Yet a character who never caught sight of their reflection would be an odd kettle of fish indeed. Plate-glass windows, stainless steel doors: the built environment abounds with reflective surfaces, never mind the mirror above the bathroom sink. Should these be totally out of bounds for writers? Our protagonist’s relationship to mirrors can be useful way of illustrating their character or mood. Are they obsessively drawn to mirrors or avoidant; are they anxiously checking their appearance, or an ordinary woman using lipstick and mascara to compose her outdoor face? Surely it’s the information dump that’s the problem. After all, Elmore Leonard preached against detailed description, not mirrors.
A skilfully employed shiny surface can reflect more than is apparent to the eye. For example, in Harriet Lane’s debut novel Alys, Always, Frances sees
a pinched, nervous-looking girl, with blue shadows under her eyes: a pale, insignificant sort of person (p10)
Other people serve as mirrors in real life, too; we’re constantly processing feedback, both direct and indirect, to tell us how we are perceived. Sometimes it’s hard to judge whether this mirroring is accurate or distorted; I’m still wondering about the boy on the bus who saw me as older than I saw myself.
In fiction, mirroring from other characters brings another perspective to an unreliable narrator. In Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing, Maud is a lovely old dear with significant memory problems who is mystified by her friend’s disappearance. She is a highly sympathetic character, but her bemused discovery of her daughter’s injured arm lets the reader know about her tendency to act out frustration. Similarly, via the responses of the adults around her, we piece together what the narrator of Claire King’s The Night Rainbow, five-year-old Pea, is too young to comprehend.
Our experience of mirroring in infancy impacts on the way we look at ourselves and at others in later life. Psychoanalytic theory suggests that the responsive gaze of a mother (or other primary caretaker) is the foundation of a secure sense of self. A baby continually confronted with a depressed, angry or emotionally absent mother figure, or a baby that feels ignored, is deprived of the capacity to learn to tolerate a range of emotional states within itself and to relate confidently to others. That child may grow up never feeling good enough.
The most poignant scenes for me in Alys, Always occur when Frances visits her parents. These are also the most hilarious, as well as the key to her character. The lack of emotional engagement between the adult Frances and her parents suggests an absence of mirroring in infancy, bequeathing Frances a powerful sense of deprivation and envy, which drives her to infiltrate the world of the privileged Kytes.
I’ve written about a character who has missed out on that early mirroring in my short story “Reflecting Queenie”. A personification of the mirror in the fairytale “Snow White”, Myra attempts to compensate for what she hasn’t had by reflecting others’ desires back to them, but even she can’t contain her sister’s narcissism.
Our capacity for mirroring might contribute to our enjoyment of fiction. The discovery of mirror neurons suggests that our brains are hardwired for empathy. We feel the athlete’s exhilaration and exhaustion when she crosses the finishing line; we feel the anguish of the baby’s cries. When we’re wrapped up in a book, we’re rooting for the protagonist to win out in the end. Yet our capacity to empathise might be what makes it difficult to stick with novels that feature the experience of terror.
Thanks for looking in the mirror with me. I’d love it if you would add your reflections to the comments below.