Lacan’s version of psychoanalysis discourses mirror-stage as a part of identification in his three-stage model of identity formation. He is a French psychiatrist who worked with psychotic patients from 1930 to 1940. He began to develop his own version of psychoanalysis keeping his precursor Freud as the mastermind behind his activities. His extraordinary contribution to this field is his accommodation of structuralism and deconstruction with psychoanalysis. He is greatly influenced by the Saussurean linguistic model, Levi Strauss’s model, and Derrida’s deconstructive model. He has shifted psychoanalysis from its inevitable humanist perspective to the poststructuralist paradigm. He read out his theory on the Mirror Stage at International Psychoanalytic Congress in 1936 and delivered its revised version at Zurich International Psychoanalytic Congress in 1949. His theory of the mirror stage examines how a child differentiates himself in contrast to his own reflection and others.

Source of mirror stage

Lacan is indebted to the contemporary studies on child psychology in the 1930s to formulate his famous idea of the mirror stage in his version of the theory of psychoanalysis. Henri Wallon’s study of child psychology inspired him greatly which narrates “the reactions of very young children on seeing their reflection in a mirror” (Macey 255). According to Wallon, the child’s image in the mirror offers him the essential aspects of “self-perception” (Macey 255) and “a sense of selfhood” (Macey 255). The second source Lacan studies deeply to formulate his idea of mirror stage is the study of primate ethology (a branch of knowledge dealing with human character with its formation and evolution) which refers to the fact that “a young chimpanzee confronted with a mirror does not behave in the same way as a human infant and takes no interest in its own reflection” (Macey 255).

Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and Lacanian mirror stage

Before discussing Lacanian mirror stage, the Freudian model of psychoanalysis needs to be taken into consideration. What Freud highlights is that there are two principles namely pleasure and reality principle. The pleasure principle refers to “do whatever we feel good” (Klages …). On the other hand, the reality principle represses the pleasure principle to make the children balanced. Freud argues that all desires are libidinal which infants cannot always fulfill because of the reality principle. Thus, they are compelled to repress their desires. According to Freud, all the repressed desires are preserved in a particular showroom of the mind which he terms as the unconscious. What is very interesting in his view is that the unconscious controls human thoughts, actions, and belief systems. He argues that it also has a great influence on the formation of the human self. Freudian unconscious, thus, questions the long-existing humanist conception of self which has been taken as the totality of self and posits himself as a poststructuralist. His poststructuralist identity lies in his shifting from the conventional western conception of the self and advocating the channeling of the ID or polymorphously pervert desires into creative activities. Lacan takes this model to develop his own version of psychoanalytic theory and his mirror stage offers the “origin of subjectivity” (Macey 255) which is nothing but an illusion.

Freudian self and Lacanian I or subjectivity

Freudian psychoanalysis aims at producing a balanced self in an infant by rejecting the incestuous relationship with his mother and accepting heterosexuality. Because of the interference of the guardian angel, the infant represses his pleasure principles which are mostly libidinal in nature. On the other hand, Lacan questions the Freudian idea of subject formation. To him, the formation of ‘I’ is nothing but an illusion. In his “Psychoanalytic Experience” (1949), Lacan shows how an infant forms the idea of “I”, the signifier as an illusion of an ego. It is a misrecognition about himself which he mistakenly affiliates with his mother as a unified body. Macey summarises Lacanian idea stating that the child “identifies with an image of what it will become but that image is illusory and the child’s identification signals the beginning of a dialectic in which recognition is simultaneously a form of misrecognition” (255). Lacan identifies this characteristic as It is to be mentioned here that Lacanian psychoanalysis also centers on the unconscious but he is substantially different from Freud in the functioning of the unconscious.

Unconscious: A Verbal Paradigm

First, Lacan establishes that the Freudian unconscious is a verbal paradigm and works as a language following definitive linguistic structures. For defining it, he takes Saussure’s linguistic model. Saussure says that meaning in any language is the inevitable combination of signifier and signified.

signifier+signified= meaning

To him, the signifier is the sound we utter, and signified is the psychological imprint of the utterance. These two can be combined following a particular psychological process called to be signification. He emphasizes the fact that without producing signified by the signifier, meaning is quite impossible. So, meaning is nothing but the signified of the corresponding signifier. The Lacanian objection lies here regarding the inevitability of signified. It is the chain produced in the manner that the signifier can be combined with the signifier. The famous analogy given by him is that-

I am breast or I am penis= I am x or y

This shifting is remarkable as it offers an externally embodied form. Moreover, it represents a name that links the person individually in the social network. This is also a shift of Freudian metaphor to Lacanian metonymy.

Mirror stage

Peter Barry, in his Beginning Theory, analyses Lacanian Mirror Phase elaborately. According to him, it happens in the Lacanian first of the three-stage process of identity formation namely the imaginary when the infant is between 6 to 18 months. Seeing himself in the mirror, a child considers himself as a unified body. Nayar analyses it arguing that the child’s “sense of the self is similar to its conception of the relationship between himself and the mother” (75). He cannot differentiate between himself and the reflection in the mirror which is described as “homologue for the Mother/Child symbolic relation” (Nayar 75). To Lacan, the child is a Saussurean signifier and his reflection in the mirror is the signified. But he is given the notion by someone from his family uttering “Look, look. it is you”. The infant, looking at himself and the reflection in the mirror, discovers the ultimate difference existing between them and thus, is able to attribute a particular type of meaning to his existence. Lacan describes it as “misrecognition” (Nayar 75). According to Lacan, this is the moment when he enters into the world of language. His language system is concerned with lack and separation. He can realize that he lacks something that his mother or father has and thus, he suffers from a sense of separation. But Barry comments that the mirror phase is the beginning of the socialization for the baby as it is concerned with prohibition and restriction. This is also the beginning of Lacanian symbolism.


The Lacanian mirror stage is the formative period for the infants in which they partially form their subjectivity or I. Though taken from Freud’s version of psychoanalysis, Lacan, using the ideas of contemporary thinkers, develops the mirror stage to show how infants experience dialectical ideas through the mirror stage and how they form their illusory subjecthood.


  • Culler, Jonathan.Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 1997
  • Macey, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. Penguin Books, 2000
  • Nayar, Pramod K. Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory: From Structuralism to Ecocriticism. Pearson, 2014



Abdur Rahim
Abdur Rahim

Assistant Professor, and Member of the Proctorial Body
Department of English Language and Literature (DELL), Premier University, Chattogram,
& Doctoral Fellow, English Department, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka.

Phone: +8801715638298


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