Disclaimer: This is an example of a student written essay.
Click here for sample essays written by our professional writers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UKEssays.com.

What Lacan Means By The Mirror Stage English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2358 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

Reference this

Jaques Lacan was a French Psychoanalyst and a post-Freudian, influenced particularly by Sigmund Freud’s ‘Psychoanalysis’ and Ferdinand Saussure’s ‘Structuralism’. Lacan’s theories rested on the belief that the human psyche is divided into three main structures, the ‘Real’, the ‘Imaginary Order’ and the ‘Symbolic Order’, all of which are inextricably linked and control our life and desires. He developed his theory of ‘the mirror stage’ in 1936 which relates to the stage in a child’s development when he first begins to recognize his own reflection, usually in a mirror. The work of Lacan has had significant influence on the interpretation of literature by concentrating on the unconscious desire within texts, and he himself had a keen interest in art and Literature, being associated with the Surrealists in the thirties and was even Pablo Picasso’s private physician for a brief period. [1] 

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Essay Writing Service

The first structure of the human psyche for Lacan is known as the ‘Real’, a ‘state of nature from which we have been forever severed by our entrance into language.’ [2] Lacan believed we are as close as we can be to the real in our neo-natal stage, when we have no sense of individual identity, but rather form a mother/child dyad with our primary care giver. He proposed that human beings were always born prematurely, as other animals can usually care and fend for themselves from birth, stating ‘the child in his infans stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence’. [3] During this pre-verbal time the subject’s formation is solely biological, and they are in a state of pure need. The child seeks only to fulfill its desires, and does not perceive itself to be separate from its mother or surroundings; the mothers body is not perceived to be separate from its own. There is no absence in the real, as it is dominated by satisfying needs, but it cannot be described as it is beyond our signifying system. Furthermore it is beyond our possibilities to reach it or even perceive it properly and so we are constantly left with a sense of lack that can never be fulfilled. We lose this state of completeness forever through our entrance into language which comes about through ‘the name-of-the-father’. This is an authority figure who relies on language for his power, as his role is defined by language and he also utilizes language when he uses the word ‘no’ to break apart the dyad. We constantly strive to return to this state but it is irrevocable, and its influence continues to be exerted upon us throughout our lives; the real is the benchmark against which all of our ‘fantasies and linguistic structures ultimately fail’. [4] We repress the real, but it is a constant motivating force throughout our adult lives as we seek to fill the lack that it creates within us. Lacan’s ‘real’ refers to that which cannot be ‘directly inscribed or experienced…but which keeps insisting, and manifesting its presence through repetition.’ [5] 

Jacques Lacan believed that at around the age of six months an infant begins to recognize its own reflection in a mirror, and the gaze of the caregiver reinforces the belief that it is a separate entity. However he termed this a ‘méconnaissance’, misrecognition, as this image is not a true representation of the child. Whereas the image is stable and appears to be whole, a vision of completeness, it is in contrast with the child’s immobile state, and the image appears to have an independence that the child still lacks. It is at once both the child and not the child, and the child is required to recognise this difference in order to become a subject. Lacan called this image the ‘imago’, and it is the misrecognition of it which creates the ego ideal as the child hates the image because they perceive it to be better than them, but also revere and aspire to it due to the same reason. This is the first time in our lives that we are required to refer outside of ourselves to define our identity, and so we become separate, dominated by language and social constraints [6] , if only by virtue of the fact that we are given a proper name which denotes attributes such as gender, family heritage, and culture. Lacan also took note of a child’s physical straining towards the image reflected in the mirror and took this to be a symbol of the ongoing desire and gnawing for the perceived gestalt, a perfectly unified whole, throughout life. This phase also entails a ‘libidinal dynamism’ which is caused by the child’s identification with its own image, and as Lacan put it ‘namely the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image’ [7] . The infant will assume this image, but it is problematic because they can never truly become the image which is complete. This time is confusing for a child, and the mother becomes implicated and bound up in the child’s formation of the ego. This is why we find breast-feeding past a certain ‘acceptable’ age so horrifying because we begin to see it as a somewhat sexual act. The mother is part of this ideal which we view narcissistically and, to a certain extent, sexually.

Like the real, Lacan stressed the ongoing nature of the mirror stage throughout our lives as we constantly strive for this ideal-I. This imago is shown in Shakespeare’s play ‘Richard II’ in Act 4 scene 1 where he smashes the mirror, a representation of him losing his kingship which was his ideal self. His speech reinforces Lacan’s belief that the reflection shows a unified and perfect self, as Richard still has a narcissistic concern for his appearance and states ‘No deeper wrinkles yet?’ [8] and describes the glass as ‘flattering’. The mirror he is looking into merely shows his physical self which still appears to be kingly, but it does not show any of his follies.

