Study on Literature and the Looking Glass : Scholar Reflects on Women and Mirrors

Times Staff Writer

In her dying moments, the heroine in Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” asked for a mirror to take one last look at her “self.”

Tolstoy’s heroine Anna Karenina looked at her “self” in a mirror, then committed suicide.

As for Jenijoy La Belle, who has researched references to reflections in 700 written works, she looked into a mirror and saw possibilities for a book.

An associate professor of literature at Caltech, La Belle wrote “A Dialogue of One--Women, Mirrors and Identity” after concluding that literature accurately reflects the roles that mirrors play in real life.


Differing Reflections

While dramatic dying scenes may be devices of fiction, La Belle said, women do tend to see their real selves when they look at their reflections, while men, both in literature and in reality, seldom see anything more than a mirror image.

For her scholarly work, which is being published by Cornell University Press, La Belle researched books, poems and essays written during the past 200 years. She will lecture on the subject Wednesday at 8 p.m. in Beckman Auditorium.

La Belle, whose youthful looks belie her 43 years, said she began her research several years ago “because I think I wanted to come to terms with myself and my relationship with a mirror.”


She did not intend a major research project, she said, but “I walked into a looking glass and couldn’t get out.”

La Belle, who identifies herself as a feminist, was the first woman professor ever hired by Caltech, in 1969. In addition to women and mirrors, she has written about Shakespeare, William Blake and the poet Theodore Roethke.

In her research, La Belle found that “there’s an intimate relationship between women and mirrors. A woman carries on a lifelong interrogation with her reflection.”

In contrast, she said, “there aren’t many scenes of men with mirrors. Usually they’re there to remove something--to cut hair or beards or to remove dirt.”

Women, however, “search the reaches of the mirror for what they are,” La Belle said. Far more then men, “they tend to identify their selves, the essence of their being, with their mirror images.”

She concluded: “All men have faces, but many women are their faces.”

Other frequent users of the looking glass in literature are “the mirrorholic--for them, one glass is never enough. They have to addictively sneak a quick fix"; adolescent girls “who have to excuse themselves from study hall to check and see if they’re still there” and “revolutionaries who mutiny against the mirror and say, ‘That is not I.’ ”

“What does this tell us about real women?” La Belle asked. “I have not written a sociological study, yet my book does make implicit claims about what real women do.


“I think many women in life, as much as in literature, are caught in that motionless silvered trap. I think we are all daughters of Eve, whose first act on earth was to bend over the still water and gaze upon the first ‘herself,’ at least according to John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost.’ ”

It is not all vanity, La Belle said.

“A woman in front of a glass is not just adoring herself--sometimes she is creating herself. She uses the mirror as a useful tool for affirming her identity.”

In answer to Freud’s famous question, “What do women want?”, La Belle paraphrases the title of Virginia Woolf’s feminist pamphlet “A Room of One’s Own.”

“What women want is a mirror of their own,” she said.