Reflecting on Mirrors
by Lizbeth kinney

April 29th, 2001

Title: What's in the Mirror? The Use of Mirrors as Story Motifs.

Project Description: This project examines how mirrors are used to help tell a story. There are a variety of fairy tales and movie clips that are used to demonstrate how mirrors are used to help convey meaning in a story. A brief history of mirrors and the superstitions that surround mirrors begins this project. Next, this topic is looked at by three forms of analysis. Each story or movie falls into one of these three forms of analysis; analysis by theme, analysis of archetype and symbolism.

Purpose of Project: To learn about what mirrors represent in stories and how a reader/viewer can better understand a story by knowing how mirrors are used to convey meaning.

Locating Items: I used the Index to Fairytales to obtain the fairytales. I used the UNT library to obtain most of the stories and the public library. The movies where selected from viewing and recalling the use of mirrors in certain movies. The Grand Prairie library provided me with a large selection of movies to review and choose from.

Bibliographic Citations and Synopsis:

Finger, Charles (1924). The Wonderful Mirror. From: Tales from Silver Lands. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

Story Synopsis: A king and his only unmarried daughter live happily in their castle and garden. The king remarries and soon grows sicker and sicker with each passing day. The daughter is treated badly by her stepmother, but only when the king is not around. A young peasant man finds a mirror that shows the true character of a person. He decides to go to the castle and discover what evil curse has caused the king to become so ill. He sees the queen's reflection in the mirror and discovers that she is an ugly, evil two-headed toad that has set a death curse on the king. The young man and the princess work together to discover where the evil creature lives, kills it and the king is well again.

Andersen, H.C. (1989). The Snow Queen. From: Andersen's Fairy Tales. New York: Grosset&Dulap Publishers.

Story Synopsis: A wicked hobgoblin made a mirror that showed everything as ugly and distorted. The mirror was broken and shattered in many tiny pieces. These pieces got into the hearts of people all over the land and made them do mean acts toward one another. A little boy named Kay and a Girl named Gerda are childhood friends. The little boy disappears one day and Gerda spends all of her time looking for him. She finds him at the Snow Queen's palace. Gerda saves Kay from the Snow Queen and all is well.

Low, Alice. (1985). Medusa. From: The Macmillan Book of Greek Gods and Heroes. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company

Story Synopsis: Perseus goes to kill the Gorgon, Medusa. Athena gives him a dazzling shield of brass (to be used as a mirror). Perseus is able to slay Medusa because he does not look directly into the eyes of the Gorgon but uses the shield to protect him from looking into her eyes.

Pugh, Ellen. (1968). Evan's Problem. From: Tales from the Welsh Hills. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.

Story Synopsis: Evan the farmer, his wife did not cook proper meals for him. He grew thinner and thinner and in order to get food he started to hang out with the some traveling gypsies in the area. Before they left town they gave him a mirror. When he looked in the reflective glass he thought he saw his father and believed the shinny glass was magic. He took it home and went to hide it from his wife out of fear that she would be angry at seeing a portrait of his father, because those two never got along. She catches him hiding it, and when he leaves the house pulls it out. She sees herself and thinks it is a protrait her husband has had painted of her. She decides that she must treat her husband better and starts to cook for him every evening and all is well.

Grimm, the Brothers. (1989). Snow White and the Seven Drawfs From: Grimms' Fairy Tales. New York: Gorsse t& Dunlap Publishers

Story Synopsis: This story is about a young girl who sent out into the woods by her jealous stepmother to be killed. The stepmother is envious because her mirror tells her that Snow White is more beautiful than she is. The girl escapes her intended death sentence and lives with seven dwarfs in the woods. The stepmother searches for Snow White and attempts to kill her three times. On the third attempt, Snow White is cast into a coma. The dwarfs place her in a glass coffin and set her on the mountaintop. A young prince comes and falls in love with her beauty and persuades the dwarfs to let him have her. As Snow White is being moved off the mountain, the movers stumble and this makes Snow White coughs up the poison apple piece that is stuck in her throat. She recovers and goes to live with the prince. The evil stepmother ends up having to dance to her death while her feet are in red-hot iron shoes.

Andersen, H.C. (1989). The Emperor's New Clothes. From: Andersen's Fairy Tales. New York: Grosset&Dulap Publishers.

An emperor who was very fond of clothing spent all the kingdom's money on his wardrobe. Two swindlers come to town and tell the king they can weave him clothing that will show the king whom are unfit to hold posts in the kingdom. The king likes this idea to see who is not worthy and hires the swindlers to make him new clothing. The men pretend to be sewing and creating clothing, but they really were not creating anything. The king puts on the clothing, so he really is not wearing anything, but no one will tell him, because they fear there most be something wrong with them because they cannot see the clothing. The king can't either, but doesn't want to admit it, therefore admitting he would not be worthy of his post. A child in the audience finally speaks the truth and declares the king is not wearing any clothing.

