The Monstrous Self-Definition in "The Other Side of a Mirror"

The Other Side of a Mirror ~ Mary Elizabeth Coleridge

I sat before my glass one day,
And conjured up a vision bare,
Unlike the aspects glad and gay,
That erst were found reflected there -
The vision of a woman, wild
With more than womanly despair.
Her hair stood back on either side
A face bereft of loveliness.
It had no envy now to hide
What once no man on earth could guess.
It formed the thorny aureole
Of hard, unsanctified distress.

Her lips were open - not a sound
Came though the parted lines of red,
Whate'er it was, the hideous wound
In silence and secret bled.
No sigh relieved her speechless woe,
She had no voice to speak her dread.

And in her lurid eyes there shone
The dying flame of life's desire,
Made mad because its hope was gone,
And kindled at the leaping fire
Of jealousy and fierce revenge,
And strength that could not change nor tire.

Shade of a shadow in the glass,
O set the crystal surface free!
Pass - as the fairer visions pass -
Nor ever more return, to be
The ghost of a distracted hour,
That heard me whisper: - 'I am she!'  

            Even though Mary Elizabeth Coleridge's work is fairly unknown today, her poem "The Other Side of a Mirror" has taken up a central place in the literature of female authorship (Jackson 41; Gilbert and Gubar 16), the literature that has as its subject the woman as writer and her obligation to create for both herself and other women a resilient and resistant language to define a story of her own (Freedman 154). The poem is notable in this regard, given how it depicts the female struggle to define a 'true' self in a world that requires women to mirror what is expected of them. By means of a shocking encounter between the speaker of the poem and a monstrous vision in the mirror, Coleridge directly confronts female Otherness and exposes the tension between the personas we create for the outside world and the 'true' selves that are hidden beneath them (Živković 121). Most importantly, she does so by employing the imagery of the angel-woman and the monster-woman as inscribed by the male literary tradition.  
            To fully understand the content of "The Other Side of a Mirror" and the way in which it articulates the female self, it is important to first understand both the time period in which it was written and the literary tradition that informed it. By the eighteenth century women had entered the literary marketplace and by the time Coleridge was born, in 1861, female authorship had ceased to be anomalous in any sense (Gilbert and Gubar xi). The political and aesthetic ideals of the Victorian age inspired not only a variety of revolutionary movements, but also some of most excellent productions of female imagination (Hickock 27). However, there was a strong discrepancy between the Victorian ideology and the reality of Victorian women's lives. Despite the progressive political developments, the sexual ideology of the era was in many ways still particularly oppressive, confining women not just to their corsets, but also to the domestic domain (Gilbert and Gubar xxxi). For female writers this meant that they were expected to be docile and modest, and take second place to male authors until the very end of the century (61). If a female writer refused to conform to these expectations, and present her artistic productions as something more than trifles meant to entertain readers in moments of idleness, she could expect to be either ignored or attacked (61).
            Moreover, both the patriarchal etiology that defines God as the sole creator of all things and the male metaphors of literary creation that depend upon this etiology have burdened female writers for a long time (Gilbert and Gubar 7). Western culture is imbued with myths of male primacy in artistic, theological and scientific creativity (Gubar 244). According to literary men such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Mary Elizabeth's great-great-uncle Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet, like God, is a paternalistic ruler of the fictive world he has created (Gilbert and Gubar 5). This reinforces the idea formulated by Gerard Hopkins in 1886, ten years before "The Other Side of a Mirror" was published, that "the artist's most essential quality is the masterly execution of a kind of male gift, especially marking off men from women" (133). Male sexuality is in other words the essence of literary power. While Hopkins was quite the eccentric, he did articulate a concept that was not only central to the Victorian culture, but has been omnipresent throughout Western literary civilization (Gilbert and Gubar 4). So much so that the metaphor is even built into the word author, with which not only writer, but also deity and pater familias are identified (Said 83).
            Seeing as men, with God as most prominent example, have been structurally portrayed as the creators, women are by default the creations, with no identity or voice of their own (Gubar 244). As Simone de Beauvoir has demonstrated, the phallus as "the transcendent incarnate" turns woman's self into an object and an Other (29). In terms of the production of culture, she is moreover not simply an object, but an objet d'art: she is Pygmalion's ivory carving, an icon or a doll, but never the author or creator (Gubar 244). By both embodying patriarchal authority and attempting to enclose the female in stereotypes that drastically conflict with her own autonomy, creativity and subjectivity, male authorship had a significant influence on the female writer's sense of self (Gilbert and Gubar 48). Therefore, whereas male authors might have felt the anxiety of influence from their predecessors, the female writer's battle was not against her predecessors reading of the world but in fact against his reading of her (49). This means that if a woman wanted to be an author, she had to deconstruct the fixed self that is a male opus and replace the stereotypes with individuality (19).
            Interestingly, the imagery associated with women in the male literary tradition seems to stand both at the very bottom and the very top of the scale of "human modes of relating" (Gilbert and Gubar 19). On the one hand there are the feminine symbols of transcendence (mother, fairy, muse) that might be distilled into the image of the angel-woman. She is the pattern Victorian lady, an ideal of passivity and contemplative purity, an object whose story cannot be told because there is none to tell (22). In its metaphysical emptiness her purity signifies a quite literal selflessness. However, on the other hand there are the symbols of subversion (witch, gorgon) that might be distilled into the other moral extreme, namely the monster: a magical creature of the lower world, an antithetical mirror image of the angel with characteristics such as assertiveness and aggressiveness (28). It seems thus, that women can appear from certain points of view to stand both above and below, but in fact simply outside of the sphere of culture's hegemony (Ortner 86). Considering that literary tradition has often portrayed women as either angel or monster, it might come as no surprise that this dichotomy has drastically impacted female writers and that a quest for self-definition has become apparent in most nineteenth-century female literature (Gilbert and Gubar 76).
