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Linguistic layers of self-revelation through deixis in Sylvia Plath's mirror.

1. Emotionality, Discourse and Selfhood

In the encounters between individuals there is an imperative to convey both sense and feeling to their peers in order to establish interactional relationships and maintain selves. In the discursive acts of everyday life, sense and emotions are inseparable and intermingled.

Expressing emotionality and confessing one's self seem to be the norm in confessional literature as well.

2. Confessional Poetry: The Celebration of Emotionality

The Confessional school of poetry inscribes itself among the most fervent supporters of true emotionality. Confessionalism emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is associated with poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and W. D. Snodgrass, whose writings were characterized by acute subjectivity and turned entirely inward, focusing on the life, emotions and struggles of the poet him/herself. According to Yezzi (1998), the distinctive feature of confessional poetry is
   the rawness of its address and the incorporation of guilty personal
   detail for emotional effect. [...] The "I" of the poem is meant as
   a direct representation of the flesh-and-blood poet. Through its
   enumeration of sins, the confessional poem emerges as a tragic
   self-portrait, its words inscribed, like Kafka's penal
   commandments, directly onto the hide of the writer.

Addressing themes such as alienation, personal failure, psychological collapse, the poet's frustrations or the lost self, confessional poetry is considered by literary critics as a "reaction against the Eliotic school of extinction of personality" (Hall 1984). The confessional poets do not hide behind a persona or search for universal truths, but express their own personality, concerned only with individual, personal truth.

Moreover, the poets' autobiography represents the main source of inspiration for their egocentric type of art that places the poet's personal experience and feelings at the very core of the poem. In order to understand this poetry, it is necessary to understand the author's life. As Pennington acknowledges, "Biographies are to such poetry what some thought Eliot's notes to The Waste Land were--ostensible keys to its meaning". (Pennington, 1992: 27)

3. Prophesizing Emotionality through Deictic Force

As far as the stylistic means of achieving the emphasis on the self are concerned, the artful use of deictic expressions represents a fundamental stylistic device used by the confessional poets.

The term "deixis" derives from the Greek word for "pointing with the finger," and deictic expressions may therefore be seen as linguistic "pointers" (Duranti and Goodwin, 1992), guiding the addressee's attention to the referent perceived as relevant from the speaker's position within the context of utterance.

Deixis concerns the ways in which languages grammaticalize information about the person(s), place and time of an utterance. Thus, personal pronouns, demonstratives and tensed verbs are prototypical members of the category of deixis.

Deixis is therefore organized along three primary dimensions, namely person, place and time, with the speaker functioning as the center of orientation for the positioning of other elements along each dimension. In our opinion, the extensive use of deictic elements by the confessional poets can be justified to a great extent by the fact that deixis is fundamentally egocentric, taking the writer's/speaker's spatio-temporal location as the deictic center. Therefore, it is only natural that within the several layers of a confessional poem, one can clearly distinguish the obsessive recurrence of the first person narrative in relation to which all other entities involved in the poem are positioned.

Yet the confessional poem does not proceed like a monologue in which the speaking persona delivers the expression of his/her own thoughts and feelings. Variations in poetic voice are often recorded. These shifts in poetic voice are commonly associated with postmodernist poetry (McHale, 1992); nevertheless, it seems that most discussions of deixis in poetry tend to overlook the fact that poems do not necessarily project unique and stable voices located within fixed deictic contexts, but may involve variations in deictic center, which may in turn signal a change in the projected context of utterance and, implicitly, in the identity of the speaking persona (cf. Herman, 1989; Wales, 1993; Tate, 1995).

Thus, even if not rendered entirely in the first person narrative, the poems may unfold scenes of the author's life by means of dialogic exchanges between the "I" of the poet and the "you" of an interlocutor/ addressee who may be the reader himself: "[A] confessional poem would seem to be one in which the writer speaks to the reader, telling him, without the mediating presence of imagined event or persona, something about his life" (Howe, 1977: 237).

But the addressee may altogether be an acquaintance or a relative of the poet. In this case, the poet may directly refer to a person who is still alive or even to a dead person. Such is the case with Plath's poem Daddy, in which the poet directly addresses her dead father. The direct address to an absent (even dead) person or place falls under the incidence of the so-called deixis am phantasma forms, characterized precisely by the transposition of absent places and absent persons in front of the reader.

As far as temporal deixis is concerned, the temporal location is generally the present time; however, in keeping with the use of deixis am phantasma forms, confessional poets often operate the transfer of past scenes into the present. The blurring between the axis of the past and present is mediated through the use of the present tense.

