Toni Morrison incorporates the symbolism of mirrors throughout her novel Song of Solomon to portray significant character changes in two main characters, specifically Hagar and Milkman, and to create an important connection between them that is solidified through this analysis of mirrors. The mirror becomes significant because it ultimately shows the difference between the two lifestyles of Hagar and Milkman. Hagar becomes so obsessed with the mirror and it results in her downfall. Milkman, however, learns that he should no longer look into the mirror but rather look outside of himself and care for others.
When Hagar looks in the mirror, in an effort to become the person she believes Milkman wants her to be, she is captivated by her physical appearance. The most significant example of this is Hagar looking through a compact mirror that Pilate gave to her. Hagar soon develops an obsession with becoming the person she imagines Milkman wants her to be, realizing that “From the moment she looked into the mirror in the little pink compact she could not stop.” Hagar cannot seem to get over herself, as evidenced by her inability to stop looking into the mirror. The narcissism that Hagar attempts to overcome is deadening to two people, both herself now and the woman she could have become in the future. She will not accept the fact that in her mind, she is not the woman that Milkman wanted her to be. She wanted to see in the mirror someone that Milkman would want to love, rather than who she was as a person. The mirror is a symbol of Hagar only seeing what she believes to be the ultimate standard of beauty.
Hagar’s dissatisfaction with her pathetic life is further developed when Hagar finally realized that there is nothing she could ever do to make Milkman love her. Hagar works tirelessly in an effort to become beautiful enough for who she believes Milkman wants her to be. She first presents herself to Pilate and Reba. However, Hagar was immediately distraught because she realized, “It was in their eyes that she saw what she had not seen before in the mirror.” She saw in their facial expressions that she did not fix the underlying problem, which was that Milkman did not love her. This is a result of Hagar searching in the mirror to find who she wanted Milkman to love. As she continually did this, she only saw her own desires, which never allowed herself to become the person that she envisioned. Hagar’s commitment to looking in the mirror, rather than anywhere or at anyone else, eventually leads to her premature death, because she is incapable of controlling the urge to be obsessed with herself.
Hagar continues to be so disturbed with her own reflection that she develops an idea of beauty that she craves but will never be able to have. Hagar is insistent on the idea that Milkman would only love her if she had, “Silky hair the color of a penny.” Hagar is African American, and therefore her hair color would never be the natural copper color that she so desperately wanted. This is important because it will eventually result in Hagar’s death and the dissatisfaction she feels with her own life. Hagar begins to ramble as she is explaining to Reba and Pilate that Milkman is never going to love her because she doesn’t have Lemon-colored skin. And gray-blue eyes. And this nose.” Hagar was a different kind of beautiful than she would never allow herself to recognize. She knew that Milkman would not love her the way she was, so she convinced herself that she must be someone different in order for him to love her. This longing that Hagar creates for herself is initiated by the mirror, when she looks into it and realizes that in herself she can never be what Milkman would love again. As Hagar imagines for herself a face and body of someone that she can never physically be, she continues her own narcissism and as a result, she unknowingly facilitates her own downfall.
In Song of Solomon the comparison of Milkman looking into different mirrors is in contrast to Hagar, especially since the results of them gazing into their own reflections are so distinct. Milkman first looks into the mirror and believes that he has a very disjointed face. He saw his face as something that, “Lacked coherence, a coming together of the features into a total self.” This occurs in the beginning of the novel, and Milkman acts very selfishly to those around him and does not treat anyone with respect. This characterization is demonstrated through Morrison’s use and symbolism of the mirror that Milkman looked into. He had a disjointed life, and his face reflected that fragmented appearance.
Similarly, Milkman notices one day when looking in the mirror that his left leg seems to be half an inch shorter than his right leg. This proves Milkman is still only concerned about himself and has no other interest in those around him or how his actions may impact them. As a result of his legs appearing to be different lengths, he began to walk with a slight limp which forced him to, “Acquire movements and habits to disguise what to him was a burning defect.” Milkman was only interested in himself and his own comfortable life, which explained the reason why he saw a defect in the mirror. Since he was only looking into himself, he found defects and irregularities that he despised. However, it is also upon looking at his different legs, that Milkman begins to see outside of himself.
