The Monster in Plath's 'Mirror'


In the following essay, Freedman discusses Plath's use of the mirror as a symbol of female passivity, subjugation, and Plath's own conflicted self-identity caused by social pressure to reconcile the competing obligations of artistic and domestic life.


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 non-person) 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 manqué, the woman who desires to remain forever the "young girl" and who "turns to those liars, the candles or the moon" 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." 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!

There is nothing between us.


Even here, however, there is an injected sense of the speaker as mother as well as child. The Medusa, apparently the mother, is also the child/mother's own newborn infant, a "tremulous breath at the end of my line . . . dazzling and grateful, / Touching and sucking." She is "Fat and red, a placenta" who, like a new unwelcomed baby, was not called, yet "steamed to me over the sea . . . Paralyzing the kicking lovers." The obliterating mother, then, is at the same time the infant whose emergence sucks life and identity from the child-cum-mother. Indeed, the evocation of the mother as devouring monster seems to be a reactive inversion of the perhaps more primitive sense that the speaking child consumes or threatens to consume its sacrificial mother. "Who do you think you are?" She asks harshly. "A Communion wafer? Blubbery Mary? / I shall take no bite of your body, / Bottle in which I live." Here Plath as embryo or new offspring rejects the sacrificial offer of the mother's body, and the poem's enraged rejection of the monstrous mother may at bottom be a rejection of the mother's ironically devouring self-annihilation. A letter Plath wrote to her brother in 1953 reflects such an image of their mother:

You know, as I do, and it is a frightening thing, that mother would actually kill herself for us if we calmly accepted all she wanted to do for us. She is an abnormally altruistic person, and I have realized lately that we have to fight against her selflessness as we would fight against a deadly disease . . .


After extracting her life blood and care for 20 years we should start bringing in big dividends of joy for her . . . (Letter to Warren, May 12, 1953).


A passage from Jung's "The Development of Personality," which Plath transcribed, describes the phenomenon of crushing maternal self-annihilation that Plath experienced and transformed into poetry. "Parents," wrote Jung,

set themselves the fanatical task of always "doing their best" for the children and "living only for them." This claimant ideal effectively prevents the parents from doing anything about their own development and allows them to thrust their "best" down their children's throats. This so-called "best" turns out to be the very things the parents have most badly engaged in themselves. In this way the children are goaded on to achieve their parents' most dismal failures, and are loaded with ambitions that are never fulfilled.


The parents Jung describes assume contradictory roles, just as Plath's image of the mother-woman-mirror as terrible fish assumes contradictory or at least contrary forms. On the one hand, it is an image of a monstrous autonomy that cannot perform the self-effacing function of infant-confirming mother. Instead, "reflecting its own mood or, worse still, the rigidity of her own defenses," it generates in the child the threat of chaos that produces the disturbed obsession with distorting mirrors in Plath's poetry. Conversely, this terrible fish or medusa may be the image of maternal self-annihilation, the mother's guilt-inducing refusal of autonomy. The required self-denial of new motherhood, if perpetuated or exaggerated, may, as Jung suggests, be as threatening as its opposite. As virtually exclusive nurturer of the infant and small child, the mother cannot win. Caught between annihilation of self and annihilation of other, and lanced on the sacrifice of self that may efface the other, her denigration, rejection, and perceived monstrosity are all but insured.


The same near-identity of assertive autonomy with an at least seemingly contradictory self-annihilation characterizes the language of "Mirror" and colors the poem's implicit treatment of the woman as writer. The poem is finally about language and imitation, about poetry and its relation to what it describes. As such, it is a poem that assumes a central place in the literature of female authorship, the literature that takes as its subject the woman as writer and her obligation to create for woman and herself a resistant and resilient language of her own. The popularity of Plath's relatively few poems of aggressive threat and power, poems such as "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy," misleads us. Far more of her poetry presents protagonists or personae who are basically passive and depersonalized, victimized and helpless. Like the mirror, the speakers in these poems--dolls, mannequins, stones, patients--are typically confined, often inanimate, absorbently passive, and devoid of personal initiative or will. They are, in short, images of the woman who, as Gilbert and Gubar document, inanimately animate the "mirror of the male-inscribed literary text."


