The Mirror and the Lamp, the Mask and the Elephant: a Close Reading of &Quot;Ella&Quot;

Val Larsen, Truman State University
Newell D. Wright, James Madison University
[ to cite ]:
Val Larsen and Newell D. Wright (1998) ,"The Mirror and the Lamp, the Mask and the Elephant: a Close Reading of &Quot;Ella&Quot;", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 101-104.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 101-104


Val Larsen, Truman State University

Newell D. Wright, James Madison University

This paper builds upon the premise that well conducted interviews with insightful informants resemble well written fiction in that both are saturated with multiple dimensions of meaning. Consequently, both will sustain and reward close readings that disclose the patterned complexity embedded in the text. Of course, consumer behavior interviews differ from novels and short stories in that fiction has received this kind of close scrutiny for many decades now whereas interviews with consumers have not yet received this kind of attention, for reasons that have been laid out by Larsen and Wright (1997). Thus, the contribution of this paper is partly methodological, in that we model a novel approach to consumer behavior interviews, and partly substantive, in that we offer theoretical and practical insights into the consumption habits of one particular consumer, "Ella," an African American college professor and dean at a university in the Midwest. The paper is organized into three main subsections, two that focus on particular artifacts and their larger meanings, and a third that discusses an important difference between fiction and social science interviews and the implications of that difference for interpretation.


In a classic work of literary criticism entitled "The Mirror and the Lamp" (1953; cf. Wasserman 1959), M. H. Abrams has argued that the Neoclassic literature of the 18th century and the Romantic literature of the 19th century embody fundamentally different conceptions of art that are rooted in fundamentally different conceptions of the self. In the 18th century, especially early on, art was conceived to be a mirror that reflected a preexisting reality and the self was held to be socially defined. What we refer to as the "looking-glass self" (Cooley 1902) was well understood in that century. The Romantics of the 19th century, on the other hand, frequently signified art and the self with lamp metaphors, for in their iew, as a lamp produces its own light rather than merely reflecting light from other sources, so does the psyche of the artist externalize itself in art. For them, the wellsprings of art and of the self were internalCpsychological not sociological.

How is this distinction between kinds of selves relevant to Ella and her consumption habits? The most striking thing about Ella is the extent to which she embodies within herself Abram’s distinction between the mirror and the lamp and is torn between the conflicting drives of her public and private selves. She is also an avid collector of mirrors and lamps, a fact that is probably only partly coincidental. As she comments in the interview, "I have a lot of mirrors in my house for some reason [about thirty-five], and I’m not conceited. I don’t know why I like to buy mirrors and I like to buy lamps" (p. 5). At least with respect to the mirrors, the answer is probably the same thing that motivated the use of mirror metaphors in the 18th century: a highly developed degree of social awareness and consequent tendency to self monitor (Snyder 1979). The mirrors, an index (Mick 1986; Pierce 1931) of Ella’s social awareness, let her see herself as others see her.

Public and Private Wardrobes. Much of the interview is devoted to a discussion of Ella’s wardrobe. This discussion is characterized by a constant oscillation between her incompatible mirror and lamp perspectives, an oscillation that is reproduced in the strikingly dichotomous pattern of her clothing purchases. Ella has in her wardrobe many items from Carole Little, a line that features bold colors and patterns and that Ella describes as being "kinda wild." She also has a number of conservative, monotone business suits.

Ella purchases conservative suits in order to control the reactions of others, evoking from them respect for her competent professionalism. Past experiences and observations have convinced her that conservative suits, particularly navy blue suits, will have the desired effect.

I: Why do you think you need to be conservative?

E: I do have a desire to excel in the workplace. And I think I need to be a little more conservative in order to do that.


