The search for our true selves is nothing new. This has been the ultimate quest from the beginning of time. It’s wrapped up in every tale of adventure-someone faining for glory, honor, power, etc.. The characters all think if they find what they are longing for, they will find themselves, and if we are honest with ourselves, we are not too far off from our own favorite fictional characters. We all are longing for something, that at times, seems unquenchable, and maybe that’s because, as much as we think we have the authority or the right, we don’t get to define our true selves.
Considering moments from a very small section of literary history, we see the topic of true self in Snow White (filmed in the ’40s, but written in the 19th century), Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies (published in the ’80s), and most recently J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (published in the ’90s). Each of these works uses a mirror to, in some way or another, discuss different aspects of self as the characters attempt to discover their core.
One of the most well-known elements and quotable moments of Snow White is when the queen asks her mirror, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall who is the fairest one of all?” The mirror always tells her that she is the fairest in the land, until one day, its answer is Snow White. As this popular story goes, the queen makes it her purpose to end Snow White so that she can return to being the fairest of all people in her land. That is her deepest desire, and ultimately what she believes makes her complete. If she does not have that, she is lacking-she is not the queen.
Again, we see the use of a mirror in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Here, Harry stumbles upon the mirror of Erised completely by accident and sees his family, all of whom had died many years before, standing behind him. He then brings his friend, Ron, to see the mirror as well and Ron sees a completely different image. He sees himself as head boy and everyone around him is beaming with pride for his accomplishments. A third time Harry goes to find this mirror as to see his family again, and there stands his headmaster, Dumbledore. Dumbledore helps explain to Harry the purpose of the mirror. He says, “it shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” He then says something incredibly profound, “However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth” (Rowling 213). Hold on to that thought as we continue to explore this idea of the true self through one more work.
In Christine de Pizan’s work, City of Ladies, we meet three women that are celestial beings that work unto the Lord. The first woman, Reason, you guessed it, has a mirror. The purpose of her mirror being that “no one can look into this mirror, no matter what kind of creature, without achieving clear self-knowledge” (de Pizan 9). With Reason’s mirror, nothing can be done well without it. It shows the essence, qualities, and measures of all things. Through Reason and Christine’s conversation, we learn of all the angst and questions that have come from men giving harmful commentary on women as a whole. The same commentary has led these women to build a city without men, and full of worthy and virtuous women. The desire to be seen and known as their true selves, full of worth and dignity and the only way to do this, in their minds, is to completely cut out the source of what feels wrong.
The common thread of all of these stories and most any other that we gravitate to because of our common quest is desire: the desire to be most loved in Snow White, the desire for a family or for achievement in Harry Potter, and the desire to be loved, known, and encouraged in City of Ladies. Even the latter, getting the closest to a definition of truest self still does not seem to quite fill the void. It does, however, tap into something deeply important: creation being named only by its Creator. De Pizan interestingly enough relies heavily upon scripture for her conversations between her characters to solidify her argument about how women are to be treated, and while clearly, this fictional story steps out of complete biblical truth, she keeps some of the most foundational pieces. In discussing the creation of woman, Reason says, “[Eve] was created in the image of God. How can any mouth dare to slander the vessel which bears such a noble imprint” (de Pizan 23)? Man! You can’t get any more true than that. We are a people, bought by the blood of Jesus, created in the image of God, and you don’t get to mess with that. The other beautiful thing about that being who we are at our core is that nothing else gets to name us-this includes the things that men have written about women over the years. Those words carry no meaning and no weight when you know whose you are.
Maybe this is why all of the metaphors held in place by mirrors representing true self will never be sufficient-why they will never “give us knowledge or truth.” We don’t get to define truth for ourselves because truth has been defined since the universe was created by someone full of far more reason, rectitude, and justice than we ever can have. Truth will always evade us when we are looking for it outside of its source, and this is why it seems to be our permanent zeitgeist and our never-ending quest.
De Pizan, Christine. The Book of the City of Ladies. New York. Persa Books 1982.
Rowling, J.K.. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Mexico. Scholastic Books 1997.