Sylvia Plath titles the poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ to let her readers know that there will be references to death. Lazarus, the well known bible character who was brought back to life after three days in the tomb, will set the tone for the rest of Plath’s poem. Since we know that Lazarus was brought to life again, we might assume that this poem will be one of victory over death, just as the biblical story of Lazarus. We soon learn, however, that Plath intends to identify with the Lazarus decaying in the tomb rather than the Lazarus who had been brought back to life.
Lady Lazarus Analysis
Sylvia Plath is known for her tortured soul. This is what makes her intriguing to readers. Most people have experienced agony at least once. This agony is often so deep, there are no words to express the true anguish present. Plath, however, has a way of putting delicate, beautiful words to a dark, lonely feelings.
The first stanza of Lady Lazarus cannot be properly understood until the entire poem has been read. Click here to read the whole poem.
At first glance, this doesn’t have much meaning, but after reading the entirety of Lady Lazarus, readers can gather that Plath is referring to suicide. She admits right off the bat that she has tried to die once every decade of her life.
Plath then begins to explain to readers why she has tried to die so many times. She uses vivid imagery to compare her own suffering to that of the Jewish people.
She compares her skin to a Nazi lampshade. This is significant because of the idea that the Nazi people used the skin of the Jews to make lampshades. Plath uses this horrifying metaphor to compare her own suffering to those in Nazi concentration camps.
She conveys the heaviness of her pain by comparing her right foot to a paperweight. This imagery helps the reader to understand that Plath’s pain was so real that it felt like a physical weight.
The paperweight conveys the nature of her emotional pain. The imagery of a featureless face reveals that she doesn’t feel any identity. She doesn’t feel set apart for any specific or important purpose. She feels like a face lost in the crowd, one that noone would remember.
In stanzas 5-7 of Lady Lazarus, Plath describes her face as a fine Jew linen. Jew linens were used to wrap the body of Lazarus before they laid him in the tomb. Jew linens were also used to wrap Jesus’ body before he was laid in the tomb.
Plath’s reference to the fine Jew linen reaffirms that she already feels dead. Or rather, she feels nothing just as the dead feel nothing. And this inability to feel is precisely what causes her to suffer. Plath continues to uses imagery of death to reveal her deepest feelings.
When she asks the reader to “peel off the napkin” she is challenging to reader to look at her for who she really is. She doesn’t believe that anyone would want to really know her, to peer into her soul and really know her. She believes that if people were to do that, they would be terrified. The reason she thinks this way, is because she is afraid that people will become aware that although she is alive in flesh, her soul is dead. This is why she continues to use imagery of death and decomposition to describe herself.
This is the point in Lady Lazarus at which the reader can become aware that Plath identifies not with the risen Lazarus, but with the Lazarus who is dead and has already begun the decomposition process. This is why she describes herself as having a prominent nose cavity, eye pits, and teeth. Those features would be most prominent in a decaying body. Plath explains that the sour breath, the putrid smell of death, will soon vanish. She continues to explain the effect death. Plath uses this imagery to explain the emptiness and numbness that tortured her soul. She uses the description of physical decomposition to convey the way she feels that her soul is decomposing.
Plath then transitions from speaking of herself as an already dead woman, to revealing that she is actually alive. However, the tone of Lady Lazarus reveals that she is disappointed at being alive. It becomes obvious that she identifies with death far more than with life. She thinks of herself as a rotting corpse, no the “smiling woman” of only thirty that she sees when she looks in the mirror. She reveals an obvious disappointment that she has not been able to die when she compares herself to a cat, concluding that it will probably take many more attempts to reach death.
Plath then reveals that each decade, she has come very close to death. When she says, “this is number three” she reveals that she has tried to die a number of times. Plath then takes the focus off of herself and her own misery and begins to criticize the people around her.