Much of Plath's poetry, in other words, is a mirror of the male text as mirror, a replication of the passive images caught on its surface. Just as the mirror can only reflect reality, the woman writer can only reflect male ideals and desires. Devoid of subjectivity and the power of narrative, the woman in many of Plath's poems "speaks" not only to the plight of woman generally, but, more particularly, to the woman as writer. For as Gilbert and Gubarargue, the mirror in much 19th- and 20th-century women's poetry and fiction is the locus of authorial self-discovery, the place in which the woman author or would-be author perceives both her silent subordination and the fierce urgency of repressed speech.


The image of woman as reflector functions in several ways. As mother or woman, the mirror's principal and imposed obligation is to reflect infant and other--that is, she must present herself as the image mirrored in man's eyes. But as speaking mirror, the woman becomes a narrating reflector of herself as mirror and of whatever passes before it. She becomes the writer who writes of the mirror in which she perceives herself and of the mirror she is. She becomes the text in which that recording occurs. Through these lenses, the question of the object of perception gives place to the now central question of the nature of the narrator. The mirror as woman or mother reflects the other to itself. The mirror as text or writer reflects self and world in language that becomes a kind of mirror itself. But in both forms the principal conflict is between a self-suppressing recapitulation of male expression and an autonomous resistance to the conventional truths and methods of his inscriptions. The connections are further entangled by the fact that a selection of a narrative technique inevitably determines the treatment of content. To let the mirror speak in self-defining ways that resist prior definition or restriction is to alter the image in the glass. That resistance is what is represented by the substitution of the "terrible fish" for the more attractive young girl in "Mirror."


The mirror's opening announcement of its identity calls that identity into question and begins to transform the mirror from a passive reflector into an active speaker. The poem mirrors language's resistance to simple representation and reflects the resistance of the woman writer and the feminine text to the roles assigned them. It is this rebellion, this presumptuous arrogation of autonomy, that accounts for the shocking image of the terrible fish in the poem's concluding line. The terrible fish is not just a symbol of approaching old age: it is the image of "monstrous autonomy" that stares back at the literary woman in so many of her texts, often out of the mirror of that text into which she gazes in embittered self-search. "The woman writer's self-contemplation," Gilbert and Gubar maintain, "may be said to have begun with a searching glance into the mirror of the male-inscribed literary text." It continues in her own text, where, as in Mary Elizabeth Coleridge's "The Other Side of the Mirror," the "woman, wild," "bereft of loveliness," her mouth a "hideous wound" bleeding "in silence and in secret," erupts into her poetry and fiction as demonic emblem of her independent identity, her monstrous renunciation of the mirroring angel. The speaker in Coleridge's poem is not a lonely, but a common figure. For like Coleridge, "the literary woman frequently finds herself staring with horror at a fearful image of herself that has been mysteriously inscribed on the surface of the glass." Plath's "Mirror" is in this tradition, its terrible fish a menacing image of its own self-terrifying achievement.


There is, of course, a biographical dimension to this poem and its governing images, which intensifies the purely literary force of the work. Plath had a dual image of herself: she was a brightly silvered surface concealing a demonic form that threatened to tear the fragile membrane--in other words, both a mirror and a fish. The mirror, of course, is the brilliant surface Plath presented to the world, as both woman and poet. As poet, Plath the mirror is the precise measurer and recorder of minutiae, the four-cornered goddess of aesthetic control. As woman, Plath the mirror is the strict and tightly disciplined achiever who glitteringly fulfilled all expectations, a perfect mirror of acquired parental and social standards of elegance, beauty and achievement--the persona that emitted what Lowell called "the checks and courtesies," her "air of maddening docility," and what Alvarez called an "air of anxious pleasantness." It is the persona that, as Plath herself described it, "Adher[ed] to rule, to rules, to rules," that, seemingly untroubled by her numbed submission, "Stay[ed] put," like the mirror fixed on the wall, "according to habit." It is the side George Stade labeled the "social cast of her personality, aesthetic, frozen in a cover girl smile. . . ." It is the ambitious but distinctly anti-feminist cook and housekeeper whose accents "are those of the American girl as we want her."