The mirror stage initiates entry into the Imaginary Order as the child now experiences the world through images. Humans have a fundamental desire for narcissism and so create images of a perfect self and world. The imagination can be used to ‘help fill in the void that is created by the inaccessible real by making images of completeness,’ [9] however it is not possible to achieve completeness and the real and so these images are false. The person is constantly yearning for this fulfilment and their desire which can never be satisfied ‘consequently inscribes in the subject a sense of insufficiency or fading.’ [10] It is this impossibility of desire that is eminent in texts such as the Greek myth ‘Echo and Narcissus’. Narcissism is a personality trait which refers to self-love, vanity, egotism, and selfishness and Lacan was keen to develop the work of Sigmund Freud, another psychoanalyst who coined the term after the character of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection within the myth. For Freud it was the formation of an ego ‘which made narcissistic identification possible’ [11] , but Lacan believed that the ego was in fact the reflection, an imaginary double, which the child views narcissistically. In the myth of ‘Echo and Narcissus’ Echo loved Narcissus, but he was so proud that he scorned her love. To punish him for being hard-hearted and vain the goddess Nemesis lured him to a pool in which he viewed his own reflection and fell in love with it; waiting in vain for that love to be reciprocated he eventually withered away. [12] This tale demonstrates Lacan’s mirror phase as it shows that the image which Narcissus sees in the pool is idealized and he experiences an overwhelming desire to attain it. The image he wants is a representation of the Ideal-I, but one is just as false as the other and the language within this story is describing a perceived reality which in fact is not real at all but a mere reflection; language describes what is not there.

Lacan’s theories may also be of use in analysing ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ [13] by Oscar Wilde. Within this novel a beautiful young man named Dorian quickly becomes concerned with the transient nature of beauty and youth. He attempts to transform himself into the ideal other by cursing a portrait of himself so that his defects will manifest in the picture and remain away from him, leaving himself to be, what he considers, perfect. This novel demonstrates the powerful influence of viewing our own image. Within the mirror stage it is significant as it forms the ideal-I which we aspire to, and in this story it is the catalyst for Dorian’s moral descent. On viewing the portrait for the first time he becomes enamoured with his own looks and is willing to barter his soul to preserve them, striving to maintain this ideal forever. He plunges into a life of sin and debauchery, and this could be interpreted as him trying to reach for an ideal which can never be achieved. Due to this he descends further into this hedonistic lifestyle, but he can never achieve satisfaction as we can never measure up to this ideal-I that we see, and therefore this spurs negative emotions like anger and disappointment and creates a constant sense of lack. Despite the fact that he remains young and beautiful he displays these emotions in actions such as the murder of artist Basil Hallward, and the eventual plunging of a knife into his portrait, and ultimately into his own heart. Dorian Gray is a perfect subject to display Lacanian ideas. The picture of him represents the reflection in the mirror, and he sees within it an ideal version of himself, beautiful, stately, dignified and stable. However as with the mirror stage this recognition is fundamentally aesthetic. The portrait, to begin with, cannot show the vice within him or the instability of his personality which is soon made clear to the reader. His repressed desires are explored through the licentiousness he practices but he can never fulfil the lack he experiences and this is what eventually kills him.

Find Out How UKEssays.com Can Help You!

Our academic experts are ready and waiting to assist with any writing project you may have. From simple essay plans, through to full dissertations, you can guarantee we have a service perfectly matched to your needs.

View our services

The mirror stage may also be of use in analysing the ‘Pygmalion myth’ which features in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. It is the story of a sculptor who fashioned a statue of unparalleled beauty. He began to revere this statue, adorning it with expensive clothes and jewellery and giving it all the gifts he thought women love. He was madly in love with the statue, even obsessed, and this is a representation of the displacement of unconscious desire for the idealised mother of infancy. The statue has become what Lacan termed the ‘objet petit a’, as it is where Pygmalion’s repressed desire for the other has been displaced. There is also an emphasis on the investment of the author in the imaginary order as they have created a perfect character in the statue that is privileged over the other characters. The imaginary order creates perfect images and that is what Pygmalion has created in his sculpture, something that he feels will make him whole. However the statue serves two purposes in this myth as it shows that it is clearly not real because it is an inanimate object, but also that a real human being is still not an ideal, and so the statue is as close as Pygmalion can get to a woman which he believes to be perfect and enough to fulfil the lack he experiences, spurned initially from the separation at the mirror stage.

In conclusion we can see that Jacques Lacan believed the mirror stage was a crucial stage in a child’s development. To create an identity we are required to see our reflection and both identify with it but also realise that it is not truly ourselves. However when this identification occurs we become separated from the dyad and so a haunting sense of lack which we feel throughout our lives is formed. It is the impossibility of desire to fulfil this lack which texts explore and so it may be useful to bear Lancanian ideas in mind when we are analysing said texts as we can grasp a deeper understanding of the psychological drives and desires that spur characters to perform certain actions. It could also help us to understand why some characters in literature appear to be privileged over others as the author themselves may be trying to fulfil their desire by creating an ‘Ideal-I’ with their work.


Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have your work published on UKEssays.com then please: