I don’t know about you, but I can’t walk by a mirror I don’t at least glance at.
Does looking at our reflection make us superficial, narcissistic or self-centered? What does make us is pretty ordinary, because most people do it, consciously or unconsciously. We all care a little about the reflection in the mirror, and we should, as we live in a society that greatly values what’s visual. And this very human concern is found all over literature.
The figure of the mirror persists throughout history and moves across genres. It has come to represent many aspects of our human consciousness, like the uncanny, where superstitions lie and regenerate. In this post I want to explore some ways in which we “look” in the mirror to find familiar and every day beliefs and social constructs; as object, archetype and tool.
1. The Mirror as an Object
As an object the main function of a mirror is to reflect light in a way that preserves many or most of the details or the physical characteristics of the original source of light.
Mirrors are key elements inside scientific equipment such as telescopes, microscopes, cameras and lasers. The type of mirror we are most familiar with, however, is the one for personal use, the looking-glass. Once people began to give greater use and more attention to mirrors, and stated placing them all around them, as a sort of extension to their reality, mirrors acquire new otherworldly qualities, which writers exploit as literary devices in their poems, prose and plays.
The mirror as a literary device becomes a symbol that stands for something else. The mirror as a symbol, used to represent aspects of our collective consciousness, has acquired the level of archetype.
Another definitions of archetype is “an original that has been imitated”. A fitting definition for the mirror as well. The conflict of many literary works centers on the idea of the mirror as the “other”.
Is the light reflected in the mirror truly you? Who is this metaphorical twin? A twisted version of ourselves perhaps. Someone that looks like you, but has no physical consistency, no soul, just the qualities of truth that can be reflected; the façade, not the self.
3. The Mirror as a Social Tool
The figure of the mirror exposes some very deep rooted social anxieties. Many superstitions revolve around mirrors. This superstitions reveal a lot about our human nature, our collective fears and the way those fears can be used to manipulate and control our social behavior.
  • Broken mirror: Broken soul, broken health and misfortune.
  • Smoking Mirrors: Metaphor for a deceptive, fraudulent and insubstantial explanation or description.
  • Conjuring Mirror (Bloody Mary): Mirror as a communication device or a portal.
  • Magic Mirrors: Mirrors that can transform yourself or show you what you wish to see.
  • Vampires and Mirrors: as they have no soul they have no reflection. (Dracula: “Jonathan Harker could see the man close to him but there was no reflection of him in the mirror”)
  • Death and Mirrors: Many religious people cover their mirrors when someone dies.
  • Vanity and Mirrors: Self-consciousness/ Superficiality.  People go to great lengths in an effort to always appear in a way that’s consistent with what they think others expect to see. Preoccupation with what others see when they look at us.

Literary characters that have faced the mirror

  • Narcissus looked at his reflection in the water and became enamored by it.
  • Snow White’s Evil Queen expects the mirror to tell her that she is the fairest. In the Brother Grimm version, the Queen actually summons a demon to track and kill Snow White.
  • Alice’s second adventure in wonderland, she gets there through a looking-glass. The mirror becomes a portal within our reach, the entrance to a parallel existence or parallel dimension.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray becomes a “mirror” that reflects the way the protagonist looks. Also, he uses a mirror to compare his youthful face to the aging image on the canvas and realizes he has become a monster, smashing the mirror to pieces (broken soul).
  • In Beauty and the Beast, Beast has a mirror that shows him whatever he wishes, he gives this mirror to Belle, that way she may see him wherever she is.
  • In a very similar, yet even more tragic way, “The lady of Shallot”, by Lord Tennyson, can only look at the real world through her mirror, if she does look, she dies, and so it happens when she sees the reflection of Sir Lancelot and falls in love with him.
  • Shakespeare’s Richard II shatters a glass mirror, dramatizing how his growing self-awareness has created a dis-junction between his image and the self.
There are many other instances in literature in which mirrors appear. In all of them mirrors seem to possess magical powers, allowing us to look beyond what is, open hidden portals and reveal something that otherwise would not be seen, known or imagined.
Why should we have a person in our lives to play the mirror’s role? A mirror-friend becomes our counterpart, there to offer another side to our story and may be show us that which we don’t want to see, but must face in order to learn, grow and change.
Quote published in FB by Collective Evolution, which originally inspired this post: “Many people would be scared if they saw in their mirror not their faces, but their characters.”
#foodforthought: Check out Leonardo da Vinci’s Mirror Writing.
Have you ever thought of other ways to “look” in the mirror?
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