The work of the American poetess Sylvia Plath is traditionally considered the birthplace of such a genre of poetry as confessional poetry. The name of the writer is not only well-known to the Western reader but became a kind of myth, embodying the tragic fate of a raging woman poet in a world ruled by men. Literally, for a decade of active literary activity, Sylvia was able to create an impressive number of works included in several collections. Among these works, the poem “Lady Lazarus”, which tells the story of a woman’s painful fate, stands out. This essay is designed to analyze the literary work “Lady Lazarus” and to identify the hidden meanings in it.
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It may seem that the only message the author has put into this poem is the idea of suicide, but this is a mistake. It is enough to look at the title to understand what the author wanted to convey. The title of the poem speaks for itself: Sylvia Plath was inspired by the biblical story of Lazarus’ resurrection. The subject matter of the poem refers instead to the question of the transformation of a strong personality. This can be traced from the poem’s name to the last part, where the protagonist rises from the ashes completely burned in the fire. Indeed, the lines describing the tragic fate are permeated with shadows, but the general tone of the poem is life-affirming.
Known for her suicidal thoughts, the poetess Sylvia Plath continues the theme of death in this poem. Plath compares herself to a cat and writes, “And like the cat, I have nine times to die” (Plath). Each of these nine lives ends in a suicide attempt. Finishing the third life, the poetess in the following lines describe the brief history of the previous two. According to them, the first death occurred by chance, in childhood, when the girl was nine years old. The girl’s second life is more detailed: it was a deliberate suicide, but it was not completed, and the girl was rescued.
The reader observes the periodically changing stories of Lady Lazarus’ life and death. However, according to the author’s words, “Dying is an art…” (Plath). Consequently, the performance requires viewers, especially those who are eagerly awaiting such an outcome for the heroine. The lines of the poem describe the crowd, greedily crunching on peanuts, while the heroine is dying (Narbeshuber 185). Of course, the author is critical of those people who do not come to the rescue but only look and satisfy their curiosity.
The poem “Lady Lazarus” appeals to both sides of the ambiguous but brilliant personality of Plath, dancing with death and denying death. The lyrical heroine, after yet another suicide attempt, is now reborn through an act of self-immolation, like the Phoenix bird. This comparison is justified: the author presents a woman who has just risen from the dead, like the Phoenix bird, whose goal is to imprison all those around her (Novkinić 172). This righteous anger is used to describe the loneliness and abandonment of the female character.
In the end of the poem, having resurrected, the heroine will absorb men like air. In this sense, it seems that each new coming of the heroine after unsuccessful suicides makes her stronger and more determined. It is enough to go beyond the standard comprehension of the poem to understand that the lines are devoted not so much to the triumphant resurrection of the heroine as to her conflict with the patriarchal standing of the world (Narbeshuber 185). “Lady Lazarus” is not only a poem exposing depressing thoughts but also an assertion of how an influential male figure can usurp the creative forces of the poetess, but will ultimately be defeated by the rebirth.
When analyzing the poem, the importance of the parts of a woman’s body that are described cannot be underestimated. They are not intended to satisfy carnal interests, but rather to serve as an allegory to the horror of medical experiments on Jews during the Holocaust (Novkinić 166).
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The strong desire for death in the poem is further reinforced by references to mass genocide against the Jewish population. The text is imbued with German themes and lexicon: Herr, Nazi lampshade, and Jew linen. The heroine compares her body to the Nazi lampshade, hinting at the fact that Nazis often used the skin of Jews to make lampshades. The poetess applies this unpleasant metaphor to express compassion for those who have experienced the horror of concentration camps.
Fascism in Sylvia Plath’s poems also served as a quintessence of the previously described problems. The “peanut crowd”, eager for spectacles but not offering help, is not only a theater of cruelty but also an allusion to the Germans who supported the ideas of the Holocaust and the death of other nations (Novkinić 167). The themes of fascism create a monstrous atmosphere expressed through men’s faces and addresses. However, the reader knows that Lady Lazarus will defeat all those who are described negatively. This is a warning from the poetess herself to the men who betrayed her trust; now, she is no longer a helpless victim.
The poem “Lady Lazarus” is rightly one of the most famous works of Sylvia Plath. The central themes of this literary work are the question of rebirth and the formation of a stronger personality through the cycle of life and death. However, the poem is rather organically broken down into sub-themes, including the horrors of fascism, consumer society with no human compassion, and the oppression of the patriarchal system. The author puts an end to these problems, resurrecting the lyrical heroine strong and determined to destroy all those who betrayed her.
Narbeshuber, Lisa. “The Poetics of Torture: The Spectacle of Sylvia Plath’s Poetry.” Canadian Review of American Studies, vol. 34 no. 2, 2004, pp. 185-204.
Novkinić, Sandra. “The Poetic Rite of Rebirth in Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”.” Anafora: Časopis za Znanost o Književnosti, vol. 1, no. 2, 2014, pp. 165-176.
Plath, Sylvia. ” Lady Lazarus.” Poetry Foundation, 2019. Web.