A Deconstructive Approach to the "Mirror" by Sylvia Plath

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The two strategies used here in deconstruction of the text are firstly deconstructing the ideology and secondly revealing the undecidability of the text. The first step in ideology deconstruction of a literary text is a New Critical reading of it in order to distinguish the tension of the text through finding its binary oppositions. The next step shall be finding the privileged member of the pair that leads to finding the ideology (or ideologies) of the text. Then this priority of one part against another part of the pair should be deconstructed that results in deconstruction of the text itself. The second strategy that is revelation of the undecidability of the text is through finding an interpretation of the text, discussing how this interpretation conflicts with another understanding of the text and how this results in a new perceptiont. Let’s start with the first strategy.

The following binary oppositions can be found in the «Mirror»: Exact vs. inexact; Having no Preconceptions vs. having preconceptions; Unmisted by judgment vs. misted by judgment; Kind vs. cruel; Truthful vs. untruthful; Godliness vs. earthliness; Honest vs. liar; Faithful vs. unfaithful; Important vs. unimportant.

These binary oppositions reveal a main pair that can be the main theme of the poem as well, that is Truth vs. dishonesty. In the first stanza of the poem that is a monologue by the mirror commenting on its own qualities, most of these binaries reveal themselves. The poem starts with mirror claiming that it is fair, just and free from any preconceptions. It also stresses on its own truthfulness, honesty and faithfulness. All these claims seem to be the privileged members of the pair, since firstly the poem is through the point of view of the mirror, who claims to have all these qualities and we accept as a licensed narrator.

Secondly it seems that in most of the cultures mirror has a positive connotation, symbolizing truth and honesty and the superiority of truth over lie is acknowledged universally; furthermore the assertion of being a God ensures the priority of other qualities of the mirror in the other opposed pairs mentioned above. Consequently it can be said that all the qualities of the mirror are collectively advantaged and supreme, so constitute the privileged ingredients of the binary opposed terms.

Therefore the theme of the poem can be stated as the opposition between truth and dishonesty or reality and negation of reality. To be precise the poem criticizes submission to dishonesty and flattery in opposition to truth and reality. This dominant ideology of the poem can be supported by the evidences we can find when studying the text through the New Critical approach. On the one hand, the mirror that is a licensed narrator for us maintains that it is not affected by any kind of feelings in its reflections: «unmisted by love or dislike» (line 3) and that what it reflects is not through cruelty, it is only through truthfulness. This shows that the mirror is defending its true and unaffected reflections against the woman that appears in the second stanza of the poem, who is under the influence of the liars and is accusing the mirror of being unkind, dishonest and unfaithful.

This can be understood both in literal meaning ( the woman does not like her appearance but the mirror is not cruel in its reflection and is just depicting the reality so it is the woman who is not submitting to reality and faces the flatterers) and connotative meaning (the mirror is the symbol of those who reveal the truth though it might be bitter and dark, and the woman symbolizes those who are not able to accept the reality and accuse such honest people as cruel and rather move towards the liars for comfort). On the other hand, the poem reveals a woman who is not satisfied with the reality she finds in the mirror and «rewards me (the mirror) with tears and an agitation of hands» (line 14). The attitude of the woman shows her inferior qualities in comparison to the mirror’s highness; the mirror is honest and Godly but the woman is affected by the flatterers and shows earthliness. Subsequently the poem reveals the tension existing between Truth and dishonesty which is the main theme of the poem as well.

However there are also some points in the poem that reverse the priority of these privileged items of the binary opposites.

First of all as mentioned earlier the supremacy of truth vs. dishonesty is acknowledged, however in this case the «faithful» revelation of the mirror has a very bad effect on the woman; she continuously feels «agitated» and desperate; She has not the ability to accept the reality as it is, and the revelation of the reality is so tragic to her. As a result there comes up a doubt about the privilegedness of reality over dishonesty. It seems that honesty that is considered a virtue is gaining negative dimensions in the «Mirror»; therefore indeterminacy is aroused: is it better to reveal the truth and cause such disastrous effects on an individual or is it better to distort the reality and conceal it or at least reveal it in a milder way?

It seems that in case the truth (either lack of beauty or reality) was revealed more mildly rather than «faithfully» it would have had better ends; maybe the lady would have been able to recover the truth in a gradual process later on, so could have been able to come along with it.