When I first got my doctorate and I was in Administration for Women, we were told to wear a navy suit. And so I had been poor all while I was in grad school, and then once I graduated, I went and bought four navy suits and I didn’t know which one to wear which day. And so now I think I might have eight or more navy blue suits.... And I think it somewhat makes a statement, too, 'cause if you like go somewhere and you see someone sitting at a table with red on ... and then you see somebody with a navy blue suit, automatically you’ll come and ask the person with the navy blue suit on for directions or whatever. And you can also say that’s why policemen wear the navy uniforms.... It gives a statement of you know what you’re doing.

It is probably no accident that Ella cites the navy uniforms of the police, the community’s designated agents of social control. She uses her own professional uniform, the navy suit, to control others, evoking predictable and desirable responses fom them. And yet, Ella is not satisfied merely to elicit favorable reactions from others; she also wants to express her private self through her clothing choices. This desire impels her to purchase the more colorful Carole Little clothing.

E: You still have your personality when you’re shopping. And I think a part of my personality is something like, "Wow, get the Carole Little."

I: So you think that your clothes are an expression of yourself?

E: Oh sure, yeah. It tells a lot about your personality.

The oscillation in another passage between these two incompatible points of view reveals the degree to which the two sides of Ella’s character are balanced in an unresolvable tension. Phrases in the passage are marked as reflecting a public/mirror (m) or private/lamp (l) point of view:

(l) I like things with color. And I also as well...

(m) but I’m kind of opposite, too, because I also like the conservative look, like solid colors.

(l) But then I see myself, when I’m going out, I might wear something that’s a little bright.

(m) And although I know that’s ... I would like to project another image

(l) but there’s still something about me, because I believe that people have cores. And then in their core, the personality is there whether its ...

(m) whether I put it aside for my job or whatever.

Because Ella cannot resolve the contradiction between her desires to control the reactions of others and to express her inner self, her wardrobe is not a consistent product constellation (Solomon 1983, 1988; McCracken 1988). Consequently, in both her purchase decisions and her daily decisions on what to wear, she experiences the kind of discomfort that is apparent in the preceding passage and others in the interview.

Acquisition Value and Transaction Value. It is arguable that the social awareness that drives Ella’s purchase of business suits also affects her preference for certain stores and her responsiveness to sales promotions. To better show this effect, we adduce Thaler’s distinction between acquisition value and transaction value, a distinction that illuminates and is illuminated by Ella’s interview. Thaler (1985) argues that the value of a purchase is a composite expressed in the following formula: Total Value=Acquisition Value [Product Utility-Purchase Price] + Transaction Value [Reference Price-Purchase Price]. Thus, acquisition value is the utility gained from the object itself; transaction value is utility gained from one’s sense that the purchase is a good deal. Ella’s comments clearly illustrate Thaler’s two constructs and reveal, as well, that acquisition value is an artifact of the private self, transaction value an artifact of the public self, a point that Thaler himself does not make.

Though she does not use Thaler’s terminology, Ella clearly believes that acquisition value is a function of private preferences.

I: At the end of our previous interview, you said that you like to buy things that are pretty to you. What constitutes something being pretty?

E: Well, actually, I think beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What might be pretty for me might be totally different from you. And so I can only say based on my personality type.

In other words, each individual has a particular set of indifference curves that define value for them and express their unique personality.

But important as these private estimations of acquisition value may be, they are not as salient for Ella as transaction value, value in the marketplace. She confesses in the interview that she finds transaction value to be nearly irresistible.

E: Well actually, Talia, I think that I really am a bargain shopper.... I might buy some things that I don’t need because it’s on sale. And I read once that if you get something that’s on sale and you don’t need it, you’re wasting money.... And I find myself doing that, because like I have gone places and seen something on sale ... and maybe ... it’s some clothes that’s too small for me, and I’ll buy it. And I say, "I’ll give it to somebody else, then, just to get the sale." And I just can’t walk away from it.

In another passage she says,

E: And then sometimes, like, when I’m shopping, I’ve done this.... I might see a good sale on a blouse ... and then I go somewhere else and see a good sale on a blouse. And I end up buying the same blouse the same day.

