Sylvia Plath’s biography provides several important clues as to the meaning of this poem. As a teenager she seemed perfect in every way, blonde, beautiful, intelligent and talented. After attending Smith College she studied at Cambridge, married the poet Ted Hughes and returned to the United States to teach at Smith. When she became pregnant they returned to the United Kingdom where, after a miscarriage, she had two children. She committed suicide at age 31 after several earlier attempts, as well as going through electroconvulsive therapy at a mental institution. This poem, written in 1961, confirms the judgment of critics who have called her work narcissistic but perhaps that is too glib. The meaning of the poem depends on how the “terrible fish” is interpreted.
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The mirror narrates the poem. It is silver, exact, and cannot help but reflect only that which it sees. It has no preconceptions nor is it capable of compromise, yet the mirror protests it is not cruel, only truthful. Its truth, however, is that of the surface, the external. Whether the mirror reflects a wall or a person is a matter of indifference. In that sense it is indeed a little god, a being from another dimension to whom people are no more important than things. It is inconstancy that troubles the mirror’s polished face, the periods of darkness and the coming and going of shadowy figures.
In the second stanza the mirror undergoes a transformation. It has become a lake, it has gained depth and the possibility of ambiguity. How this happened the mirror cannot say. Perhaps its function is governed by the woman’s perception, and the fact that she stares deeply into the mirror may have given the mirror the sense that it is suddenly deep, mysterious and meaningful. When the truth becomes too cruel she turns to “those liars, the candles and the moon,” the instruments of romance whose shading and softening of the harsh light might delude the observer into believing that she is loved once again. The mirror simply reflects the fact that she has turned her back on the truth. She returns to the mirror, crying and the tears are reflected by that silver surface. There is an “agitation of hands,” perhaps as she wipes away the tears or clutches at her face in despair. The mirror regards this at its reward for providing the woman with the truth she seeks but it is the depth of the woman’s eyes and the tears that gives the mirror that extra dimension every morning when her face replaces the darkness and she gazes deeply into her own reflected eyes to find the truth of her existence.
The poem ends with the lines, “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.” These lines have been interpreted to mean that the observer has aged and is in despair over her lost youth. William Freedman sees a passive “male-inscribed woman” gazing into the mirror and the terrible fish as its dark opposite, the “devouring monster” all men fear. It is also possible that the terrible fish is not her aged self nor the virago in her but a fish of the kind that swallowed Jonah and kept him confined in utter darkness for three days and nights.
A mirror understands nothing and can only reflect the woman’s exterior. Our true mirrors are family, friends and lovers whose eyes and voices tell us who we are. Plath’s father died when she was eight, thereby depriving her of vital knowledge about herself, an essential part of growing and maturing. She has raged against his death and against the way he cheated her out of that particular legacy in several of her poems, and in this poem her attempt to find a substitute meets with failure. It is easy to imagine Plath in her suburban home in London, far from friends, family and roots, torn between the conflicting roles of mother and poet , either separated from her husband or about to be, finally giving in to loneliness. In this poem, written two years before she committed suicide, she depicts the struggle between herself and the terrible fish of madness lurking deep within the lake of her subconscious, or as Dianne Hunter puts it, the fish is “an internalized counterpart of the watching consciousness under the dark pond” (2). It is the struggle of the young woman against the madwoman inside her and each day that the young woman grows weaker the fish comes closer until it swallows her whole.
Anonymous. “Sylvia Plath.” Wikipedia.
Freedman, William. “The Monster in Plath’s ‘Mirror’”. Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 108, No. 5, 1993, pp. 152-69. Web.
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Hunter, Dianne. “Hughes’s ‘Pike,’ Plath’s ‘Mirror’.” Web.