The transformation of Milkman is developed even more as he goes walking outside one night after his father tells him about the relationship between Ruth and Macon Jr. Milkman goes walking in the town and looks upon a store window, in which he makes the realization that his mother nursed him far past infancy. Milkman is once again looking into the mirror and staring at his reflection, but this is where the change is beginning to occur, because, “Now he questioned them. Questioned everybody.” This is the first occurrence of Milkman beginning to look outside of himself and not be so caught up in his own thoughts and worries, as he was previously. Milkman is beginning to realize that it is not in himself or his reflection that he can learn more about his own life story, but by seeking out the stories of his family and their past relationships with him, which is what he begins to do throughout the novel.
As Milkman is taking a bath one day, without a mirror in the scene, he realizes that his legs now appear to be the same length. It is in this same scene that Milkman begins to feel, “Something like shame stuck to his skin” because he had “Been prepared to knock her (Pilate) down if she had come into the room.” The shame that Milkman feels is the first guilty emotion that he has ever had throughout the novel because he had stolen the green tarp from Pilate’s front room with Guitar. The guilt he feels is important because this transformation occurs while he is not looking into a mirror or even his reflection. Milkman for the first time is beginning to look outside of himself and see the consequences that his actions have, and the heavy weight that they are on those around him.
When analyzing both Milkman and Hagar’s different experiences in the mirrors that they look at, it becomes apparent why Toni Morrison chose the mirror as the symbol to represent the contrasting lifestyles of both Milkman and Hagar. Milkman is able to overcome his obsession with the mirror and his reflection that it produces, but Hagar is not, and it proves to be calamitous to her because she could not recover from the substantial infatuation with herself. The mirror is used to offer an abstract symmetry between the lifestyles that result for the two different characters. This is because when different people look into a mirror, they will always see themselves, but how they decide to interpret their own reflection is based entirely on their different characteristics. Milkman and Hagar each have very different personalities which is why Morrison chose to use the mirror as the symbol in the novel to compare the way both of those characters live. It allows their own qualities to come forth in a way that is very distinct but clear because it shows that reflections are personal and ultimately open to interpretation. Milkman and Hagar initially saw similar things, but what each did with those impressions is representative of their differing lifestyles and ultimately the final variations in their distinct characteristics.
Hagar’s personality was narcissism and obsession with becoming someone she never could be. She even admitted that, “From the moment she looked into the mirror in the little pink compact she could not stop. It was as though she held her breath and could not let it go until the energy and busyness culminated in a beauty that would dazzle him (Milkman)”. Hagar was so preoccupied with becoming exactly the kind of girl that Milkman would want, that she ended up killing herself. It was her detrimental thoughts and lifestyle that made her create a beauty that she desperately wanted but could never have. “Hagar is trapped between her own African physical features and the white-female ideal of beauty.” Her life consisted of regularly looking into the mirror and imagining a beauty that she could never achieve, thus trapping herself into her own death.
Milkman however, acknowledges himself in the mirror and tends to only initially notice the things that he despises or hates. However, it is upon the intentional placing of Milkman in a scene with only himself and no mirror, that he then begins to look outside of himself. He begins to realize the aftereffect his horrible actions have on different people, which Lena figuratively said he had found, “All kinds of ways to pee on people.” Milkman begins to understand that he neglected most of the characters in the novel and treated them very unjustly but never noticed. However, he does begin to realize his mistake, and once he stops looking at only his reflection, he is able to start looking outward and thinking of those around him.
The use of mirrors is very influential in the novel Song of Solomon because it shows the different lifestyles of both Milkman and Hagar. Hagar was always obsessed with herself, a form of narcissism that she could never overcome because she always looked at herself and was critical of what she saw. However, Milkman used the defects that he saw in the mirror to eventually stop looking at it obsessively and instead reflect on his life. He is then able to escape his own thoughts and realize how his actions impact others. Ultimately, the major difference between Hagar and Milkman’s noticing their reflections, is that Hagar allowed her reflection to define her, while Milkman allowed him to refine him.
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