Unflinching and generally extreme in their diction and address, confessional poems evolve towards the immediate involvement of the reader. This one is either placed in medias res and becomes the referent of the second person narrative, or is attributed the quality of implicit addressee/confessor of the poet, without being explicitly designated by second person pronouns. However, the general impression is the establishment of a relationship of intimacy between the first person speaking persona and the addressee.

Even if confessional poetry is assumed to start from the premises that the voice of the speaking persona in the poem identifies with the voice of the poet him/herself, it seems that there are deviations from the norm, in the sense that the poets' confession may be sometimes deemed false.

As Yezzi (1998) argues, "what the poems of Snodgrass, Lowell, Sexton, and Plath have in common, what sets them apart from other poems that incorporate details from life, is their sense of worn-on-the-sleeve self-revelation and their artful simulation of sincerity. By relying on facts, on "real" situations and relationships, for a poem's emotional authenticity, the poet makes an artifice of honesty and plays with the elusive distinction between heightened emotion and false sentimentality."

Nevertheless, the extensive use of first person deictic forms and the study of the poet's biographic details converge towards shaping the creed that, indeed, confessional poetry springs from of the urge

[To] stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head (Allen Ginsberg, Howl)

4. Sylvia Plath: Stages of Self-Revelation through Deixis

In the postmodernist context, Sylvia Plath was one of the first American women writers to refuse to conceal or disguise her true emotions; in articulating her aggression, hostility, and despair in her art, she effectively challenged the traditional passive role attributed to women.

As Butscher stated in his book entitled "Sylvia Plath: The Woman and The Work (1977), Sylvia Plath's "true matter" is her own process: her inner mechanism, where her poetry comes from, what the messages are that she receives from her unconscious, why she is haunted by her obsession with death, what she is feeling, who she is, who can she become, should she live, should she die, why, why not? Plath as a poet is interested in Plath, her identity, her inner truth, the hidden meanings, the blueprint of her own labyrinth. A Plath poem, Butscher argues, in a way few poems equal except the Dickinson's (who also inspires the same kind of biographical analysis of her work), is "true": "Distorted, but crackling with a naked voltage of subjective Truth' (1977: 34).

The poet IS her subject. She plays with the minds of her readers precisely because, as a representative of the confessional movement in poetry, the speaking persona in her poems represents, most often than not, a clever disguise of her own self. The choice of deictic expressions set in connection with the biographic detail help uncover the real identity of the poetic voice in her poems. Distancing or intimacy, self-revelation, self-informing and self-estrangement, passive acceptance or rebellious rejection of projected multiple identities become salient through the poet's use of pronominal forms, tense morphemes and definite/indefinite descriptions.

5. The Mirror as Reflection of the Double

As Axelrod argues,
   in much of her later poetry, Sylvia Plath sought to give birth to a
   creative or "deep" self hidden within her. By unpeeling an outer
   self of "dead hands, dead stringencies," she sought to unveil and
   give voice to an inner "queen" or "White Godiva," a spirit of
   rebellious expressiveness. Although she may at least partially have
   achieved this goal in such celebrated poems as Daddy, Lady Lazarus
   and Ariel, she more characteristically dwelt on her fears that she
   would fail to reveal her "deep self" or that she did not in fact
   possess such a self at all. (1985: 286)

In Plath's poetry, these fears or incapacities took the shape of the mirror and the shadow. Plath developed an interest in mirrors and shadows while preparing her honor's thesis--entitled The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevski's Novels--during her senior year at Smith College. In researching the thesis, she engaged in sustained intellectual inquiry, reading, among other, James Frazer's chapter on "The Perils of the Soul" in The Golden Bough, Otto Rank's chapter on "The Double as Immortal Self in Beyond Psychology, and Freud's essay on "The 'Uncanny.'" Each of these works explored the literary and psychological significance of the "double," with the Frazer and Rank studies laying emphasis on the figure's appearance as reflection or shadow. They proved to have had a lasting effect on Plath, shaping her subsequent poetic expression.

6. The Self-Revelatory Power of Deixis in Mirror: The Mirror-Woman-Writer

In Mirror (1961), the woman-as-writer seems to apparently proclaim her obedient adherence to the contemporary mimetic model, according to which the woman is assigned the role of passively mirroring man, only to tease and overturn it. As Freedman points out, "She accepts the woman's role as accurate reflecting mirror in order to transcend it, to show how that very role inevitably thwarts and transcends itself." (1993: 156) The real object of the poet's study becomes her own identity and the insurmountable fear at revealing the alter ego, the rebellious double dwelling inside her.