This Plath, in short, is the mirror that reflects back what others wish to see and that is itself a perfect reflection of the feminine ideal in male eyes. But this Plath--it has become a commonplace--was only a facade, a fragile surface laid thickly over an inner turmoil Plath herself perceived as a slouching beast struggling for release. "There are two of me now," Plath writes grittily in "In Plaster": "This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one." The white person, like the mirror, "had no personality . . . she had a slave mentality." But the old yellow one, "ugly and hairy," is one of a profusion of monstrous forms threatening the placid surface from below. As in "Lady Lazarus," it is a cannibal fury rising from the dead. In "Fever 103°" it is a flaming sinner and a "pure acetylene / Virgin." In "Daddy" it is the Electral avenger who stakes the vampire's heart; in "Stings" the sleeping queen bee with a menacing "self to recover," a "lion-red body" that, as Plath's demons typically do, rises as a "red scar" and a flaming comet. In "Mirror," the poem's deflective subject is itself a defense against its intimidating imagery and import. The "terrible fish" is not simply the image of aging and decay apparent in the surface narrative; it is another incarnation of the barely suppressed demon of sensuality and rage that charges Plath's poetry as it haunted her life. What is more, it is, appropriately, the devouring monster of the deep, disturbingly at home in the depths of Plath's element.


In an autobiographical essay, "Ocean 1212-W" Plath recounts a crucial memory: "When I was learning to creep, my mother set me down on the beach to see what I thought of it. I crawled straight for the coming wave and was just through the walls of green when she caught my heels. What would have happened," Plath wonders, "if I had managed to pierce that looking-glass?" The sea is a looking glass in which she claims to have discovered, at two and a half, the "awful birthday of otherness," "the separateness of everything" and ultimately therefore of herself. The sea is the terrible country of the void, of the "darkness [that] is leaking from the cracks." The true habitat of the horrific buried self, it is also the environ of her father. As Plath confessed in a BBC interview. "I probably wished many times that he were dead. When he obliged me and died, I imagined that I had killed him." In a number of her poems, her father is the victim of suicide or murder, usually by drowning, for the sea is her father's element, and it is there she takes her revenge. When she announces in "Full Fathom Five," "father, this thick air is murderous / I would breathe water," she identifies herself as a dark swimmer in its waves, in effect the terrible fish who would return to her father. Whether she would return in order to love him like Electra or to destroy him as in "Daddy" matters little. Forbidden love and murder are but two faces of the same resurgent beast.


That the appearance of the demonic in Plath's poetry is typically associated with the imagery of sea and water helps explain, in biographical terms, the substitution of lake for mirror in the poem. The terrible fish is implicit from the outset. It is contained in the rebellious rejection of the mirroring role in the opening lines of "Mirror" that ostensibly accept and define it. It is implicit, too, in the barely concealed harshness of the relentless veracity of the mirror's reflection, whose cruelty she unconvincingly denies. And it is explicit in the mirror's urge to "swallow immediately" whatever it sees. But the image of the fish's emergence requires that the mirror be transformed into water, Plath's symbol of the hideous depths in which the monster lives.


The terrible fish, then, is Plath's personal demon, the witch she strove to conceal beneath the snow white surface or to transform into the "pure gold baby" of "Lady Lazarus." In this reading, the poem's attempt to undermine the mirror's veritical claims with a figurative language that belies them is a linguistic replica of the poem's content, of the effort of the woman who "turns to those liars, the candles and the moon" to avert the terrible truth of her mounting ugliness and decay. Here, the flight from clarity and truth is also a flight, parallel to the young woman's and the author's, from the horrifying image of the woman as the devouring other. Her shocking emergence at the end of the poem marks the fearful triumph of a psychological reality over the linguistic efforts to avert it. The woman outside the mirror or lake is of course the woman whose image as terrible fish is also inside it, visible in its depths. To perceive oneself in the mirror or lake, then, is to recognize one's Jungian shadow as the dark underside of the shining surface. The terrible fish is not simply the time-transformed identity of the young girl; it is the Hydean alter-ego of the mirror or lake in whose depths it is shudderingly disclosed.


