“What woman would not have kindled to see what Orlando saw then burning in the snow — for all about the looking-glass were snowy lawns, and she was like a fire, a burning bush, and the candle flames about her head were silver leaves; or again, the glass was green water, and she a mermaid, slung with pearls, a siren in a cave, singing so that oarsmen leant from their boats and fell down, down to embrace her; so dark, so bright, so hard, so soft, was she, so astonishingly seductive that it was a thousand pities that there was no one there to put it in plain English, and say outright, ‘Damn it, Madam, you are loveliness incarnate,’ which was the truth. Even Orlando (who had no conceit of her person) knew it, for she smiled the involuntary smile which women smile when their own beauty, which seems not their own, forms like a drop falling or a fountain rising and confronts them all of a sudden in the glass”. (Virginia Woolf – Orlando)
When I say ‘mirror scene’, I don’t mean that lazy tradition where a character describes their ‘large blue eyes and auburn curls’. An effective mirror scene offers another layer to a character’s point of view, by creating a moment in a story where a character catches sight of their own reflection. This moment is generally followed by a realisation, which can be a passing moment of self-awareness, an uncanny observation, a crisis of identity, a moment of derealisation or an all-out life changing epiphany.
Mirror scenes can be, as the name suggests, a moment when a character literally sees their reflection in a mirror, such as a wall mirror, a make-up mirror, a vanity mirror, the rear view mirror of a car, a reflection in a puddle or lake, or the bottom of a glass. They can also be less obvious, for example, where a character sees themselves (differently) reflected in the eyes of a call-girl (Leaving Las Vegas), or stands opposite a painting that shows them age and become more grotesque while outwardly they remain young and beautiful (Dorian Grey). Alternatively, a mirror scene can be more abstract and conceptual, such as the way in which Catherine and Heathcliff’s love is reflected in the wild and hostile landscapes of the Yorkshire moors in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, or the way in which narcoleptic rent boy Mikey ‘the dyke’ (River Phoenix) sees the road stretched out ahead of him “like someone’s face – like a fucked up face” in in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho.
Historically, the mirror scene has a strong tradition in literature, such as Narcissus’ ‘self-love’ in the Greek Myths, Eve’s fascination with her own reflection in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the famous ‘sex change’ in Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando. However, actual scenes where a character gazes into a mirror tend to be more common in film to denote a crucial moment of change in a character, or reveal a new layer to the narrative. For example, the iconic moment in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver where Robert de Niro decides he has had enough – “You talking to me?” – or the sinister silver rabbit, Frank, in the film Donnie Darko, who appears as a reflection of the young Donnie and declares that there are “28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds” left until the end of the world.
Why add a mirror scene to your story?
The reasons to have a character reflect on themselves and their world can be many, but a simple reason might be that you want to add a little more depth to a character who feels a little too much like a cardboard cut-out. Even if the story you are writing features a character with a very stable sense of identity, like a streetwise, worldly, gumshoe detective, an indomitable super-spy, or an indestructible superhero with iron resolve, the more successful and memorable characters are those who at some point experience inner conflict, reflecting on their own inner mysteries and repressed fears. Consider Charles Dickens, for instance, who has long been considered a realist writer whose characters are generally described by their habits, attributes and appearances, rather than the lengthy streams of consciousness associated with the modernist writers that followed. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dicken’s employs a mirror scene to demonstrate inner conflict and add dimension to one of his most memorable and haunting characters, Sydney Carton:
“…why should you particularly like a man who resembles you? There is nothing in you to like; you know that. Ah, confound you! What a change you have made in yourself! A good reason for taking to a man, that he shows you what you have fallen away from, and what you might have been! Change places with him, and would you have been looked at by those blue eyes as he was, and commiserated by that agitated face as he was?” (Dickens – Tale of Two Cities)
This cleverly contrived mirror scene sees the drunken Carton converse with his reflection, to reveal that he wishes he were more like his ‘lookalike’, Charles Darnay, so that he might win the love of Darnay’s fiancée, Lucie Manette. However, the effect of this narrative conceit reveals more than just Carton imagining what it would be like if he were Darnay; suggests more to the reader than simply imagining what it is like to walk in Carton’s shoes. What it enables the reader to imagine is what it is like for Carton to walk in Carton’s shoes.