It is the nature and occupation of the mirror self-effacingly to reflect the other. In Mirror, however, the glass is both subject and speaker at once. The true identity of the mirror/woman is majestically expressed by the moves Plath operates with respect to the deictic elements she employs throughout the two stanzas of the poem.

In Mirror, the voice that speaks throughout the poem belongs, paradoxically, to an inanimate entity, namely to a mirror. The mirror is personified and endowed with a voice and a soul of its own. In accordance with this assumed perspective, the deictic system employed by Sylvia Plath in the poem revolves around the use of the first person narrative.

The poem can be divided into two parts built symmetrically, each of them comprising nine lines. The first part displays the form of a confession, in which the protagonist is a speaking mirror which addresses an unspecified addressee.

Mirror begins with the first person pronoun "I," a deictic element that appears seven times in the first nine lines of the poem and, together with "me" or "my," seventeen times in this poem of only eighteen lines. The mirror, which is by definition a mere reflecting surface without identity, defines and identifies herself: "I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions."

The persona that has no story, tells it, and in the defiant act of doing so, she becomes the instrument of assertive selfhood. To tell one's own story, even if it is the story of absence and effacement, is to establish a presence and to display the face behind the silver mask. Nevertheless, the mirror's opening self-definition and announcement of its identity calls that identity into question and begins to transform the mirror from a passive reflector into an active speaker.

By equating the identity of the speaking mirror with the speaking "I" of the poem, Plath actually operates the reconstruction of the speechless woman through its self-complaint. "I am not cruel, only truthful," asserts the speaking mirror, in an attempt to exculpate herself of the "guilt" of objectively reflecting the others' ugliness or beauty without discrimination. Interestingly, while characterizing herself as devoid of any preconceptions, the poetic persona seems negatively affected by her own reflection in the other's minds, reflection bearing the imprint of preconceived perceptions.

A further step towards decoding the identity hidden behind the "I" of the mirror is made by the attribution of human characteristics (such as having or not having preconceptions) to the inanimate object. Moreover, the identification of the speaking "I" with the woman/poet gets substantiality if we think of the word "silver"' as a clever disguise of the poet's own name, Sylvia.

The extensive use of the first person pronoun "I," which appears four times in the first four lines of the poem makes a strong argument for the assertive power of the speaking self. Yet two out of the three introductory statements define the identity of the speaker by negation: "I have no preconceptions," "I am not cruel." Although in-forming her autonomy by the power of speech, the speaking persona still depends on the others, whose subjective perceptions she takes as main axis of self-definition.

The second line of the poem is marked by the introduction of a second referent that is addressed directly, by means of the second person pronoun "you": " Whatever you see I swallow immediately." The speaking mirror's confession is therefore intended for a specific addressee, in relation to whom the addresser defines herself as an absorbing entity that turns back the reflection of things unaltered by subjective perceptions or thinking. The direct form of address in the second person narrative creates a dimension of involvement between the speaker and the addresser.

The poetic persona positions herself not as passive, but most of all as objective reflector. Her omniscient objectivity is congruous with the following lines that attribute the speaking "I" godlike features: "[I am] The eye of a little god, four-cornered," establishing a new relation of identity. The definite description "the eye" reinforces the unique identifiability of the speaker. The same uniqueness is revealed in the double-fold nature of the above mentioned definite description: if in writing the formal and semantic difference between "eye" and "I" is obvious, in oral communication the boundary between the two distinct noun phrases disappears; thereby, for the uninitiated hearer, the speaker becomes the very instantiation of a deity. The importance of the poetic persona is magnified accordingly, acquiring impressive dimensions that function to the detriment of the passive role assigned to the mirror/woman as reflector by a patriarchal society.

The four lines that conclude the first stanza of the poem seem to divert the reader's attention towards a somehow intruding entity that interposes between the speaking "I" of the mirror/woman and the presupposed "you" of the reader. A strange relationship of tacit complicity establishes between the pink, speckled wall and the mirror that is placed opposite to it. The relative importance of the wall for the speaking mirror is suggested by the fact that four third-person references to the wall occur within the length of two lines only. The references to the wall occur with a frequency which is perfectly comparable to that of first-person references: five occurrences of "I" versus four occurrences of "it" referring to the wall in the first stanza of the poem. Although not granted the status of a real interlocutor, the wall attains a high degree of familiarity that allows its inclusion into the life of the speaking persona: "I have looked at it so long /I think it is a part of my heart."

If at a superficial level of reading wall and mirror are bound by the same passive resignation at their monotonous existence whose chief characteristic seems to be immobility, the image of the wall acquires unexpected valences as the poem progresses towards the final, revelatory line.