Inside the woman-as-mirror, in other words, behind this physically restricted, passive, depersonalized reflector of the external world, lurks the minatory force that will emerge with full power and vengeance in some of the Ariel poems. To escape the obligations of literal truthfulness is not to escape the mirror of male texts that identify her as the obedient angel, but the opposite. It is to evade the monstrous truth the angel herself knows best and fears no less than does the male who protectively angelicizes her in order to prevent her transformation into monster. It is to look into the mirror and pretend one does not see the monster.


Because it recognizes the danger both of reflecting and ignoring the world, "Mirror" can be seen as the turning point in Plath's development. The voice in poems such as "Stones," "Lorelei," "Tulips," "Love Letter," "Crossing the Water," "Purdah," "Face Lift," "Two Campers in Cloud Country," "Childless Woman," and dozens more is that of a woman who has accepted her depersonalization and passivity or who longs for the numbing purity it promises. In many of these poems, the stone, jade, plaster, or anesthetized persona shares the muted stage with old yellow, the lioness, the acetylene virgin, or other threatening figures from the depths, though it is not until her final poems, principally "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus," that the menacing avenger explodes onto the surface as the dominant force in poems of assertive threat and rage. "Mirror" represents a kind of middle-ground between the extremes of passivity and action, numbing self-cancellation and aggressive self-assertion. It achieves its special position and effect by adopting the former guise in ways that renounce it for the latter. To assume the mirror's role is implicitly to accept the male-proscribed image of woman and mother. But the poem's method and equations situate the terrible fish within the lake and mirror and quietly establish an identity between them. The poem's implicit rejection of the mirror's claim to literal reflection is what generates the image of threatening female autonomy that the poem ostensibly disavows. The fish that is in effect in the mirror from the outset charges towards the mirroring surface at the end, its identity and import disguised by a subject that deflects our attention to figures apparently external to the speaking mirror. Blending passive inactivity with devouring hostility, the poem presages the vengeful uprising of "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" while maintaining the innocent, expressionless appearance of paper, stone, mannequin, or doll. "Mirror," in other words, lends to the monster in the attic (or basement) the face of the angel in the house.


The dread fish is identified with the passive mirror by its presence within or behind it. But their identification with one another may have another source as well. The speaker sees herself "in" the mirror or lake in two senses: She is the fearful image in the depths beyond the glass and she is the mirror itself. The implication here is that Plath found her defenses hardly less repulsive than the assault they were created to ward off. The terrible fish observed in the lake's depths and rising toward its surface is identifiable with the mirror that reflects, neutrally and passively, whatever swims before it. The monster in the depths, in other words, is also the monster on the surface, perhaps more accurately the monstrosity of mere surface or lack of depth. The identification of the mirror with the terrible fish, then, erases the separation the dual identity was constructed to sustain. It suggests on the one hand that the mirror contains the fish, that beneath the angel in the house lurks the monster in the depths. But it may propose as well that a two-dimensional image of the angel is also is a form of monstrosity.


In "Crossing the Water," the title poem of Plath's second volume, the speaker is identified as one of "two black, cut-paper people" floating across the water as they float over the surface of their lives. Yet, as she observes, "the spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes." And here, too, the double meaning suggests itself. The spirit of blackness may refer to a dark force concealed beneath the cut paper surface. But, since the paper itself is identified as black, the stronger reading points toward an identification of two-dimensionality with blackness--and both flatness and darkness are identified with the fish made terrible in "Mirror."


