The Mirror Stage


Anyone who’s ever seen a baby progress through their first year of life will be aware that, at some point, they become aware of mirrors and the fact that there is another little person on the other side. When my eldest first went through this phase I was reminded of something I learned when I was at university studying literature. Part of the course involved getting to grips with literary theory – a lot of which crosses over with psychology and philosophy. There is one particular theory by a French academic, Jaques Lacan, called ‘The Mirror Stage’. He suggests that babies between the ages of 6 months and 18 months discover themselves in mirrors for the first time and it gives them a sense of (false) power and control (as they can force movements in their reflection by moving themselves). It’s false because of course the reflection is not a real person any more than is a shadow.

You might wonder how this plays into literature. As I recall through my studies of the works of Henry James, the mirror stage comes into play through his ghost stories. He has two particular tales, more famously The Turn of the Screw in which a governess goes to work in a large country house to look after two children. Whilst there she becomes convinced that there is a ghost stalking the children and she becomes absolutely paranoid about their safety. She believes the ghost to be a former employee who is thought to have molested the children and imagines that the children can see the ghost too. In the final scene she speaks with the young boy and explains that he is no longer controlled by the ghost, however the boy dies in her arms. In another tale by James called The Jolly Corner, a man returns to his former childhood home after spending 30 years abroad. Seeing the house again reminds him of the choice he made years ago to forsake a career for a more leisurely life and soon a ghost appears in the house which represents the man he would have been if he’d taken a different path in life. The ghost stalks and haunts him at night.

Essentially these ghosts are projections from the fevered imaginations of the protagonists – the opposite of what happens in the mirror stage really because they are the parts of the psyche that cannot be controlled and this is the human condition beyond the age of 18 months when we first become aware that the person in the mirror is just a trick of the light.

With EJ just turned 19 months I am now fully aware that he has hit Lacan’s ‘turning point’ – the point at which we first develop our ego – the first little bit of self-knowledge. Its hardly the end of innocence but at the same time it’s a major developmental leap and kind of explains why the ‘Terrible Twos’ suddenly begin to come into play at this point. The understanding that they have both the ability to demand control but also lack control leads to unrealistic demands and massive frustrations.

I guess the best we can do as parents is try and give them the illusion of as many choices as possible (the strawberry yogurt or the apricot yogurt?) and hope that they never manage to knock themselves out in a fit of pique!

Linking up to The Prompt over at Mumturnedmom whose prompt this week was the word “Reflection”