Terrible Fish: Women and Mirrors in Literature

Women have a special relationship with their reflections. There’s a sort of morbid love there. We hate our reflections, they disgust us, they repulse us, and they stalk us in our most unassuming moments, but we search them out whenever given the opportunity. I, personally, am unable to pass a dark store window without looking at myself, even though I am consistently disappointed with what I see. 

And thus is the problem. My reflection is me, so I cannot hate her, but she is a skimmed self. It’s strange—to see a person who looks like you everywhere you go, but who never has anything to say. I can’t escape my reflection, but I will always look for her. I am repulsed by her, but she fascinates me. There’s a broken type of love for reflections, then, that grows out of deepest hate.

Is it any wonder that mirrors appear again and again in literature about women? They are a potent image whichever way they turn and twist and distort (and they often do).

One of the oldest and most famous mirrors in literature is the mirror in the Grimm fairy tale, Snow White. It is a story by men, which is why it is no surprise that we are introduced to our villain, the Queen, as she stands in front of a mirror. This is meant to characterize her as conceit and witch-like madness. The problem is, the Queen is not conceited. What securely conceited person has to check again and again to see if they’re worthy? The Queen is insecure. She depends on the mirror for her entire sense of self. In the essential The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar write that the Queen is trapped within “that inward search that psychoanalysts… censoriously define as narcissism”, but that her introspection “is necessitated by a state from which all outward prospects have been removed.” The Queen is an isolated wife, which rarely works out in literature, constantly overshadowed by her evermore dutiful and girlish step daughter. She wants, like all of us want, to be beautiful, but her self image is thwarted again and again by the voice in the mirror that tells her she is not beautiful enough. 

Similarly isolated is the titular figure of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott. The Lady of Shalott is trapped in a tower on the Isle of Shalott by a curse that promises doom if she looks upon the neighboring Camelot. So, with a Perseus-like ingenuity, the Lady of Shalott uses a mirror to watch the comings and goings of Camelot: children playing, workers going home, wedding processions, and handsome knights. Unlike the Queen, the Lady’s mirror ruminations are less introspective and more of a way for her to vicariously experience life outside of her home. Her mirror seems initially as though it is liberating, allowing her to see things she may not look at. However, she isn’t really free. She is seeing a reflection of a scene that she wouldn’t be involved in even if she could see it. She is seeing a shadow of a smoke screen of a mirror of a glimpse of life, and as she says herself, she is “half sick of shadows”. When she turns to see Sir Lancelot singing as he walks home past her island, the mirror cracks and she dies only shortly after. The final ironic blow to this woman who used her mirror only to see others? When Lancelot finds her body he says, gently appraising, “She has a lovely face/God in His mercy lend her grace/The Lady of Shalott”. Outside at last, the final judgement of the Lady of Shalott is not a holy judgement, but a male one. Even when a woman doesn’t judge herself, there’ll always be a man to obligingly do it for her.

She is seeing a shadow of a smoke screen of a mirror of a glimpse of life

But what happens in the opposite situation, when men use the feminine mirror to look at something they shouldn’t? Not death, I’ll fucking tell you!

Medusa, that serpentine scamp of Greek mythology, lives within a reversal of the tale. Medusa takes Lancelot’s place as someone that cannot be looked at, because she is cursed to turn onlookers to stone. Perseus wields the “mirror” (a reflective shield) in order to see her and kill her. Women, unfortunately, seem to die on either side of the mirror.

The tale of Medusa is especially important when we consider her backstory. Ovid writes that Medusa was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, and that Athena cursed her as a punishment. Popular feminist interpretation says that this is a mischaracterization—Athena cursed Medusa in order to protect her from the male gaze, not to punish her. There are those who get up in arms about this interpretation, but the beautiful thing about myths is that they there’s no original text to prove the interpretation wrong. So, accepting this interpretation, the mirror becomes doubly significant. Medusa, a free and protected woman, is defeated by a man with a mirror.

Women, unfortunately, seem to die on either side of the mirror

Death by mirror is a surprisingly common way to go for women in literature (although usually in a more figurative manner). Emma Bovary, of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, dies literally of self inflicted arsenic poisoning. Many would say that she dies figuratively of moral corruption. I say that she dies as she lived: before her mirror. Emma captures the fatal fascination of mirrors when on her deathbed she requests first her child, then a priest, and then a looking glass, over which she cries “until big tears [fall] from her eyes”. Looking in the mirror hurts her. She is seeing a dying woman who has fallen into debt and is regarded by her former lovers as no better than a prostitute. She is fallen so deep into depression and self repulsion that she has poisoned herself, and still she looks. She cries, and she still looks.

Mirrors figure into Madame Bovary only now and then, but they form Virginia Woolf’s short story The Lady in the Looking Glass. The vignette describes a house and its occupant, Isabella Tyson, from the perspective of the hall mirror. The lament here is that a mirror can only see, that it cannot know who Isabella Tyson is, or what she will read in the letters on the hall table, or what she will think about them. In its absolute honesty, the mirror is almost a distortion. When the narrator lets loose a thunderbolt of narrative inspection at the end, we are struck by the mirror’s power. We knew that Isabella wore a thin summer dress, but when the narrator allows us for a moment to enter into her head we know that she has “no friends”, “no thoughts”, and no care for anybody else. Pure image leads to understandings with no basis outside the mirror, and as the narrator reveals at the end of the sketch, sometimes the letters on the hall table are just bills.

In its absolute honesty, the mirror is almost a distortion

Probably Sylvia Plath’s poem Mirror best encapsulates the feminine relationship with mirrors. It’s a poem that moves and falls as you read it, from “silver and exact” to a lake that’s dark and full of “terrible fish”. In-between all this poetry though, the most important line (spoken from the mirror’s perspective) must be “I am important to her”. In narcissism and self-hatred, in life and in death, in beauty and despair, mirrors are important to “her”, as they are to me, and as they maybe are to you. They are some of the most giddily important things out there. That’s all that we can know, and it’s all that writers can hope to represent back to us: mirrors are important, and doubly so are what they reflect.