to evoke emotions in the reader. One such example is the slant rhyme in the lines in the second stanza ending in darkness and fish. The rhyme here is used to evoke sadness at the aging of the woman in the poem. The poem is arranged in two equal stanzas with the lines predominantly written in short declarative sentences with occasional appositive constructions. The structure helps in creating the voice of the mirror making it sound accurate and detached. Despite being written in free verse; the poem has a graceful and natural read to it: a testament to the poetic talent of Sylvia Plath.


Works Cited


Conway, Cathleen Alyn. "through the looking glass: a discussion of doubling in Sylvia Plath's." Plath Profiles: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Sylvia Plath Studies 3 (2010): 39-45. print.

Ghasemi, Parvin. "Reflections of self and other in Sylvia Plaths Mirror imagery." Dream, Imagination and Reality in Literature (2007): 58-62. Print.

Plath, Sylvia. Mirror. Privately printed, 1966.


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