Death Related Imagery in Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

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Death Related Imagery in Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath

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Sylvia Plath’s multiple suicide attempts fueled her poetry in a way other subjects could not. Her relationship with death is made blatantly clear in the lines of Lady Lazarus, a poem she composed only three months before her successful suicide. Plath viewed death as a public event, something to be gawked at and mulled over. Death has many times been the subject of poems, but Plath’s potent writing style and own experiences with its aftermath allowed her to write striking poetry that still touches lives today. Throughout the lines of Lady Lazarus, Plath emphasized her own death and rebirth by recounting not only her multiple suicide attempts, “One year in every ten” (line 2), but by tying them to the disturbing tone created through her use of Hollocaust imagery. Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus was not only an outline of her failed attempts at suicide, but also a call to attention of the female oppression she felt during her lifetime.

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Sylvia Plath’s childhood was filled with pain associated with her father’s death – which occurred when she was only eight years old. She felt that her father had betrayed their family by leaving her and her mother to fend for themselves during one of the most difficult times in American history – World War II. Two years after her father’s demise, she tried to drown herself – the first suicide attempt mentioned in Lady Lazarus – “The first time it happened I was ten. It was an accident”(line 35-36). Her second attempt was premeditated. Plath had taken an overdose of sleeping pills and locked herself in the cellar of her home as she describes in lines 37-41, “The second time I meant to last it out and not come back at all […] They had to call and call and pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.” Her imagery is vivid and gross, painting a portrait of what coming back from the dead must have been like for her – “I do it so it feels like hell” (line 45). From her point of view, dying itself lacked the climactic appeal society gave it, and it was coming back after each attempt that affected her more – “It’s the theatrical comeback in broad day […] the same amused shout: ‘A miracle!’ That knocks me out”(line 50-55). She mocked the intrigue associated with her resurrection, to her it wasn’t a miracle – it was a curse.

The narrator in Lady Lazarus describes her rebirth not as a freak event, but as something she manipulates to disturb society. Susan Van Dyne depicted the narrator as “simultaneously the performer who suffers and the director who calculates suffering’s effect” (Revising 57). Lady Lazarus is not only the torturer, but also the subject of her own torture – a puppet master to her own suicides – and thus a spectacle to humanity. Plath’s suicide attempts were public knowledge due to her rising success as an auther and poet as well as her husband’s5 fame. During a time when society kept “pain and death silent and secret” (Strangeways), her pain and inner turmoil were laid out for the world to see. In her eyes, “the peanut-crunching crowd shoves in to see them unwrap me hand and foot” (line 28-30) and “there is a charge for the eyeing of my scars [and] the hearing of my heart” (line 56-58) as if she was a circus animal people paid to see. Her life after death wasn’t full eternal peace, it was full of scrutiny.

This public scrutiny of death was what Plath described using allusions to the Holocaust and the imagery associated with it. She shadowed her own intense feelings with the pain and suffering brought by the Holocaust, and expressed her pointed and terrifying inner turmoil through her disturbing imagery. Plath’s death camp metaphor, “A cake of soap, a wedding ring, a gold filling.” (line 75-77) shows “the persona’s body as violently disembodied, lacking self-possession or unity” (Boswell). Every piece of her was destroyed and used for something else, ripped apart for all to see and all to study. Like the Jews during the Holocaust, she felt as though her body “belong[ed] to an exterior power that value[d] it best when dead” (Strangeways) – displaying the commodification of society. Plath writes that people “charge” to see bits and pieces of her strewn about, “a bit of blood or a piece of my hair or my clothes” (line 62-63), similar to how people now pay to see the piles of shoes and clothes left in concentration camps. Plath’s outline of how people subject themselves to the disturbing aftermath of the world around us gave Lady Lazarus a painful edge up on the emotions of her audience. It also provided her with an opportunity to mold a villain into her lines.

Plath pointed a direct finger at the patriarchal society around her in Lady Lazarus, more specifically with her use of “Herr”. She mentions “Herr Doktor. Herr Enemy. […] Herr God. Herr Lucifer.” (line 64 – 78), all made male with the German word for Mr and as a continuation of her WWII references. Adding onto the Holocaust imagery, Plath relates the how the Nazi’s preyed on the Jews with how men in general prey on women. Lady Lazarus “outlines the world of male desire” – how the crowd “shoves in to see […] the big strip tease” (Meyers) – emphasizing how she is on show and up for display (or how women are up for display). Every piece of her body under the scrutiny of her audience. Throughout the majority with her life, Plath fought back and forth with what she wanted to be and what she should be – a good mother, a good writer, a good wife – and tried her best in the beginning to perfect all roles. However, after her father’s abandonment (how she viewed his death), her husband’s abandonment (his adultery and later their divorce), and the preconceived societal opinion that women would stop working after the war and lose the momentum they had gained in the working class, she lost all hope of living a normal life. These ideas shaped her thoughts and molded Lady Lazarus into what it became. Her final warning – “Beware. Beware. Out of the ash I rise with my red hair and I eat men like air” (line 79-83) – “threatens her adversaries” (Meyers), men in this case, and foreshadows her rising from the ashes as a phoenix does to “cannibalize men as naturally as she breathes”(Meyer) – to cannibalize female oppression.

Confessional poetry works to express an author’s inner thoughts, feelings, and turmoils by utilizing their talent to tie their inner mentality to their work. Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus depicts her innermost thoughts regarding her suicide attempts – how death for her is “an art,” a “calling” which she does “exceptionally well,” and brought her pain into the spotlight. She wrote Lady Lazarus to bring forth the perspective of the dead being brought back to life. Not only that, but she also used her poem as an outlet to express her disgust towards the female oppression around her, and to express her “implacable hatred of all her enemies” – mainly men and her assumed role as a woman.

Works Cited

  • Boswell, Matthew. Black Phones’: Postmodern Poetics in the Holocaust Poetry of Sylvia Plath. Critical Survey, vol. 20, no. 2, 2008, p. 53+. Literature Resource Center. Web. Accessed 19 Nov. 2019.
  • Bronfen, Elisabeth. Sylvia Plath. Liverpool University Press, 2004, 152.
  • Hall, Caroline King Barnard. The Life of the Work: Directions in Plath Scholarship. Sylvia Plath, Revised, Twayne Publishers, 1998, pp. 122-132. Twayne’s United States Authors Series 702. Gale Literature: Twayne’s Author Series. Web. Accessed 19 Nov. 2019.
  • Meyers, Jeffrey. Plath’s Lady Lazarus. Notes on Contemporary Literature, vol. 42, no. 3, 2012. Literature Resource Center. Web. Accessed 17 Nov. 2019.
    Peel, Robin. The Ideological Apprenticeship of Sylvia Plath. Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 27, no. 4, 2004, p. 59+. Literature Resource Center. Web. Accessed 3 Nov. 2019.
  • Strangeways, Al. The Boot in the Face: The Problem of the Holocaust in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath. Contemporary Literature, vol. 37, no. 3, 1996, p. 370+. Literature Resource Center. Web. Accessed 18 Nov. 2019.

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