Furthermore, the candle or the moon accused by the mirror as «liars» in the first stanza are not necessarily liars, because they do not disclose the reality but they rather make it softer and easier to accept for the lady; if this reality is truth, they show it in a way that the is easier for the woman to accept and if this reality is beauty they help her look more beautiful, and consequently give her a better impression but in fact they do not lie her. So it seems the text itself deconstructs the supremacy of truth vs. dishonesty by discovering a new virtue that seems to be prior to the virtue of honesty, that is saving an individual from absolute despair by revealing her a calm version of reality (or even lying as the mirror calls it). In better words the text deconstructs itself through questioning the validity of moral standards in different contexts.

The next step in deconstruction of a text is to reveal the conflicting interpretations existing in the text. One interpretation of the text shall be that of unaffectedness of mirror by any judgments and feelings and merely reflecting everything honestly and faithfully. The mirror claims:

«I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love and dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful-

The eye of a little god, four-cornered.» (my italics) (line 1-5)

The italics in the following excerpt of the poem show what the mirror maintains to be: exact and free from affectedness; as just as a God. However the next stanza of the poem reveals the mirror judging the candle and the moon, and the woman. According to the mirror the candle and the moon are «liars». The mirror assigns them an attribute that has a negative tone. In other words the mirror is criticizing the candle and the moon opposed to itself that is «faithful». The mirror is also criticizing the lady as well due to her facing the liars which again shows, its tone is not free from judgment and is reprimanding the woman. Also by saying that she is searching its «reaches» it is assigning an attribute to itself that does not seem to be free from affectedness.

Furthermore at the end of the poem the mirror calls the woman a «terrible fish» that again has a negative connotation and show the mirror is not solely reflecting the lady but commenting on her. Also the mirror says that the woman «rewards» it with agitation of hands that shows the mirror does not have that Godly attributes it assumes to have; It expects a reward from the lady that it does not acquire, so the mirror can not be as just as «eye of a little God; four cornered» because it does not merely see things and reflect them exactly but it comments on what it sees and also has expectations to be rewarded for its judgments.

These two conflicting interpretations of the text can lead to a new interpretation of it that is, it is not merely the woman who needs the mirror and feels that the mirror is «important to her» (line 15) but it is also the mirror that takes its meaning from the woman. So it can be said none of them is prior to the other one but that they take their meanings through interaction with each other; the woman is dependent upon the judgments of the mirror and the mirror is reliant upon the continuous visits of the lady. These three interpretations reveal how the text is deconstructing itself through continuous introduction of conflicting interpretations of the text, that each leads to other conflicting understandings of the poem.

Another interpretation of the text shall be that of a woman, who from the first stanza of the text we expect to be someone who is deceiving herself. In the first stanza the mirror is all through justifying its «faithful» and unaffected reflection and saying that it is not «cruel» or unjust; this brings the expectation that some one has accused the mirror of being cruel and affected, that in the next stanza is revealed to be the woman; so we come to an understanding that the woman does not want a true reflection of herself (or a true reflection of reality), but she wants something to satisfy herself, as a result is escaping from her reflection towards the candle and the moon. However the text makes a conflicting claim as well, describing the woman as «searching my (mirror’s) reaches for what she really is» (my italics) (lined 11), that confirms the woman wants to know her self as she really is (or she wants to discover the reality as it really is).

This new claim of the text conflicts with the previous understanding of the poem that revealed the woman escaping from reality. Merging these two interpretations again a new interpretation of the poem shall come up: that of the woman entrapped in a dilemma, that of knowing her true self but being unable to confront her own right image and consequently moving towards the candle and the moon as a refuge. In other words she is aware of her real image (or reality) but wants to escape that picture so moves towards the candle and the moon. These nonstop emerging interpretations of the text again shall depict the deconstructive forces of the text itself.

The poem «Mirror» deconstructs its ideology of dominance of truth over dishonesty by questioning the value of honesty itself in the context. Also the supremacy of the mirror over the lady is both confirmed and deconstructed by the poem itself.

These deconstructing forces in the text do not mean that we are not able to make sense of the text or that we shall never be able to interact with it; On the other hand this reveals the fact that we, as readers, as well as the text itself are restricted within the barriers of language and consequently in each new reading of the text might come up with new answers that might be in contrast with the previous readings of the same text.



Farzaneh Bolourieh

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