What’s Behind Your Reflection?

The purpose of a mirror may seem like a simple concept. It is constructed and used to reflect the image of what is put in front. In the case of the Gothic novel we see the purpose altered slightly. Changing from one of physical to spiritual purpose. Often foreshadowing to a character or audience a dark event about to occur. These mirrors also may be used within novels to reflect society back onto itself. While reading a novel a reader may see aspects that they think are grotesque and may make the connection that that is what society values.

The use of traditional mirrors in novels- the ones hanging on the wall that is- has been to reflect the person or object standing in front of them. When used in the novels read so far in class Jane Eyre, Dorian Gray, Jekyll & Hyde, and Frankenstein.

Going off of what Video 1 introduced mirrors have played an important role in literature for what seems to be forever. They have been the center of superstition for not just one culture but multiple. They’re linked to the dead, souls, and their connection to the living in many stories and cultures including those we are reading in class. Jane Eyre, Jekyll & Hyde, Dorian Gray, and Frankenstein all have connections to mirrors and reflections.

Jane Eyre and the Reflection of her Innermost Fears

Seen here is a photo of Jane (back right) viewing Bertha (front left) for the first time through a mirror. Bertha is trying on Jane’s expensive veil for her wedding moments before tearing it in half. (Figure 1)

When Jane sees Bertha in her mirror a few nights before she is going to be married to Mr. Rochester. It is not Bertha she sees reflected in that mirror but instead she sees her future. Bertha embodied everything Jane was afraid marriage would do to her. Jane was afraid she would lose her freedom- Bertha was constantly locked away in a room. Jane was afraid that Mr. Rochester would someday fall out of love with her- Mr. Rochester regards Bertha as a beast that tricked him. Looking at Figure 2, where the two are the closest they ever come to one another, one can see that the contrast between Bertha and Jane is very clear. Jane seems fragile, scared, and small while Bertha is large, overbearing, and -of course- monstrous. Jane is terrified that she won’t be able to recognize herself, transforming or altering who she is would be considered monstrous to her. Therefore she needed Bertha there to police her and keep her in her position. Bertha showed her what she could potentially turn into if she continued down the same path to Cohen’s 5th thesis about monsters policing borders that “the monster stands as a warning against exploration… curiosity is more often punished than rewarded, [and] one is better off safely contained within ones own domestic sphere” (Cohen, 12). Bertha when considered in this light was Jane’s mirror; it’s also important to remember that the first time Jane sees Bertha is in her room using a mirror.

Bertha standing over Jane (Figure 2)

“There was a light on the dressing-table, and the door of the closet, where, before going to bed, I had hung my wedding dress and veil, stood open: I heard a rustling there. I asked, ‘Sophie, what are you doing?’ No one answered: but a form emerged from the closet: it took the light, held it aloft and surveyed the garments pendent from the portmanteau” (Bronte, 370).

Jane’s first visual encounter with Bertha is when Bertha comes out of Jane’s closet wearing her wedding clothes (figure 1). Her very first encounter with the monster in Thornfield is while the monster is parading around in her veil. While trying to look into the mirror to see who stood before it Jane did not see her own face but Bertha’s beneath the veil Mr. Rochester had forced her into having. This unexpected reflection shocks and terrifies Jane. She has no idea who this person in her wedding veil and mirror is and was not expecting to see her/it’s reflection within the frame. The reason that Bertha looks similar to Jane in figure 1 and so different to her in figure 2 is because Jane looks at Bertha in the mirror and can see herself. She is terrified of turning into Bertha; Bertha is a character in the novel however and needs her own representation. Which is why she looks different standing next to Jane without a mirror between them. One may ask themselves if Bertha was parading or foreshadowing Jane’s fate as Mrs. Rochester.

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, and Why They Were Both Necessary

A mirror doesn’t have to be what we consider it to be in reality. It could be an object or a person that reflects an inward or outward image. An instance of this could be seen in the novel “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. The character Mr. Hyde doesn’t walk around all day showing Dr. Jekyll a mirror. Instead Hyde’s actions reflect like a mirror a deeper, more sinister desire of Jekyll. Having the reputation that Dr. Jekyll had of being a professional would make it hard to nearly impossible for him to step outside of the ideas of society. Mr. Hyde was then created as a “temporary egress from constraint” so that as Hyde, Jekyll could make real is inner most desires (Cohen, p. 17). Jekyll didn’t create Hyde, society did.

“Desperately, I sought a mirror and dashed from the laboratory, ran across the courtyard and into my bedroom, where there was a mirror. There, for the first time, I saw my evil side, Edward Hyde, sickly and deformed, despite the fact that I seemingly felt younger and happier. I realized, of course, that my “professional” self had been rigorously trained. This “side” of myself which I now saw had been kept secret for many, many years in the dark cellar of my soul. No wonder it looked sickly and less developed. Studying Hyde’s face in the mirror, I was horrified to recall the aura of “goodness” that continually emanated from Jekyll’s face, whereas evil positively colored the entire countenance of Edward Hyde. Yet I was not entirely repelled by what I saw, for this was me, or at least a part of me. What I saw in the mirror seemed natural and human” (Stevenson, 80).

Society restrained Jekyll as a professional. He had many limits placed on him that pushed many of his desires into his subconscious. Jekyll had no outlet for his desires and- subconsciously- needing one invented Hyde. Hyde was his outlet for his desires that allowed Jekyll to, for a short time, function within society. This is why they had shared memories so that even though he was powerless to stop Hyde, Jekyll could still have the experience. Hyde was a reflection of Jekyll’s purest (in the sense that they were unmarked by society), darkest, and obscene desires.

