Sylvia Plath’s poem is heart-rending to anyone who’s ever struggled with self-image, literally disliking what they see in the mirror in front of them or with their perception of themselves. When she calls the mirror a “little god”, she’s absolutely right in the petty yet all-consuming obsession that can result from putting too much faith in your perception of the reflection rather than trying to see the ‘truth’ – whatever that might be. It can be destroying, looking at your reflection and seeing what you think is less than what it should be, whether you struggle with body consciousness, weight, not being able to get your hair right, or whatever – it’s never as trivial as it sounds to someone else, and can be horrifyingly oppressive.
Plath’s mirror claims to reflect “faithfully” while the woman herself reaches for “candles or the moon”, trying to change her reflection and dim what she sees – but I think there’s enough language at the beginning – “swallow”, the protestations it’s “not cruel” – to suggest that she’s aware at least in part that what she sees is not necessarily truthful after all. The woman returns over and over, watching her young self “drown” not just in age, but in dislike of herself too.
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
What ever you see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful—
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.