Hampton, Christopher. (1989). Dangerous Liaisons. Warner Home Video Inc.

Two rich bored socialites in the 18th century play a game of lying, cheating, and betrayal. Glenn Close's character and Valmont make a bet with each other. The bet is that when Valmont is able to get a certain virtuous married woman to sleep with him and has proof of it in writing she will sleep with him. Valmont also helps her get revenge on an old lover of hers by sleeping with her virgin wife to be. The game turns against the two main characters and they end up at war with one another. One dies and the other is socially ruined after being discovered that she was using all of the people around her.

(1994). The Piano. A Jane Chapman Production. Miramax films.

Ada, a mute woman arrives in New Zealand to be married to her arranged husband. She brings her piano and daughter with her. Her husband will not bring her piano in land for her, but a neighbor man will. She is able to earn her piano back key by key from him, by allowing him to touch her and hold her. Ada finally must choose if she loves the neighbor man or not. She (her will) decides that she does love him and eventually they are able to leave the island and go start their life together elsewhere.

La Motta, Jake. (1980). Raging Bull. A Robert Chartoff-Irwin Winkler production. MGM company.

A young boxer from the Bronx, Jake la Motta is consumed with his anger in and out of the boxing ring. He marries his 15-year-old love that he is obsessed with. His brother manages his career until he grows so suspicious of everyone in regards of his wife cheating on him he beats his brother up and quickly goes down hill from there. He ends up all alone, a man defeated by his own anger and jealously.

Weir, Peter. (1998) The Truman Show. A Paramount picture.

A young man is raised from birth under the eyes of production cameras. His whole life is a television show that the whole nation watches. He is the only one that does not know his life is staged. At some point he starts to question his life and little by little discovers that he is not living in the real world. He is able to walk out of the studio world and start his life on his own.

Story Analysis:


Mirrors as magic.

Mirrors often are a symbol of self-discovery, self-knowledge, contemplation, and reflection. The earliest mirrors where that of mans reflection in the water. It was thought that in the surface of the water he could see the surface of his soul reflected. The mirror is often related to twin symbolism, that of the logical and psychological progression. (Stevens, 1999) The symbolism of a mirror is often used as "know thyself". In fairy tales, mirrors can be magical and have the same capacity as the human psyche to store up remembrance of things past.
All of the fairytales that I reviewed have magical mirror or perceived magical ability in them. Each of these stories uses the mirror as the cause of their good fortune or misfortune. In Evan's Problem, the mirror is the catalyst for improving his life. After Evan is given a mirror by the gypsies, his life improves. First he believes the shinny glass is magical because he sees his father's imagine in it. Really what he is looking at his own face, but does not figure this out. Believing that the object is magical and very precious because it allows him to see his father's face again, brings him much joy. Upon taking it back to his home, where his wife discovers it, she also does not realize that what she sees in the reflection is herself at that very moment, but believes it is a portrait her husband had painted of her. She is so touched that she has such a loving husband that she changes her ways and starts to cook for him and stay home more to care for him.
Neither character in this story recognizes the true reality of the mirror. There are no magical powers imbedded in this mirror, but it is only thought to be magical by the characters. The result of the mirror being in the character's life brings a positive outcome to the story. What I found interesting about this story is how the characters really were just seeing what they wanted to see in the mirror. That they came up with their own explanation for what they were seeing. The man and his wife both liked what they saw in the mirror and made them feel loved. The man reflecting upon his dead father and his wife on herself as a loved wife.
The story of Medusa also uses a mirror for good. The shinny copper shield given to Persues by Athena is believed to be magical. Persues believes it to be magical because it will protect him from the Gorgan, but there are no magical powers in the shield at all, just the belief that it is. The mere function of how a mirror works, by reflecting an image, is thought to be magical in this story. This ability seems to awe man and we must find it somewhat unbelievable because this ability is often written about as being magical in fairytales.
The other fairytale used in this collection that show mirrors as motifs that do-good work for the people involved is in The Wonderful Mirror. In this story the mirror does have magical powers. The mirror is able to reflect the real character of a person. When a person looks into the mirror what is reflected back to the hero of the story are the good or bad qualities of that person. This way the hero is able to truly know who is on his side or is an enemy. This magical mirror routes out the evil in the king's house and saves the king from death. The mirror also is the cause of the young hero's good fortune to marry the princess and live happily in the castle with them forever.
It seems that mirrors bring out the idea that we can see what is true. That they allow man to go beyond just the physical reflection of a person, but that it will show us that person's soul. This is a common belief about mirrors in history that they reflect or can capture a persons soul. Therefore, the way the mirror is used in this story plays on this idea. That the mirror actually does display the characters true soul and nature. People's bad nature can be discovered and in the end goodness will win. The use of mirrors to detect evil beings is also used in other stories such as Dracula. Vampires are not able to see their reflection because they have no soul. Here again mirrors are looked as having the ability to reflect the soul.
The only fairytale in this collection that uses mirrors that perform evil deeds is that in the Snow Queen. The mirror is created by a demon to do bad things in the world. The mirror makes people see reality in a distorted manner and makes the hearts of the people grow callous. The fact that mirrors deal with vision and that human vision can be distorted is the bases of this story. What is behind the idea of the mirror distorting people view of others actions, is really a statement of our psychological ability of perception. Humans all perceive the world differently. One person may view an action as mean and selfish and a different person may view the very same action as kind and normal. The mirror in this story actually is casting a pretreated perception of the world on to the characters. Any of the people that would get a piece of the broken mirror in their eyes could only see others as mean and selfish people. The village people in this story that were infected by the broken mirror, were people not evil or mean, but they could only see everyone as being mean, therefore they themselves became mean and callous.

