This poem by Sylvia Plath symbolizes the troubled self of the woman, who has had to reject the given masks imposed on her by the patriarchal society and see herself as an individual.
The first stanza talks from the viewpoint of a personified mirror. Words such as swallow, meditate, and phrases such as part of my heart show human attributes used to describe the mirror.
The first stanza, the mirror has shown that it is undoubtedly a trustworthy source of information with the help of words that convey the absolute such as ‘exact’, ‘unmisted’, ‘truthful’, ‘god’, and the phrase ‘no preconceptions’. When Plath says that the mirror has no preconceptions it means that it is free from bias and it reflects back an image objectively. The mirror doesn’t have emotion, love, like or dislike. It gives a reflection of an object as is it really is, i.e., without any alterations. Hence it is described as being ‘unmisted’. This has been stated in the line Whatever I see I swallow immediately as well where the mirror is said to take in everything it confronts without making judgments that might blur, mist or distort. It tries to convey that it is in favour of the hard reality of life, i.e. the truth. Further, while it does not offer moral judgment, it is able to observe and understand its owner (the woman) as she grapples with the reality of aging.
Line five of the first stanza calls the mirror “The eye of a little god, four-cornered”. This is a metonymy which shows that the mirror is given God-like powers over the women. It becomes almost an obsessive relationship between the mirror and the women because she looks to the mirror for comfort only to confronted with the truth about your youth wasting away. The reference to four corners being suggestive of the four points of a compass or the four corners of the world: everyone experiences the youthful drowning that the woman in the poem experiences day after day. like God it watches you unbiased and fair from all the four angles.
The inanimate object of the mirror is portrayed in a sinister way. Whatever it sees, it swallows. It engulfs. Inanimate though it is, Sylvia still gives it powers: ‘I meditate’. She gives it a heart. The rather chilling description of a four-cornered eye further unsettles us; Sylvia tells us this is the shape of the eye of a little god. So the mirror has power and control, but it also has feelings. It misses the pink speckled wall whenever darkness falls or a face comes near: these things ‘separate us’ – ‘us’ being the mirror and the wall upon which it meditates.
In the second stanza the mirror is compared to lake. There is similarity between a mirror and water. Because both can reflect the object as it is. A woman looks into it, trying to discern who she really is by gazing at her reflection. The woman’s action of bending over the lake has a reference to the Greek mythological story of Narcissus. Narcissus was a hunter who bent over a lake only to see his own reflection with whom he fell in love with. In the poem, although the woman bends over the lake in the manner of Narcissus, the woman does not fall in love with her own image as he did; rather, she is filled with self-loathing at what she sees.
In the depths of the pool the woman searches for the reality of her appearance. She is unable to come to terms with her ageing appearance and keeps searching for a perfect, beautiful face. She also searches for her true identity and tries to find out what she really is. But she is not able to accept the reality and turns her back to the mirror to face candles and the moon whom the mirror refers to as liars.
Candles signify romantic love and the moon represents promises, romance, dreaming of one’s love, which can be a lie when the love you’re dreaming of is inappropriate for you or not loving you in return. They also signify the softening of one’s aging appearance in the soft light, rather than seeing the truth of aging in a brighter, truer light.
The mirror represents the male view of a woman and what is socially expected of her: possessing an idealized beauty and ever-lasting youth. As the persona ages over the years, the mirror cruelly reflects the changes in her appearance. Age becomes the persona’s defect and shortcoming and thus her source of anxiety and dismay. The mirror projects what is thought of the woman as she grows older. It claims to reflect the truth, and by implication, the representation of the patriarchal perception of a woman’s existence, her worth only as a beautiful object, and her worthlessness when she is no longer young and beautiful. Against the male’s definition of womanhood, which idealizes beauty and youth, the persona looks inside to discover the true self, what she was as a person and what she has become, maturing by age. The woman’s autonomous identity and perception of self are, therefore, in conflict with the stereotype of the dominant male society. The tension increases as the persona is perplexed by this identity crisis. If she chooses her inner self and her own independent definition of identity, when looking in the mirror, she no longer sees the beautiful girl, but the terrible fish.