These too-small or duplicate items have no intrinsic value for Ella, no acquisition value, but they are so imbued with transaction value that she can’t pass them up. So while Ella can restate the argument of those for whom only acquisition value mattersCif you buy things you don’t need on sale, you are wasting moneyCshe finds it unpersuasive.

The salience of transaction value for Ella is probably rooted in her pronounced social awareness, for a reference price will generally be socially defined by some external source: the manufacturer, the retailer, what others have paid (Klein and Oglethorpe 1987; Lichtenstein and Bearden 1989; Winer 1986). Transaction value thus becomes a measure of how successfully one has navigated the marketplace, an inherently social domain. The social character of transaction value is apparent when Ella tries to recall her biggest bargain.

E: I went to an auction once and bought these jade elephants. I only paid about six dollars for them. And so I thought that was a real, real value 'cause they’re big and they’re pretty. And even the auctioneer remembers me buying them, and he says, "You got a real good deal there." So I ... oh, I know another thing I bought once. This gold mirror I have in my living room. I only paid thirty dollars for it.

I: And how valuable is it?

E: I don’t know, but some people afterwards had come up to me and said they would give me $130.

Ella looks to others to confirm that she has gotten a good deal. If others did not regard these objects as being valuable, Ella’s satisfaction with them would be diminished because they would lack the socially defined transaction value that is so salient for her.


In addition to her wardrobe, Ella especially values her home and her collection of elephants. The importance and function of the elephants (and the masks that preceded them) is apparent in the following passage which we will analyze in some detail:

I: I see that you have lots of elephants. I’m assuming that you collect elephants, right?

E: Yes, Talia (laughing).... I started in 1988. And I’ll tell you the story behind that. Before I started collecting elephants ... I collected artifacts of masks. And in 1988, I had a fire and I lost everything I owned.... And so ... that was the most depressing thing that I have ever experienced. And I always thoughtCand it might be so superstitiousCbut I had this African mask over my backdoor ... near my backdoor, in the den. And it just looked ... and it always did something to me to look at that mask. And I don’t know whether that had anything to do with ... I know that it didn’t have anything to do with the fire because it really started from someplace else and then it came over to where I was living. So, I decided not to bother with those artifacts anymore. And so I decided to collect elephants instead. The elephant, with trunk up, stands for good luck. And after losing everything I had, I thought I needed all the luck I could get (Laughs). So that’s how I ended up with the elephants.

We begin with a link Ella makes explicit when she says, "I decided not to bother with those [masks] anymore [and] to collect elephants instead." In saying this, Ella marks these two artifacts as being semiologically equivalent, yet also different. They are equivalent, presumably, in that both link Ella to Africa and express pride in her African heritage. They differ in that Ella associates them with bad and good luck. Before turning to the question of just why the mask should be perceived to be unlucky, the elephant lucky, let us consider the broader issue of luck itself.

Animism and Luck. The concept of luck is rooted in an animistic world view, a view that sees all things as being full of spirit and, therefore, full of purpose and power. An animistic world is not, as is sometimes asserted, a world without causation. Rather, for the animist, all things are possible causes. A black cat, a 13, crossing one’s fingers, any and all of these may be potent causal agents. Thus, the shift to a more adequate world hypothesis such as mechanism is not so much a matter of adding new causes as of subtracting old ones by laying down conditions that must obtain before causation may be imputed, e.g., spatial contiguity (Pepper 1978).