The monster is seen not only in the mirroring self, but "in" that self as surface reflector. The woman as the passive, selfless reflector is inscribed in psychoanalysis, motherhood, and the male text and is submissively adopted by the woman as her own identity. But Plath shows it to be a monstrous evasion of reality and suppression of self. A woman who adopts the reflecting role is cruel primarily to herself. It is therefore inevitable that the last image the reflector swallows is that of the terrible fish, which is at once its concealed opposite and its concealing self.


The mirror is an image of the woman writer in her two conflicting roles as wife/mother and as author. In the first she is the selfless reflector of man and infant, in the second the self-conscious, self-centering reflector of herself and of the world as she willfully perceives it. Traditionally the roles were seen, by women as well as men, as not merely conflicting but mutually exclusive. It was, in fact, the collective view of psychoanalytic theory that the woman who has "created" a child required no other creative exercise or outlet, and women felt the power, if not always the validity, of that argument in their lives. Some women writers have so internalized this argument that they have felt the fear Susan Sulciman describes: "With every word I write, with every metaphor, with every act of genuine creation, I hurt my child." The guilt this idea elicits necessarily produces feelings of aggression. In Plath's "Mirror," and in many more of her poems on motherhood and entrapment, this aggression wins out over any feelings of tenderness.


Like the women in the writing of Anne Finch and Anne Elliot, Emily Dickinson and the Brontë sisters, the persona in a few of Plath's poems--in "In Plaster," the Bee poems, "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy"--articulates what virtually her entire body of poetry represents: the striving of the fundamentally powerless woman for autonomy. "The great woman writers of the past two centuries," Gilbert and Gubar argue, "danced out of the debilitating looking glass of the male text into the health of female authority. Tracing subversive pictures behind socially acceptable facades, they managed to appear to dissociate themselves from their own revolutionary impulses even while passionately enacting such impulses." Plath hardly seems at home in this tradition. The female authority she stole or discovered assumed no healthy form. Rather, her work seems dangerously divided between poems in which she anesthetically dissociates herself from her aggressive or rebellious impulses and those, mostly later poems, in which she ferociously enacts them. In "Mirror" the contrary impulses come together--even as she dissociates herself from aggression, she acts it out. And while the poem's repression does not bespeak a thoroughly healthy freedom, Plath has found a way to allow her aggression to triumph over tenderness, but only within a controlled system that maintains the integrity of poem and personality alike.


In "A Sketch of the Past," Virginia Woolf recalls a dream in which "I was looking in a glass when a horrible face--the face of an animal--suddenly showed over my shoulder." What she sees is a variant of the monster in the mirror familiar to women's poetry and fiction, the image of rebelliously monstrous autonomy typified by the madwoman in the attic and an uneasy crowd of ominous female forms that darken the mirroring text of women's fiction. As in Plath's poem, the young woman sees in the mirror the dread reflected image of a beast that is clearly an aspect of the self Woolf elsewhere identified as a self-less mirror for man's magnification.


Mary Elizabeth Coleridge's "The Other Side of the Mirror" offers a more pertinent parallel, for it implies more strongly still the connection between feminine writing and monstrosity. In this poem, Coleridge traces the emergence of the monster from behind the angelic facade, a creature whose rage betrays the shallowness and fragility of the submissive pretense. This figure arises, as Gilbert and Gubar observe, "as if the very process of writing had liberated [her] . . . from a silence in which neither she nor her author can continue to acquiesce." In Plath, too, I believe, it is the writing that liberates the monster--or rather generates her. To quote Gilbert and Gubar one final time, "If she is to be a poet the woman must deconstruct the dead self that is a male 'opus' and discover a living 'inconsistent' self." And the implicit reference to Plath's "Lady Lazarus" in the word opus--"I am your opus, / I am your valuable, / The pure gold baby / That melts to a shriek"--is as apt as the verb that effects the metamorphosis. For it is precisely by deconstructing the masculine mimetic language that entraps the woman in her traditional role that the speaking mirror exchanges the anxious young woman for the monstrous autonomy of the terrible fish. The fish is the woman as autonomous person and author. It is the role-rejecting woman/mother who, even as she proclaims her acceptance of the task, refuses passively to mirror man, infant, or whatever else is set before it. And it is the woman-as-writer who, even as she proclaims her obedient adherence to the mimetic model, adopts that model only to tease and overturn it. "She accepts the woman's role as accurate reflecting mirror in order to transcend it, to show how that very role inevitably thwarts and transcends itself." The mirror as woman and as writer takes on the figure of the four-cornered glass in order to shatter it against the non-mirroring language with which she affirms the comfort of the fit--to shatter it, too, by focusing on herself, making herself the subject of her own attention and the poem. It is the nature and occupation of the mirror self-effacingly to reflect the other. In "Mirror," however, the glass is both subject and speaker at once. The poem begins with "I," a pronoun that appears five times in the first four lines and, together with "me" or "my," seventeen times in this poem of only eighteen lines. The mirror/woman, who is by definition without identity, defines and identifies herself. The persona that has no story, tells it, and in the defiant mirror-breaking act of doing so, she becomes the terrible fish of assertive selfhood. To tell one's own story, even if it is, as it must be, the story of absence and effacement, is to establish a presence and to display, perhaps for the first time, the face behind the angelic silver mask.