This imagining of what it is like for Carton to be Carton impregnates the narrative and begins to transform Carton in the mind of the reader as the plot counts down towards its inevitable tragic ending. Inevitable, because the mirror scene has allowed the reader an insight into Carton’s wish to be Darnay, that foreshadows his act of martyrdom. Indeed, should the reader remember the title of the first chapter, Recalled to Life, they may quite rightly entertain the idea that by accomplishing the “far, far better thing” and trading places with Darnay in the prison cell, Carton somehow magically transforms himself into his better other and finds the love he yearns for – albeit in the next life.
A similarly powerful employment of mirror scenes to add depth to a character can be seen in both Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953) and Martin Campbell’s film adaptation of Casino Royale in 2006.
“He gazed for a moment into the mirror and wondered about Vesper’s morals. He wanted her cold and arrogant body. He wanted to see tears and desire in her remote blue eyes and to take the ropes of her black hair in his hands and bend her long body back under his. Bond’s eyes narrowed and his face in the mirror looked back at him with hunger”. (Ian Fleming – Casino Royale)
Umberto Eco suggests that after Casino Royale, Fleming changes James Bond from a three-dimensional character to a two-dimensional character. Eco points specifically to a moment in the novel when Bond is considering quitting his job as a killer because he has doubts about whether the people he is ordered to kill deserve to die. Bond exclaims “in order to tell the difference between good and evil, we [King and Country] have manufactured two images representing the extremes”, a self-awareness that leads Eco to conclude that where the first novel gave more focus to the ‘inner-workings’ of James Bond, the others concerned themselves more with creating the formula that until recent years became so associated with Bond films: super-villains, marvellous inventions and scantily clad, exotic, ‘Bond girls’.
So in Eco’s terms, a two-dimensional character might be described as one who is self-assured and views the world outwardly, whereas a three-dimensional character looks outwardly, but simultaneously looks inwardly to question the manufacture of their own identity within that world. With this in mind, it is perhaps no accident that film studios left adapting the less formulaic and more complex Casino Royale to the ‘big screen’ until last – but definitely not least! In fact, I suggest that the novel that film studios avoided until last has actually allowed the Bond franchise to continue thriving, with viewers witnessing a more inwardly complex and progressive Bond in Daniel Craig.
This complexity in Bond’s character is demonstrated by Campbell in recurring mirror scenes throughout the film that appear to pit the ‘old’ Bond against a Bond for the new millennium. Right at the beginning, Bond is seen killing his first man, by drowning him in a sink beneath a vanity mirror. This scene is repeated again later in the film, where we find the semi naked, blood spattered Bond, leaning over a sink and staring at himself reproachfully. Aside from this first reflexive battle of wills, which echoes Bond’s consideration of ‘good and evil’ in the novel, a second battle of wills begins between the two Bonds where the new Bond questions the old Bond’s idea about women. In a prolonged mirror scene, we see ‘Bond girl’ Vesper Lind getting dressed in the mirror, when Bond enters the room and hands her a dress to wear. Vesper appears concerned that Bond would presume to tell her what to wear, but reluctantly agrees after Bond exclaims (in a patronising tone) “I need you looking fabulous, so that when you walk up behind me and kiss me on the neck, the players across from me will be thinking about your neckline and not about their cards”.
memorable characters are those who at some point experience inner conflict
At this point, the viewer might be left with the feeling that they are watching the same old Bond with his outdated attitudes to women, however, when Bond returns to his own room, he finds a tuxedo on his bed that Vesper has left there for him. When he confronts her, mildly flustered and protesting that he already has a tuxedo, she replies that he must wear it because “there are dinner jackets and there are dinner jackets […] and I need you looking like a man who belongs at that table”. Astonished by the affront, Bond asks her how she knew his size, to which she replies “I sized you up the moment we met”. The scene ends with Bond dressing himself in his own bathroom mirror, smiling reluctantly and then more cheerfully as he has to admit that Vesper is right – the new dinner jacket fits the new Bond better!