Animism may seem irrelevant to an intelligent and well educated woman such as Ella, but as Pepper (1978, p. 120; c.f. O’Neill 1994) has pointed out, "Every child is a natural animist, and so (if the secret be known) is every man, not only primitive man, but civilized man as well." Ella knows that animism is intellectually suspect, but she nevertheless remains an animist deep down. And she is honest enough to reveal, cautiously, her animistic belief that the mask was implicated in the fire that destroyed her home. The caution is reflected in the way she fractures her syntax when she begins to be too honest ("I always thoughtC[breaks off]"), the way she deprecates her own opinion ("and it might be so superstitious"), and the way she asserts her beliefs indirectly ("And I don’t know whether that had anything to do with [breaks off]....") But most telling is the way she moves directly from a mechanistic premise denying the mask any role in the fire because the fire originated elsewhere to an animistic conclusion that clearly does not follow as the so suggests it should: "I know that [the mask] didn’t have anything to do with the fire because it really started from someplace else and then it came over to where I was living. So I decided not to bother with those [masks] anymore." The power of the impulse to reason animistically is fully apparent in this non sequitur movement from mechanistic premise (no causation because no contiguity) to animistic conclusion.

While Ella’s animistic reasoning is not surprising given the pervasiveness of animism, the question remains as to why she focuses on the mask as the cause of her bad luck. The answer may be the same social awareness and concern that motivates her purchase of navy suits and her emphasis on transaction vlue. A mask is, arguably, a perfect symbol for the mystery inherent in other human beings, for faces, however expressive, are also masks that hide more than they disclose. And while these masks may conceal good as well as evil, prospect theory suggests that we are wired to fear the evil more than we hope for the good (Kahnemann and Tversky 1979). This may be especially true for African Americans who, in their social interactions, have been especially likely to find evil hidden behind literal and figurative masks.

In any case, Ella evinces some fear of the other. When the interviewer, recalling Ella’s earlier comment that people have cores, asks, "What do you think is at the core of your personality," Ella replies, "Well, Talia, I will never tell you that. I have to protect the core of me." Though she has been willing to reveal a great deal about herself, Ella ultimately keeps her own mask firmly in place. And since she is inclined to see the world animistically and to fear that which is hidden in others, it is perhaps not surprising that Ella experienced some of Sartre’s (1956) dread of the other’s gaze when she came face to face with the mask near her backdoor. In another fractured sentence, she seems to allude first to the mask’s power to gaze at her, then to the discomfort she felt under its gaze: "And it just looked [breaks off] ... and it always did something to me to look at that mask." Though the fire happened years ago and though mechanistic reasoning tells her it cannot be so, Ella still feels that the mask with the disturbing gaze had something to do with the destruction of her home.

The mask and the elephant, the artifacts Ella uses to mark her connection to Africa, both frame the continent as a source of things extraordinary and powerful. But the artifacts are extraordinary and powerful in very different ways. The shaman’s mask signifies that which is human, complex, hidden, mysterious, and, thus, potentially malevolent. The positioning of the mask "over my backdoor," a likely point of surreptitious entry, may indicate that it functioned as a modern-day hex sign, warding off burglars or other uninvited visitors with a hint of black magic (Rook 1987). If so, the mask would be further evidence of Ella’s concern that others may injure her in some way. And her unshakable feeling that the mask had something to do with the fire would be more understandable. She would merely need to conclude that the malevolent power of the mask that was meant to turn protectively outward had instead turned destructively inward. In switching from the mask to the elephant, Ella retains the desirable and eliminates the undesirable aspects of the mask. An elephant is African and powerful but is animal rather than human, colossal and obvious rather than mysterious and hidden. It is conventionally associated not with black magic but with the enchantment of the circus and, as Ella notes, when its trunk is extended, with good luck.

Social Masks and Consumption Inertia. The passage immediately following the one quoted above also warrants analyis.

E: And then I just bought an elephant. And then I said, "Well, you have seven elephants, and that’s a set." And it really ... seven is a good luck number, supposedly. And I just started buying elephants so I could have good luck. And then, it just grew and grew. Everybody else thought that I liked elephants. And so I started getting ... I didn’t buy a lot of these elephants. Most of the elephants you see were gifts. So I really didn’t buy a lot of them. It might look that way (laughs).... I didn’t. But now, when I go places and travel, or even when I go to a flea market or a yard sale or an auction, still looking for bargains, I look for elephants.

I: About how many do you have?

E: I have close to 300.

