A major goal of feminism is to push back against the prevalent idea that women should be valued primarily for their appearance. Feminists argue rightly that women are not simply objects, an assemblage of body parts, but full humans with minds and souls that are as valuable as their breasts...
A major goal of feminism is to push back against the prevalent idea that women should be valued primarily for their appearance. Feminists argue rightly that women are not simply objects, an assemblage of body parts, but full humans with minds and souls that are as valuable as their breasts and hair. The poem critiques the cult of appearances and the way women are taught to rely solely on their looks for their self worth.
Told from the point of view of two objects that reflect back images, a mirror and a lake, the poem shows how important these objects are. The mirror describes itself as:
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
The lake says that:
A woman bends over me, Searching my reaches for what she really is ...
I am important to her.
It is ironic and sad that a woman would search for who she "really" is in her superficial reflection, as if her looks, destined to fade, encompass the totality of her identity. The poem implies the existence of a society in a which a woman's reflection has to be important to her, because it determines how men evaluate her. The woman is shown bending or bowing to the lake as if it is gGd with the power of life and death over her.
The lake goes on to say:
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
These lines tell us that an obsessive concern with appearances kills (drowns) the soul of a young woman. A drowned woman is still a body, but what has made her human is lost.
An obsessive concern with her outward appearance destroys what a woman really is. The woman looking in the lake fears the old age that comes for her as day after day she inevitably ages. She calls old age a "terrible fish." This is an allusion to the leviathan, a monstrous fish that lived under the sea. The woman knows that in the eyes of society she is becoming a monster as she gets older.
Though a brilliant and talented woman, Sylvia Plath spent much of her short life worrying about her appearance. According to Heather Clark's biography Red Comet, in the months before her suicide, her husband, Ted Hughes, had rejected her as old and ugly, leaving her for a younger woman. This is despite the fact that she was only 30, had just had a baby, and he knew she had a brilliant mind. Plath wrote this poem before Hughes abandoned her, but she realized early in life what the stakes were.