Posted by: wiber22m | December 20, 2015

Nothing More Than A Shadow – Reflections and The Mirror of Erised

Mirrors in art and literature often have very diverse meanings and interpretations. In class we discussed the way in which the portrait of Dorian Gray might be interpreted to function as a mirror, reflecting the unrestrained truth of Dorian’s soul. However, we also talked about how mirrors themselves don’t show the truth but instead show only reflections. What we see when we look into a mirror is not what others see when they look at us, but a flipped version of reality. Mirrors do not show truth, but merely an echo of what is.

The Mirror of Erised, from Harry Potter, is said to show the true desire of the person who gazes into it and takes the question of mirrors as revealing truth even farther. The engraving on the frame of the mirror, when read backwards (with adjusted spacing), states “I show not your face but your hearts desire.” When Harry Potter looked in the Mirror, he saw himself surrounded by family, his parents and other relatives, none of whom he had ever seen before but who he saw and identified as family. Ron Weasley saw himself as Quidditch Captain, having won the Cup, and as Head Boy. Neither of these things were truth, Harry’s family was dead, and each individual sees something different, a person is unable to see anyone else’s reflected desires. The Mirror essentially fails as a mirror, not reflecting what is but instead what is desired. Like with Dorian Gray’s portrait showing the truth of his soul, the Mirror claims to show the truth of the heart.

The Mirror of Erised

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

However, according to Dumbledore, the Mirror shows neither truth nor knowledge and is in fact very dangerous. The Mirror is only able to show what the viewer most wishes and even then can only give the illusion of the desired.

“It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. You, who have never known your family, see them standing around you. Ronald Weasley, who has always been overshadowed by his brothers, sees himself standing alone, the best of all of them. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.” – Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 157)

The Mirror is dangerous in the same way the Resurrection Stone, one of the Hallows from the 7th book, is dangerous. Both can only create shadows of desire and life. The Stone can conjure a shade of the dead but it cannot return them to life. The Mirror can reflect desire but there is no truth to the reflection. The story of the Hallows tells the danger of the Stone, the second brother going mad with grief, able to see a shadow of the woman he loved but knowing they were separated still, killing himself so that he could be with his dead love who the Stone could not truly bring back. Dumbledore tells Harry of the similar danger of the Mirror, that people have gone mad sitting in front of it, enticed by the reflection of a desire that is nothing more than a shadow and which, for those like Harry, can never be more than that.

Dorian Gray believes that his portrait brings understanding, that each time he views the portrait he learns something of who he truly is. Ultimately this drives him mad. The Mirror of Erised offers no such understanding, but a similar madness. The Mirror shows an echo, not of what is but of what is desired, offering nothing more than lure it can never satisfy.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling


  1. I definitely agree with these links you make between the Mirror of Erised and the Portrait of Dorian Gray-both show the same dangerous quality that comes from wanting to stop time and acquire the unattainable. I also think 12 Grimmauld Place and Walburga Black’s portrait in Harry Potter reflect some of the anxieties about aging and morality that we see in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. The actor Ben Barnes, who played Dorian Gray in 2009, is often fan cast as Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, with many images of Dorian from the 2009 film re-appropriated to represent Sirius. Both characters, aside from both sort of having colors-as-last-names, are described as very handsome until they are suddenly aged and disfigured (Dorian when his painting is destroyed and eighteen corrupt years suddenly return to his own face, and Sirius after the time he has spent thirteen years in a brutal prison where barely anyone was present to witness his presumably more gradual deterioration). Like Dorian, Sirius seems determined to recapture his youth, but only a specific part of his youth; the part spent with his friends at Hogwarts, but not the part spent with his cruel family. This might explain why he takes so many risks simply to appear at Hogwarts even after he has lost track of Peter Pettigrew, either as a dog at the train station or with his face in the fire. Being observed at Hogwarts, while potentially fatal, may subconsciously be his own fatalistic desire. In his home however, finally being observed and criticized by Kreacher and the image of his dead mother, both of whom he has avoided for over a decade, seems scarcely pleasanter than being back in prison.

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