Mirror by Sylvia Plath Analysis

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

Sylvia Plath's 'Mirror' is an interesting poem told from the point of view of the mirror. The mirror watches a woman's youth pass her by, and it appears that the woman gauges her worth on what she sees there. Despite her attempts to deceive the mirror -- and herself -- it reflects an honest view of reality.

Point of View

Reading poetry can be difficult. Sometimes the meaning is embedded in metaphor or allegory. Other times the rhythm or rhyme scheme serves as a key to discovering the meaning of the poem. In the case of Sylvia Plath's ''Mirror,'' neither of these methods is strictly necessary; it is written in a free verse style, and its meaning is not terribly obtuse. First and foremost, the reader must recognize that this poem is being told from the perspective of the mirror. With this key, its meaning becomes clear.

The beginning line tells the reader exactly what they need to know. Plath begins the poem with ''I am silver and exact.'' Right away it is apparent that the poem is told from the perspective of an object. The next line attempts to refute this claim, as it states that ''Whatever I see I swallow immediately.'' By using the verb ''swallow,'' Plath animates the mirror. Perhaps there is more to the reading of this poem than merely learning what the mirror sees.


The mirror exhibits a complete absence of emotion. It states that it is impartial to all that it sees, and when people look in the mirror, the reflection it gives back is ''not cruel, only truthful.'' It reflects back exactly what it sees. It does not hold any sort of personal animosity in what it reflects back. Interestingly, though, the mirror then indicates that it is ''The eye of a little god.'' This gives the impression that perhaps it is omniscient.

The mirror sees everything, but quite often there is little to see. During these quiet times, it ''meditates on the opposite wall.'' A change begins to take place as color enters the poem. The mirror notes how the wall ''is pink with speckles.'' The choice of the color pink is important, as it is usually a color associated with women. Plath is setting the stage for the second part of the poem. The mirror establishes that it tells the truth by reflecting exactly what it sees, with no intent to harm. So what happens when someone looks in the mirror?

Sylvia Plath


The mirror now indicates that it is a ''lake. A woman bends over me.'' Plath references the scene from Greek mythology when the beautiful Narcissus looks at his own reflection in the water. Plath continues with this imagery as the mirror describes how the woman searches ''my reaches for what she really is.'' Instead of falling in love with what she sees, Plath's female character searches for something. She is trying to discover who she is.

To a degree this applies to Plath as well. As she composes ''Mirror'' in 1961 she is barely 30 years old, and based on what we know of her life, she has recently had a baby, is in an unhappy marriage, and is suffering with severe depression. Perhaps just as the woman looks in the mirror and sees more than a reflection but a definition of who she is, Plath could be struggling with her identity. Returning to the mirror in the poem, it mentions that the woman ''turns to those liars, the candles or the moon,'' which give off insufficient light to reveal all, letting shadows to fall across her image and hiding any blemishes she may have. In so doing, they also prevent the woman from discovering her real self. As it boasted earlier in the poem, the mirror reveals only truth.

Passage of Time

What the woman sees in the mirror is who she really is. What the mirror observes is how the woman ''rewards (it) with tears and an agitation of hands.'' If the woman believes that her image defines who she is, and the reflection does not match her ideal, the tears and agitation are the result of falling short of this ideal. She cannot be who she wants. There is another way of looking at this as well: The mirror tells the reader that the passage of time has affected the woman's appearance.

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