Plath's emergent monster, then, is not an imagined other, a beckoning fulfillment of hopeless ambition. It is the reconstruction of the speechless woman whose language deconstructs her verbal confession of mere reflective silence. This reconstructed self still bears the conscience of the complaint, and therefore the image of autonomy is not a thoroughly positive figure of assertive strength. The woman continues to subscribe to the male dread of female sexuality and to the male identification of female defiance or aggression with bestiality. The monster, then, does not so much dwell on the other side of the mirror; she is the other side of the mirror, the perpetuation of the mirror's male-inscribed ideal in a form that otherwise rejects it. The contradictions travel in both directions. The announcement of a mirroring silence or self-effacement implicitly rejects the identity it affirms. Yet the monstrous shape this autonomy assumes attests to the persistence of the woman's sense of self as dependent and faceless.


The woman achieves autonomy in Plath's "Mirror" and comparable works by rejecting the phallocentric language whose fixed truth fixes woman as the mirroring or speechless other. The rejection of the false and insulting "truth" of woman's identity is effected in a language that undermines the very possibility of definable identity and truth. Woman achieves freedom from male definition at the price of all definition, freedom from the name with which the masculine text identifies her in the affirmation of unnamability. Yet, as in Conrad, the unnamed, too, may be a form of monstrosity or horror: the chilling truth at the heart of the darkness may be an unnamed evil or the evil of unnamability itself, the fearful prospect of truth as mere illusion. The stakes are perhaps lower in "Mirror," the curse a mixed blessing of menacing independence and creativity. But the merging dichotomy is present here as well. In these terms, the terrible fish is not only the monstrous autonomy of woman as personally or artistically creative self. It is also the impossibility of all autonomy or self-definition. Defining herself in and as that which cannot be defined, the woman writer comes perilously close to her previous condition of subjectlessness. That is the price of creative autonomy viewed in terms of resistance and dissociation.


Different in several ways from other poems on "monstrous" female autonomy, creativity is not the manifest subject of "Mirror," and the terrible creature is not the acknowledged alter-ego of the speaker. The image, moreover, retains more of its primordial menace as both monster and internal threat than in most of the poems of the genre. There is little apparent nobility or dignity in the terrible fish, and its immediate if not exclusive prey seems to be not man or "the oppressor" but the mirror (or lake) itself and the young woman who is drowned in it. Almost to the very end Plath remained ambivalent, retained her dual identity, and could not celebrate liberation or defiance unperplexed. Unlike Lady Lazarus, Plath's mirror is a cannibal Charybdis who either has not yet identified the enemy or is not prepared to attack it. Finally and most impressively, however, unlike most poems that consciously identify their beast of creative enterprise, "Mirror" generates its emblem of autonomy in the language and processes of a poem that has ostensibly made its peace with mere reflection. The terrible fish is not so much an image in the poem as an image of the poem and its achievement, the self-generated product of its method.


William Freedman, 1993

Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 108, No. 5, October, 1993, pp. 152-69.