            In many of these nineteenth-, but also twentieth-century female works of prose and poetry, it is the mirror that functions as the locus of the search for the self and for the self as an artist (Freedman 154). Because the essential process of self-definition is complicated by the patriarchal definitions of what a woman should be, what she sees in the mirror is usually a male construct: the woman as passive, selfless reflector, herself more mirror than person (152). However, the mirror is not only the place where the female author sees her silent subordination, it is also the place where she perceives the fierce urgency of her repressed voice (154). In "The Other Side of a Mirror", among other poems, the female writer shows that the angel-woman is an evasion of reality and a suppression of the self. Moreover, she does so by using that other male inscribed image: the monster-woman. In projecting her anger and unease into a dark double, the female writer at the same time identifies with and revises the self-definition patriarchal culture has imposed on her (Gilbert and Gubar 79).
            At the beginning of the poem the perfect reflection of the feminine ideal with "aspects glad and gay" (Coleridge 3) that were first seen in the mirror has already been replaced by an image of "a woman wild / with more than womanly despair" (5-6). The woman in the mirror appears with hair that stands back on either side and forms a "thorny aureole" (12) of "hard unsanctified distress" (12). While at first it seems as if she is no more than a terrifying monster, in the third stanza it becomes clear she is not an imagined Other, but a fulfilment of desperate, silenced ambition (Freedman 160). The woman's lips are parted but not a sound comes out of her mouth that is shaped like "a hideous wound" (15) and bleeds in silence. She cannot make a sound to relief her sorrows and has "no voice to speak her dread" (18). Given that creativity is often experienced as a painful wounding (Gubar 248), and that stanza four mentions the woman's "leaping fire / of jealousy and fierce revenge" (22-23), the monstrous woman in the mirror seems to represent the multidimensional, creative, 'true' self that is hiding under the fragile surface of the angel-woman.
            It is in the final stanza that the reader's suspicions are eventually confirmed. Throughout the poem the speaker has referred to the monstrous vision using third-person pronouns, but in the final line the climactic confession "I am she" is whispered and the "she" and "I" suddenly collapse into each other. The erasure of the dual identity is an imminent moment of self-discovery in which the speaker and the reader both discover the complicit role of the "I" in presenting the monstrous "she" as an unknown and fearful Other (Foucault 179). It is here that is becomes thoroughly apparent that the wild woman is a demonic emblem of the speaker's independent identity, both a monstrous renunciation of the angel-woman and an arrogation of autonomy and interiority (Freedman 155). Even though she is not an entirely positive figure of strength and the speaker is pleading with the shadow to turn back into "the ghost of a distracted hour" (Coleridge 29), she still receives autonomy by rejecting the phallocentric language whose truths fixes woman as the mirroring, speechless Other (Freedman 159). It is a radical misreading of patriarchal imagery that frees the female artist to criticize the literary conventions she has inherited and express her ambiguous relationship to a culture that has defined her gender and shaped her mind (Gilbert and Gubar 79).
            When exploring nineteenth- and also twentieth-century literature the monster-woman emerges over and over again from the mirrors female writers hold up to their own nature to come to terms with their feelings of suppression and their struggle with self-definition (Gilbert and Gubar 77). For example, next to "Mirror" by Sylvia Plath in which the vision of a young woman is exchanged for the monstrous autonomy of a "terrible fish" (27), there is "A Sketch of the Past" by Coleridge's contemporary Virginia Woolf. The speaker of this poem recalls a dream in which she "was looking in a glass when a horrible face - the face of an animal - suddenly showed over [her] shoulder" (69). What the three poems share is of course the emergence of a variation on the image of monstrous autonomy that is in fact an aspect of the self that has been elsewhere identified as mere mirror for man's magnification (Woolf 1). Instead of using the monster-woman as an antagonist for the heroine of the story, as is customary in the male literary tradition (Gilbert and Gubar 78), the female writer uses her to represent a part of herself. This way she dramatizes her own self-division while at the same time revising the imagery that caused it.
            Thus, it might be said that the female writer's self-contemplation has begun with a searching glance into the mirror of the male-inscribed text, only to deconstruct the masculine mimetic language that fixed her by revising it into a vision of her 'true' self. What it ultimately boils down to for the speaker of "The Other Side of a Mirror" and for women writers in general, is the important choice between the affirmation and the effacement of the self: will she become a self-suppressing repetition of male expression or will she persist to create her own autonomous identity and perception, and resist the conventional truths of inscription? (Freedman 152). "The Other Side of a Mirror" answers this question quite clearly when the shocking emergence of clarity and truth marks the fearful triumph of psychological reality over the linguistic efforts to avert it (156). In a way, what the speaker of the poem and the female writers who take the same approach are 'saying', is that the power of metaphor can only extend so far and finally, no woman can be completely silenced by text or imagery.

Works Cited

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