The tonality changes almost completely in the second part of the poem. This change is signaled from the beginning by the temporal restrictions placed under the temporal specification "now": "Now I am a lake" The abrupt and terse change in tone accentuates the change in reflection that has taken place. The shifting identity of the poetic "I" is reflected in the chameleonic capacity of adopting different forms of existence. The speaking persona assumes, by turns, the image of a mirror, of a "little god' and of a lake respectively. The skillful disguise behind the image of the lake is used by Plath as a pretext to introduce the referent that will become the centre of interest in the second stanza: "A woman bends over me."

Introduced by the indefinite article with epiphoric value, the woman is set in contrast and foregrounded against the definite reference to the wall. The familiarity of the wall is replaced by the strange face of the woman. The speaking voice displays the same objectivity, yet there is a sense of conscious detachment towards this new participant into her life.

The woman is perceived as a stranger in search of her true self: "A woman bends over me,/Searching my reaches for what she really is." Quite interesting, if in the first stanza of the poem it is the mirror whose identity is defined in close relation to peoples' perceptions ("Whatever you see I swallow immediately"), this time the woman's destiny seems to be inextricably bound to the mirror's reflection ("I am important to her").

This second part of the poem witnesses a shift from first to third person forms; the reflecting image of the mirror and the image of the woman reflecting in it are perceived alternatively. The dimension of detachment introduced by the third-person references to the woman is permanently counterbalanced by the mapping that occurs between the mirror and the woman. By reflecting herself into the silver surface, the woman becomes one with the mirror. While in Plath's early poems the self was often imagined in terms of its own possibilities for transformation, in the post-Collossus poems the self is more often seen as trapped within a closed cycle. In Mirror, the identification between the mirror and the woman is reminiscent of the same imagery of the trapped self. Although the mirror/woman's self strives to assert its autonomy, it cannot undergo rebirth, since the passage of time is the only change the mirror reflects, and this change does not offer an optimistic perspective. The entrapment of the woman's self is suggested by her constant departures from and come backs to the same starting point, to the "eye" (or I) of the mirror: "she comes and goes."

In the context in which the attributes of the mirror merge with the identity of the woman in creating the profile of the woman-reflector, the line "Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon" invalidates the initial assertion "I have no preconceptions." Obviously, she[=woman=human being] turns to the candles or the moon for a soft light that will hide any wrinkles that might otherwise disturb a preconceived notion of her own self-image. Though the mirror is not "Cruel, only truthful," it also is "rewarded' by "tears and ... agitation." It describes itself as "[having] no preconceptions," but reveals itself to be just as discriminating as the enchanted mirror in Snow White, seeing "the candles or the moon" as "liars," and envisioning an aging woman as being "like a terrible fish." The emotive use of the demonstrative adjective "those""[liars] testifies to the subjective attitude undertaken by the speaking persona having proclaimed itself devoid of subjectivity.

In turning away from the image reflected in the "eye"" of the mirror, the woman denies her own identity. This permanent oscillation between accepting the truth of her identity and defying it is marked at the stylistic level by the alternative shift between first and third person narrative.

The mirror transcends its merely reflecting capacities and becomes the reflection of the woman's fears as well. It is the only reliable witness of the suppression of the woman's younger self and the emergence of her older self, whose image haunts the woman "like a terrible fish." The identity of the mirror has been gradually replaced by the identity of the woman so that it is the woman who takes up the role of the speaking persona in the end. After all, she is the only one able to render the full measure of her aging-related fears. The horrifying fish whose image is associated with the image of decay and old age may represent a projection of the woman's psyche.

The dread-inspiring fish is identified with the passive mirror by its presence within or behind it. But their mutual identification may have another source as well. The speaker sees herself "in" the mirror or lake in two senses: she is the fearful image in the depths beyond the glass and she is the mirror itself. The terrible fish observed in the lake's depths and rising toward its surface is identifiable with the mirror that reflects, neutrally and passively, whatever swims below it. The monster in the depths, in other words, is also the monster on the surface.

The hidden revelation that speaking mirror ("I") and reflecting woman ("she"") are one and the same "T" may also reflect the resistance of the woman writers to the preconceived roles assigned to them. In this respect, it is this rebellion, this presumptuous arrogation of autonomy that may well account for the shocking image of the terrible fish in the poem's concluding line. The fish may be a metaphor of the unconscious drives repressed by the mirror-woman-writer whose rebellious self threatens to challenge the patriarchal norms imposed by society.

Therefore, the terrible fish is not just a symbol of approaching old age: it may as well stand for the image of some kind of a "monstrous autonomy" that stares back at the literary woman in so many of her writings. "The woman writer's self-contemplation." Freedman argues, may be said to have begun with a searching glance into the mirror of the male-inscribed literary text. (1993: 168) The horrifying fish may be a demonic emblem of the woman writer's independent identity.

