Mirrors are symbolic of the characters’ struggles with their respective identities within the novel. When Hana, a nurse, first arrives in Italy during World War II, she cuts her hair after it in falls into a bloody wound, and she doesn’t look in a mirror for over a year. Later, after months of nursing the never-ending line of critically-wounded soldiers who arrive at the makeshift hospital, Hana catches a glimpse of herself in her roommate’s mirror. Looking at her reflection in the tiny mirror, Hana barely recognizes the harden woman she has become. “Hi Buddy,” Hana says to herself, borrowing the name she uses for each of her many nameless, faceless patients. The mirror, then, forces Hanna to confront how the trauma of her role as a war nurse has changed her both inside and out, presenting an unrecognizable reflection that highlights the disconnect Hana feels with her former civilian life.
At the end of the war, when Hana refuses to leave the Italian villa due to the English patient’s unstable condition, she takes down every mirror in the villa and stacks them in the attic. Hana is traumatized by the war and her place in it, and in her refusal to look in the mirror, she effectively avoids confronting herself. Hana isn’t the only one who refuses to look in the mirror. Kip, the Indian sapper, struggles with his native identity in the whitewashed British military. He willingly conforms to Western culture, but he continues to wear a traditional turban, which he wraps around his head each day without looking in a mirror. Similar to Hana’s struggle with her place in the war, Kip struggles with the implications of his racial identity in a racist society, and by avoiding mirrors, he avoids this truth as well.