Analysis of Archetype: Evil and vain characters tend to use mirrors to delude themselves.

The story of Snow White fits into two of my analysis's of mirrors. The evil stepmother in this story uses a mirror (looking glass) to tell her who is the fairest in the land. The mirror posses magical power of seeing far beyond its own reflection of what is in front of it. I have chosen this story as one of my resources to show that mirrors are often used by evil or vain characters to give them what they want or see or what they believe of themselves. The stepmother in Snow White uses her mirror to reveal the truth of who in the whole land is most beautiful. She expects the answer to be her, because it had always been. The use of mirrors in this story and The Emperor's New Clothing initially help to fuel the fire of the character's vanity. The interesting part to both of these stories is that the characters all go to the mirror to seek the truth, but they don't really want the real truth, but rather the truth they have created for themselves. The step-mother believes and wants to believe that she is the most beautiful in the land, the mirror tells her this is not the reality and therefore she goes about changing that realty to make herself the most beautiful in the land. The King in The Emperor's New Clothing also wants everyone to see him, as the best looking person around and is willing to lie to himself to believe it. The movie clip used from Dangerous Liaisons also shows the cruel main character gazing into the mirror in self-adoration. What she sees is a powerful and beautiful woman. At the end of the story we see the true reality of her character and it is not one of power or beauty.
In each one of these stories mirrors are used as a tool for self-description by the characters. They all want to believe they are something more than they really are. The mirror only speaks the truth and in doing so displays the truth of these people's souls. These characters are all vain and selfish. Each one of them also pays for their vanity and selfishness at the end of each story. I think that the message that lies behind the use of mirrors in these stories comes back to the belief the mirrors can see into the soul. The struggle between human perception and truth is the bases of these stories. People can delude themselves into seeing what they want in their own reflection, but in the end the truth of a person will override any self-inflated image we may hold of ourselves.

Analysis by Theme: Character's Self-discovery

In the Truman Show the main character is searching to discover whom he really is. The part in each the movie where the character is staring into a mirror speaks volumes as to the human need to know who we are. Somehow the effect of looking at our own imagine seems to make man feel like we can know ourselves. The longer and harder we stare into our own image, we just may hope to see what we are all about. This story demonstrates this need perfectly. Again I think back on to the belief that the mirror reflects the human soul. Gazing at oneself in a mirror can very much be just that very action of seeking our own souls.
In the movie Raging Bull, the main character is speaking to himself while looking in the mirror at the end of the film. At this point he is reflecting on his life and directing his conversation towards his brother. He is blaming his brother for all the wrong mistakes he made that ended him where is at the moment. Here again the mirror is used for self-reflection on who we are and what we may wish to be. Also, this character is using the mirror as a companion to speak to. In The Piano, the character is also gazing into the a mirror at one point, at first it appears she is simply reflecting on herself, but then she kisses the mirror and it is as if she is using the mirror to conjure up the image of her lover.


The process of researching the materials for this project was fairly simple once I was pointed in the right direction. If I had not been tipped off to the use of the Fairytale Index I would have had a much harder time locating the lesser known fairytales that use mirrors. As for finding the movies that used mirrors in them I simply used my memory. I remembered certain scenes that used mirrors. The use of mirrors has always intrigued me.
I enjoyed learning more about why and how mirrors are used to tell a story. I have always been interested in just why people are so drawn to mirrors and when we look at ourselves how we tend to think that our physical face will give us answers to our meaning of life. If I was to do anything different I would have wanted to use more examples and also delve deeper into what psychologist say about the meaning of mirrors to the human mind. . I intend to continue to look at how mirrors are used to tell a story.

Reference Notes

Batcherlor, Julie and Delys, Claudia. (1954). Breaking a Mirror. From: Superstitious? Here's Why! New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Leach, Maria. (1954). Come Look. From: The Soup Stone: The Magic of Familiar Things. New York: Funk & Wagnall's Co.

Stevens, Anthony. (1998). Ariadne's Clue; A guide to the Symbols of Humankind. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.