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The Theme of Death in Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” Poem

The American poetry of the twentieth century is marked with many outstanding works that still draw the attention of the public and literature researchers. Sylvia Plath is one of the authors whose profound poems and vivid language brought her posthumous fame. In this essay, one of her most well-known poems, Lady Lazarus, will be analyzed, and the theme of death present in the poem will be discussed through its imagery.

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The latest works by Plath are characterized by more frequent use of dark symbols and hidden messages. Written in 1962, in the decline of Plath’s life, Lady Lazarus is a poem about a woman addressing her monologue to an unknown person. The dark mood and the theme of death, namely suicide, remind the reader of the life and torments of the poet herself (Mullenneaux 22). These and other aspects of the theme will be discussed further in detail.

The poem is rich with images that make it more profound and emphatic. The first thing the reader may notice is that the name of the poem contains a reference to Lazarus. The motive of rising from the dead is what unites this Biblical character and Lady Lazarus, as the narrator re-emerges from her three attempts of suicide (McKay 47). This idea is also clearly expressed through the image of a cat having “nine times to die” (Plath). In general, death in the poem is not presented as the end, but instead, as the beginning of the new cycle of life.

This idea is expressed through another essential image of the poem – the comparison of the narrator to the phoenix. At the end of the monologue, the woman states: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair;” the image of ash also repeatedly appears in the poem before (Plath). Mullennaux compares the character to “a phoenix, who has burned up and re-emerged in a purer, more powerful, form” (133). The image of this fabulous creature with the ability to rise from ashes implies that “Plath explored experiences of living in a space in-between wanting to live and wanting to die” (McKay 44). Moreover, death in the poem is depicted as something beautiful: Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well” (Plath). It is possible to notice that the narrator speaking on behalf of the author has her own, more positive, perception of death.

It is difficult to deny that the theme of death can be related to the life of the poet herself. Through the imagery of the poem, the reader can trace the poet’s attempts at suicide (McKay 47). Besides, the poem “presents the studied gaze of a woman who is examining what her past attempt at death now means for her present life” (McKay 47). Therefore, it is possible to say that the most profound image of the poem is the depiction of Plath’s own life and inner turmoil.

Lady Lazarus is an example of Plath’s skillful language and the complexity of her poetry. By mentioning suicide attempts and death-related images like ashes and blood, the poet conveys the torments of her narrator’s soul. However, the image of Lazarus, phoenix, the comparison of death to art, and the image of a new, more powerful woman at the end of the poem express the significance of death to the narrator. To sum up, with the help of imagery, this theme is represented as ambivalent, and it obviously conveys the author’s past experience and her perception of this notion.

Works Cited

McKay, Kathy. “I am learning peacefulness”: Sylvia Plath’s liminal art of (un)living.” Journal of Poetry Therapy, vol. 30, no. 1, 2016, pp. 44–52.

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Mullenneaux, Lisa. “Sylvia Plath’s Disquieting Muses.” Hecate, vol. 44, no. 1/2, 2018, pp. 122–135.

Plath, Sylvia. “Lady Lazarus.” 1962. Poetry Foundation. Web.

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StudyCorgi. "The Theme of Death in Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” Poem." February 15, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/the-theme-of-death-in-plaths-lady-lazarus-poem/.

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StudyCorgi. 2022. "The Theme of Death in Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” Poem." February 15, 2022. https://studycorgi.com/the-theme-of-death-in-plaths-lady-lazarus-poem/.

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StudyCorgi. (2022) 'The Theme of Death in Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” Poem'. 15 February.

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