However, Campbell’s Casino Royale does not halt with a statement of equality between the sexes. The narrative of mirrors that tells the story of Bond and Vesper ends with a message that although there is hope, women are still underrepresented in modern society. This is evident in how Campbell conceives the death of Vesper differently than in Fleming’s novel. Where in the novel, Bond simply finds Vesper inanimate in bed, Campbell ends the film with a final mirror scene that haunts the viewer beyond the end titles: Bond is forced to look on as Vesper drowns in a submerged elevator, her final words unheard as she screams silently at the helpless man.
Holding up a mirror to the ‘other’
In Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the eponymous hero hires a troop of actors to re-enact his father’s murder in the hope that it will provoke a guilty reaction and expose his father’s killers. When giving the actors their brief, the young Hamlet exclaims that the best way to create a character is “to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature”.
The phrase ‘to hold a mirror to nature’ – to copy ‘real life’ as faithfully as possible – reflected attitudes towards character creation from the beginnings of the theatre and lasted until 1936 when Stanislavski revolutionised character creation by pointing out that creating a character by mirroring nature “teaches an actor to watch the outside rather than the inside” (An Actor Prepares). By this he meant that by producing art that copies reality as closely as possibly, we forget to question the authority of our language to record life ‘truthfully’.
Like Campbell’s Casino Royale where Vesper is fated to end as centuries of women before her, a silent ghost haunting the spoken voice, Shakespeare’s Hamlet holds up a mirror to find that indeed, “the time is out of joint”. As Edgar Allen Poe famously said “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” and where prince Hamlet is able to reflect on his madness in a number of beautifully written and lucid soliloquies, his fiancée Ophelia’s demise amounts to brief verses of nonsensical rhyme followed by her death by drowning that takes place off-stage.
Yet it is Ophelia’s silent martyrdom, off stage of the patriarchal language which prevents her from expressing herself freely, that like Vesper Lind’s death, clangs with an unearthly silent scream. Those who have seen the 1945 film The Wicked Lady, might recall the haunting final moment when the dying Margaret Lockwood reveals her secret identity as a highwaywoman to her lover, whereupon he promptly leaves the room, informing the pleading and repentant woman that she will “die alone”. Like Ophelia, who lacks the language to express her inner desires – Gertrude remarks that Ophelia is “incapable of her own distress” – it would seem that the consequences of living outside of a designated social identity – such as the doting, monogamous, wife – are deterred by the promise and kept alive by the myth of ‘dying alone’. It is only necessary to recall the expression ‘left on the shelf’ – which warned women against remaining unmarried beyond the age of 30 by precisely the threat of ‘dying alone’ – to witness the performative power of so-called make-believes and stories to affect real life.
Asides from characters such as Vesper Lind and Ophelia, whose memories become as transient as the water that took them, the reflection in water is a useful way of signifying the underrepresented other. In fact, the death of Ophelia so inspired the minds of generations to come that dying in water became an inspiration for lesbian and gay writers who felt unable to freely express their otherness in society. These include the poet Heart Crane, who famously swallow-dived into the Gulf of Mexico after being beaten up for his sexuality, the writer Virginia Woolf who weighed herself down with stones before drowning herself in the river Ouse, and the playwright Tennessee Williams, who openly declared that he wanted to die like Heart Crane, but accidentally choked on the top of a medicine bottle before he got the chance.
The Little Mermaid, by gay writer Hans Anderson, employs the metaphor of water like a big mirror scene, dividing the kingdoms of land and sea, to disguise a story of (what in 1837 would have been) illicit desire. We are aware that beneath the waves the titular mermaid was a princess and possessed a voice so beautiful that she was the envy of all the sea kingdom, but that a cruel witch has cut out her tongue in payment for turning her tail into legs. Consequently, misfortune befalls the mermaid when – because she has no tongue with which to sing – the prince is mistakenly led to believe that it is another who has saved his life, and subsequently falls in love with her instead.
The mirror scene is a versatile tool that can add depth to a character. It provides an opportunity to demonstrate a moment of transformation through a character’s reflection in the mirror. Mirrors and reflections can be used as a recurring theme throughout a story, or even provide an allegory for otherness by having water, the sea, the desert and many other devices reflect a language of secret desires. It’s a handy trick, so don’t overlook the power of reflection.
What are your favourite mirror or reflection scenes?