Dorian’s Portrait and the Reflection it Makes on Society

Dorian Gray’s portrait done by Basil. On the left is the original and on the right is the portrait after many misdeeds done by Dorian. (Figure 3)

Then, of course, there is Dorian Gray who being the Narcissus of his time was fascinated with mirrors. Dorian’s thoughts didn’t travel far from the ones he had of himself. He often would lose interest or not want to talk of things that he didn’t have a connection to. Even when Sibyl Vane committed suicide Dorian didn’t really think of the girl. Dorian thought of the implications that would be made of him if anyone found out he might have had something to do with it. Dorian also thought of how his feelings were impacted but thought very little of Sybil’s final thoughts and feelings.

“‘So I have murdered Sybil Vane,’ said Dorian Gray, half to himself- ‘murdered her as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife… Somehow not that it has happened actually, and to me, it seems far too wonderful for tears. Here is the first passionate love-letter I have ever written in my life. Strange, that my first passionate love-letter should have been addressed to a dead girl” (Wilde, 134).

Dorian is overwhelmed in this moment of feelings for himself. He has just found out that the woman that he loved has been found dead. And the only thing he can think about is essentially, “I can’t believe this is happening to me. I finally put myself out there and the girl turns up dead. How unfair that is for me.” He puts little thought into those around him and only ever analyzes how that makes him feel. The portrait is the first reflection he is forced to have about his own inner soul and morality. He notices the portrait start to change due to his indecent actions and is terrified. Not because he realizes the damage to his own soul but he’s afraid someone will realize that the portrait is changing. He locks it away inside a room he has refused to be in since his Grandfather’s passing and tries to forget it.

Except he can’t forget the portrait because he is the portrait. It embodies the truth about Dorian. He would sit and stare at his changing portrait (figure 3) by using a mirror to compare his ageless flesh with the decay on the canvas. The actual mirror reflected his physical self; the one others saw and the one that he put the most thought into. This physical reflection was what his ind revolved around. Wanting to be beautiful and admired and seen as “god-like” by women. Much like Narcissus, our Dorian Gray got wrapped up in his “reflection in the pond” (Video 1, 1:10) and it led to his demise.

The portrait, showing a different reflection than his physical mirror, told the story of his soul (figure 3). For centuries, cultures have believed a mirror had the power to steal one’s soul. They would cover mirrors in the time of death to prevent possession and not allow babies to look into mirrors until after their first birthday (Video 1). Dorian’s portrait is a true reflection of his soul changing, perhaps being absorbed into the fibers of the canvas as his misdeeds are being committed.

What he doesn’t realize is that the portrait isn’t just taking on the appearance of his soul but it is also warning him of what consequences his actions will cause. Dorian hated the thought of becoming older when his beauty would start to fade the portrait offered him “an escape… an invitation to explore new spirals, new and interconnected methods of perceiving the world” (Cohen, p. 7). It allowed him to escape one of his deepest fears but only by confining him to have this dark secret.

The portrait in Dorian’s case does not act to keep him within his position but instead influences him into doing things he might not have normally done. Instead of becoming frightened and straight-edge upon discovering his shifting self; Dorian starts to think that he has no consequences for his bad thoughts and actions because the painting is what changes not his physical self. This could be seen as a reflection of society’s true values. In our society it is a general idea that It doesn’t matter what a person has to do to be rich, famous, or powerful. As long as they are conventionally attractive they will be accepted into society. While Dorian may be worried that this is his soul that is being changed and turned ugly; not just the portrait. He is more preoccupied with his current physical looks and living a life that Lord Henry thinks is worth living.

Society Killed Frankenstein’s Monster Before He Was Created

The novel Frankenstein also offers an abstract mirror. Frankenstein’s monster is a mirror image of what society holds ideal. Society believes in outward beauty and cares less about how a person truly is. The monster had inward not outward beauty and was therefore shunned. He could not exist in the world because he was an inverse reflection of society. The exact opposite of what would have been considered beautiful in that time. He was done before he was even created because the monster would never be able to fit Society’s mold.

Dorian Gray could exist in his society for a while because of his remarkable good looks. Frankenstein’s monster couldn’t even begin to exist within society because he did not hold the same image. A lesson that ones inward disposition does not matter as much as ones outward appearance. You can be self-centered, egotistical, and rude as long as you are attractive. However, there is no room for someone who doesn’t fit the necessary aesthetics, no matter how good their intentions are.

“By revealing that difference is arbitrary and potentially free-floating, mutable rather than essential, the monster threatens to destroy not just individual members of society, but the very cultural apparatus through which individuality is constituted and allowed. Because this is a body across which difference has been repeatedly written, the monster (like Frankenstein’s creature…) seeks out its author to demand its raison d’etre — and to bear witness to the fact that it could have been constructed Otherwise” (Cohen, p. 12).

If Frankenstein were allowed to be part of the same cultural body as the rest of the world it would shift our society tremendously. This mirroring of society’s expectations is what kept Dorian alive for as long as he was. He “fit in” to what would be considered normal. Mirroring society’s expectations is what can allow a monster to survive. The monsters that don’t often meet a very different and more abrupt ending than those that do. When looking at it through this lens one might draw the conclusion that monsters themselves act as mirrors to society. Showing them a part of society that they wish to avoid and pretend is nonexistent.

Mirrors within the Gothic novel serve to do more than solely to create a reflection of a character. They are meant to teach lessons and be used to illustrate multiple aspects of a character or story. When the novels themselves are used as mirrors they show society a reflection of itself that it wishes to avoid viewing.