The image of the fish can be provided yet another interpretation. It may represent not only the monstrous autonomy of the woman as personally or artistically creative self, but also the impossibility of all autonomy or self-definition. As Freedman contends in his 1993 study "The Monster in Plath's Mirror," defining herself in and as that which cannot be defined, "the woman writer comes perilously close to her previous condition of subjectlessness. That is the price of creative autonomy viewed in terms of resistance and dissociation (1993: 169).

There is, of course, a biographical dimension to the governing images of this poem, which adds further to the purely literary force of the work. Plath had a dual image of herself--a brightly silvered surface concealing a demonic form--in other words, both a mirror and a fish. The mirror is the brilliant surface Plath presented to the world, both as a woman and a poet. In the first part of Mirror, the prevalent image of the mirror stands metaphorically for the woman-reflector that passively adheres to the social roles assigned to her by the social context. As a mirror-poet, Plath is the precise measurer and recorder of minutiae. As a mirror-woman, she is the perfect reflection of a male-defined feminine ideal, that fulfilled all expectations, that acquired parental and social standards of elegance, beauty and achievement. It is mirror that reflects back what others wish to see, the persona that, as Plath herself described it, apparently untroubled by her numbed submission, "Stay[ed] put" just like the mirror fixed on the wall.

But this Plath was only a facade, a placid surface laid over an inner turmoil the poet herself perceived as a monster struggling for release. Inside the woman-as-mirror, behind this depersonified reflector of the external world, lurks the minatory force that will emerge with full power and vengeance in some of the Ariel poems. The "terrible fish" is not simply the image of aging and decay apparent in the surface narrative, but the very incarnation of the rebellious rejection of the passive mirroring role by the woman-writer, for whom the question of mimetic reflection or creative transformation is crucial.

The powerful meanings of the poem are artfully conveyed by the poet's use of suggestive imagery (the mirror, the terrible fish), as well as by the most appropriate choice of deictic elements. Alternating first and third person narrative, the poet evokes the woman-writer's strive to detach from her darker self as well as her strive to reunite the scattered fragments of a split and complex individuality. In this respect, Mirror represents a kind of middle-ground between passivity and action, bitter self-cancellation and aggressive self-assertion.

Mirror can be seen as the turning point in Plath's development. Irrespective of the use of the first or third person narrative, the speaking voice that makes herself heard throughout the poem is the voice of Sylvia Plath herself. Through her speaker's fantasies and fears, Sylvia Plath projects her own understanding of the perilous subversion of inner drives of the darker self. The deictic choice the poet operates reveals the poetic persona's terrifying self-knowledge. In Mirror Plath is engaged in demonstrating the way in which the mind deals with circumstances to which it responds with excessive sensitivity. The typical strategy of her first-person speaker is to hyperbolize the ordinary experience of reflecting one's face in the mirror and to intensify the mind's manipulative skills so that the woman becomes a terrifying fish. By establishing a relation of identity between the poetic "I" and the woman that oscillates between assuming her real identity and rejecting it, Plath's Mirror provides a devastating insight into the writer's world.

7. Concluding Remarks

Modernist and post-modernist literature are likely to create confusion in the readers' minds due to the plurality of voices that struggle to make themselves heard throughout the text as multiple facets of the same individuality. In this context, the careful analysis of the linguistic layers of a poem provides an enlightening perspective upon its adequate interpretation.

As our deixis-based approach to Sylvia Plath's Mirror shows, the linguistic analysis of poetic texts (and of literary texts in general) contributes to a great extent to their disambiguation, thus providing substantial arguments in favor of a linguistic approach to literature.


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Spiru Haret University

Raluca Burcea is a graduate of the University of Bucharest. She holds a master's degree in ELT and Applied Linguistics from the University of Bucharest. She followed training courses for teachers at Studio School of English, Cambridge, U.K. (2004). She has now a 10-year experience in teaching English and French for specific purposes, mainly to the students of the Faculty of Marketing and International Business at Spiru Haret University, where she is now a lecturer. In addition to teaching, she has been constantly involved in various research activities, having published and presented several papers on topics related to applied linguistics, business and economic discourse analysis, Economics terminology, the metaphorical dimension of the marketing discourse etc. In 2011 she successfully defended her Ph.D. Thesis, La metaphore dans le discours du marketing (Metaphor in the Marketing Discourse). Her research interests also include exploring the ways in which a linguistic approach can contribute to the study and analysis of literary works.
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Publication:Journal of Research in Gender Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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