The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 7, No 3 (2003)

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Reflection and Reflexion: Female Coming-of-Age, the Mirror Stage, and the Absence of Mirrors in Robin McKinley's contemporary retellings of Folk and Fairy Tales

Evelyn Perry

Jacques Lacan describes the child's psychological development--the transition from the Imaginary to the Symbolic Order--as resulting from an experience of the fragmented self and concluding in the integration of the self in society. During this time, the subject transitions into his/her adult identity and is initiated into the adult community (Ecrits). The subject comes of age via three developmental stages: the Imaginary, in which the subject is fragmented ("feels that [it] is in pieces" [Moi 100]), the Mirror stage, in which it merges and identifies with another human being (either through contact or by reflection), and Recognition of the self within a partnership, in which the subject identifies itself as autonomous and in relation, thereby placing itself within the Symbolic Order of language and culture. In Robin McKinley's novels Beauty and Rose Daughter (both retellings of Madame Le Prince de Beaumont's "Beauty and the Beast"), Deerskin (a retelling of Charles Perrault's "Donkeyskin"), and Spindle's End (retelling Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose tale), adolescent coming-of-age doubles Lacan's psychological development in that it contains a second set of Lacan's three stages. McKinley describes adolescent coming-of-age as a psychological development both traumatic and identity-shaping; its ultimate success allows young adults to understand their actions as individuals as well as members of the adult community.

Within this doubling, the Mirror stage, by which the young adult is inducted into the adult community while still lacking an autonomous sense of self, is most significant. In McKinley's retellings, the Mirror stage actually takes place literally, without reflective devices; there are very few mirrors, glasses, or pools of still water. As a result, in McKinley's retellings of fairy tales, the adolescent comes of age without an autonomous sense of self. Therefore, the protagonists of McKinley's reworkings are spared the pain of seeing (and ultimately, of referring to) themselves until they have come of age. They do not see themselves until the action of the novel has been concluded, and then usually by accident. They are surprised by their own recognition of adulthood in themselves. The trauma of adolescence is integrated into the adult character without the distractions of self-reflection and physical self-reflexion.

In Lacanian terms, the ultimate success of self-definition is integration into the adult world; in the traditional, coming-of-age tales retold by McKinley, this integration is symbolized by heterosexual marriage, the "true" and "final" entrance into the adult community. This is true also of Robin McKinley's fairy tale retellings. Beauty, Rose Daughter, Deerskin, and Spindle's End can be aptly categorized as contemporary Lacanian marriage fables. As such, McKinley's retellings serve the same literary purpose as the original fairy tales being retold--however contemporized they have been.

Through a consideration of how language determines self-identification by collapsing the subject and subjectivity, the curious absence of mirrors and the resulting (self-)recognition in Robin McKinley's Beauty and Rose Daughter, Deerskin, and Spindle's End (all forthcoming over the next year), I argue that the mirror that stands for communication between the visual self and the linguistically pre-determined self is not a factor solely in child development. Adolescent development includes establishing new self-identities within an adult community, the imperfect cyclical process of stabilizing that identity, and the preoccupations with looks and image common to young adulthood. Lacan's Mirror stage is equally applicable to considerations of adolescent development and reflective/reflexive devices in literature intended for an audience in the process of re-identification--as were the literary fairy tales of Beaumont and Perrault (Zipes); as are the retellings of Robin McKinley.


Works Cited

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Alan Sheridan, trans. New York: W. W. Norton. 1982.

McKinley, Robin. Beauty. New York: Scott Foresman. 1993 (reissue).

---------------------. Deerskin. New York: Ace Books. 1994.

---------------------. Rose Daughter. New York: Ace Books/Greenwillow Books. 1998.

---------------------. Spindle's End. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. 2000.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. New York: Routledge. 2002.

Zipes, Jack, ed. Don't Bet on the Prince. New York: Routledge Kegan and Paul. 1989.


Evelyn Perry

Volume 7, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, September, 2003

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"Reflection and Reflexion: Female Coming-of-Age, the Mirror Stage, and the Absence of Mirrors in Robin McKinley's Contemporary Retellings of Folk and Fairy Tales" © Evelyn Perry, 2004.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680