She calls them the “peanut crunching crowd” suggesting that they are only in her life to scoff at her and make a spectacle of her. This same view of people is conveyed when she compares herself, yet again, to Lazarus. But this time, she doesn’t compare herself to the Lazarus who is dead in the tomb. She compares herself to the Lazarus that has risen and is coming out of the tomb still wrapped in burial cloth. Only Plath’s tone is not triumphant, but rather skeptical. She calls her exit from the tomb, “a big strip tease” revealing that when she came close to death, but was brought back to life, the people around her were there not to rejoice with her or comfort her, but to be entertained by her. Her sarcastic tone reveals her frustration with the spectators and her disappointment that she was unable to stay dead.
This is when she realizes that she is alive, though she wishes she were still in the tomb. This gives the reader the imagery of Plath looking at her hands, her knees, her flesh, and realizing the she is still alive, at least physically. She realizes that she is just the same as she was before experiencing death. She writes,
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.
Explaining that she is the same woman she was before her near death experience.
Plath then begins to give the reader some history on her experiences with death, explaining that the first time was an accident, and she was only ten years old. This is when it becomes clear that the first accidental near death experience was traumatizing to Plath, but somehow left her wanting another taste of death.
Plath does not reveal the age of her second encounter with her own death, which was her first suicide attempt. However, since she says she has tried once every decade, we can assume she was around 20 years old. She explains this experience,
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
This section of Lady Lazarus reveals that Plath came so close to death, that she believed she had actually experienced death. She also “meant to last it out” which reveals that she truly does not wish to live any longer.
Plath so identifies with death more than life or anything in life that she says,
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
She explains her own interest and “talent” in this “art” when she says,
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
When she claims that death is her “call”, it reveals that she feels no purpose in life other than to die. She reveals that her only relief from suffering, emptiness, and numbness was what she experienced in her encounters with her own death. But every times she gets a taste of death, she ends up surviving, only to resume her former suffering. The next four stanzas reveal her thoughts about her return to her life of suffering.
She reveals that she thinks it should be easy enough to end her life, and stay put. She reveals that the hard part is coming back and facing the crowd. She feels she is being put on stage when people call her life “a miracle”. Plath takes on a tone of sarcasm when she suggests that there should be a charge for looking at her or touching her.
For the first time in Lady Lazarus, Plath makes her readers aware of the source of her suffering. She writes,
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.
Herr is the german word for Mr. The use of the German word “Doktor” refers to the Nazi doctors who brought the Jewish victims back to health, only to resume their suffering. By putting an emphasis on the word “Herr” twice in this stanza, Plath reveals that men are the enemy and the cause of her suffering. Plath then begins to explain why men are the enemy when she writes,
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.
This reveals her belief that she is valuable to men only as an object, beautiful, but hard and lifeless. She does not deny that she is valuable to some people, particularly men, but only as a cold, hard object of beauty, not as a human being. She feels that her death, to the people around her, would be nothing more than watching a beautiful piece of jewellery burn.
She uses heavy sarcasm when she says, “do not think I underestimate your great concern”. She feels that her death, to the people around her, would be nothing more than watching a beautiful piece of jewelry burn.
Plath continues to imply that the people in her life, particularly men, value her only as an object. This is revealed when she writes,
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——
A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.
The Nazi’s were known to use the remains of the burned Jewish bodies to make soap. They also rummaged around heaps of human ashes to find jewelry and gold fillings. This is how Plath views her value to other people.
In the next next of Lady Lazarus, Plath turns to a tone of revenge. She continues to blame men, God, and the Devil, specifically pointing out that both God and Lucifer (the Devil) are men. This also reveals that she feels powerless under men. She refers to the Doktor, God, and the Devil all as men who hold some kind of power over her.
It is difficult to tell whether Plath is referring to herself when she “rises from the ashes” as a physically alive woman who has failed yet again at trying to end her life, or as one who has died and will return as an immortal. She may plan to stop attempting suicide and take her revenge on men instead of herself. Or she plans to come back as an immortal after she has died to take her revenge on men. The red hair suggests that could symbolize the mythical creature, phoenix, who can burst into flames and then be reborn from it’s ashes. Either way, Plath warns men everywhere, that she is no longer a powerless victim under them, but that she is ready to take her revenge.