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Significance of Mirrors in the Bell Jar

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Isabella Katzman
09/08/15

Significance of mirrors in The Bell Jar

Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and not recognized yourself? It could have been after a horrific event, or just a change in your state of mind. In Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, Esther feels like that every time she looks in the mirror. The recurring theme of mirrors and reflections symbolizes the progression of Esther’s depression.

        As Esther’s depression consumes her, she looses the ability to see her original and pure self. For example, as Esther is headed home after a long night of drinking and watching Doreen and Lenny hit it off, Plath writes, “I slid into the self-service elevator and pushed the button for my floor […] and I noticed a smudgy eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face” (Plath 2.19). The visual image of “smudgy eyed Chinese woman” reveals that Esther no longer recognizes herself. Furthermore, the visual image of “staring idiotically” shows that Esther is almost dumbfounded and confused. She stares at herself trying to recognize herself, yet all she sees is the Chinese women. In addition, the reference to “Chinese woman” reveals that Esther feels inferior to those surrounding her as Chinese women and women in general felt during the 1950’s. Moreover, on Esther’s train ride home, Plath writes, “The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian” (Plath 10.125). Here, Plath uses the word “the” instead of “my” to represent that Esther feels as if her face does not belong to her. In addition, the simile, “looked like a sick Indian” reveals that she looks ill and out of place, because a classic Indian would not be riding a train from one big city to another.

        Over time, Esther’s reflection in the mirror becomes more negative and more corrupted. For instance, after Esther’s realizes she doesn’t know what she wants to be in life and cries out her pain, Plath writes, “I fumbled in my pocketbook for […] the side mirror. The face that peered back at me seemed to be peering from the grating of a prison cell after a prolonged beating”(Plath 9.113-114). The use of the words “the face” reveals that Esther cannot recognize her own face anymore. The negative connotation and visual image of the word “beating” reveals that Esther feels as if her face is distorted along with her mental state of mind. Furthermore, when Esther tries to slit her wrists as a form of suicide, it is written, “If I look in the mirror while I did it, it would be like watching somebody else, in a book or a play. But the person in the mirror was paralyzed and too stupid to do a thing” (Plath 12.165-166). Once again, Plath says “the person” because Esther now feels so disconnected from her body and she doesn’t recognize that it’s her body and her harmful actions. The recurring image of the mirror represents the progress of her state of mind, as it becomes more chaotic and unattached to her best interests. In addition, the visual and tactile image of the word “paralyzed” reveals that Esther believes that she is not good enough or even capable of killing her self. This reflects on the deterioration of her self-worth throughout the progression of her depression.

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