In this passage, we see how te masks people wear may create a kind of consumption inertia. Ella’s friends cannot know the core self she keeps hidden or her private intentions. As attribution theorists have pointed out, they must draw conclusions from and act on limited information. So while Ella felt she was done collecting elephants once she had a lucky set of seven, her purchases initiated other purchases by her friends, purchases which reopened the set. And once the set had been reopened by others, Ella herself again began to buy. A similar dynamic may have motivated Ella to buy eight or more navy suits. Operating on limited information, she may have carried a passing hint about the appropriateness of navy suits to its logical limit. The general point would be that, acting as they inevitably must on limited information, consumers may be inclined to follow the implications of the cues they do get to their logical or practical limits. Thus, within the limited information horizon where the choices are made, behaviors that may seem compulsive or extreme from other perspectives may appear entirely reasonable.


While social science interviews will sustain and reward close readings just as fiction does, it doesn’t follow that the two kinds of texts can be interpreted in precisely the same way. The statements in "Ella" would have a different valence if this interview were read as a short story. (Such a reading is plausible, for just as early novels were written as if they were an exchange of letters, so a short story could be written in interview form.) To illustrate the difference between the two genres and suitable modes of interpretation, we offer a reading that would be appropriate if "Ella" were read as fiction and a contrasting social science reading. Our alternative interpretations focus on the following passage:

I: I don’t know why I like to buy mirrors and I like to buy lamps. And sometimes I think maybe it could be a problem in terms of the lamps because I don’t have anywhere to put them. So I put them in the closet.

R: To light up the closet, huh?

I: No! They’re not used.

In a short story, this passage might indicate, symbolically, that Ella has hidden (closeted) her lively, glowing personality (symbolized by the lamps) in order to gain social acceptance in a conservative academic setting where idiosyncratic or vivacious behavior is problematic. In this literary reading, the passage would have tragic overtones, for the phrase "they’re not used" would suggest that Ella’s charismatic qualities have been wasted. This reading would be grounded in the literary convention of significance (Culler 1975)Cthe presumption that prominent images and objects in literature convey meanings beyond the literalCand in contextual evidence that the lamp might signify the private self: the literary tradition of using lamps to convey this meaning (Abrams 1953), Ella’s explicit pairing of mirrors and lamps, and the prevalence of the distinction between public and private selves throughout the text.

Read as an actual interview, this passage has a different meaning. Social scientists need not concern themselves with the symbolic dimensions added by the literary convention of significance. Unlike poets and novelists, informants can generally be presumed to use a word primarily to denote its literal referent. So on a social science view, when Ella speaks of lamps, she is probably talking about literal lamps, not symbolically or even indexically (as in the case of the mirrors) about aspects of the self.

Nevertheless, in a social science reading, too, there is evidence that the lamps have some larger meaning. They aren’t used to produce light, and they have become so numerous as to be a storage problem. What is their larger meaning? In our view, they are mst likely another manifestation of Ella’s collecting impulse and should be assessed in the context of other things Ella collects: masks, elephants, crystal glasses, mirrors framed in gold, and candle holders. We would set aside the masks and elephants which have a distinct semiological function already discussed. The remaining objects Ella collects (including clothing) all seem to reflect a fascination with social class and with the aesthetics of light and color.


This interview with Ella and similar data are valuable primarily because they reveal the complex, multidimensional nature of consumer behavior. They challenge us to bring all of our learning to bear on a complex but delimited phenomenon. In this article we have drawn on a broad range of theories that illuminate different aspects of the text. We have generally, though not always, attempted to link specific theories and insights to our main theme: the tension between Ella’s sociological and psychological selves. In a more positivistic, more theory-driven study of a particular phenomenon, our approach might have been unacceptably eclectic. But in an analysis that is organized not by any particular theory but by a complex text, a somewhat ad hoc approach such as ours may be appropriate, for it may reflect the multidimensionality inherent in the text and in consumer behavior outside of the laboratory.


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