Literary Analysis Of Sylvia Plath’s Poem Lady Lazarus

Sylvia Plath’s life was filled with conflict between her and male figures. Affected greatly by her father who passed away when she was 9, she strongly opposed to male world; and such opposition is well expressed in her poetry “Lady Lazarus.” Plath, as a confessional poet, projects herself as a figure oppressed by male character, which she name Herr Doktor in “Lady Lazarus.” In this poem, the speaker resists to the oppression by reviving from death. Plath, making the speaker as a reviver from death, elevates herself projected in the poem as mythic character. This myth Sylvia creates is a heroic myth, in which the “Lady Lazarus” confronts “Herr Doktor” for her freedom. “Lady Lazarus” written by Sylvia Plath is based on her own experience of suicide attempts grafted to a biblical allusion of Lazarus to create a heroic character reviving from death to fight the male figure and the world oppressing her.

First to regard in Plath’s poem is its title “Lady Lazarus,” a biblical allusion of Lazarus that gives key to creation of Plath’s mythic hero. The well-known tale of Lazarus who was revived by Jesus after four days since his death was alluded in this poem. Lazarus’s resurrection resulted in showing the power of Jesus and leading “many of the Jews who had” “seen what Jesus did” to “put their faith in him.” However, it was also a great cause for Pharisees to kill Jesus, because they were worried that “everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both their place and their nation.” It means that the resurrection of Lazarus was a big event within Jesus’s deeds; and Plath extracted ‘show’ out of the tale. The resurrection was a great show in a way of presenting Jesus’s power to Jews, and Plath, while associating the resurrection of Lazarus and her failed suicide attempts, tried to emphasize the speaker’s dramatic resurrection through the biblical allusion. Plath’s allusion from the bible is not only in the title but also in the poem. “A sort of walking miracle” is an allusion of Lazarus revived by Jesus, and “My face a featureless, fine/Jew linen.” is an allusion of “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.” Moreover, “Them unwrap me hand and foot──” is an allusion of what Jesus said when Lazarus walked out of his grave with his hands and feet wrapped, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” 

However, unlike the tale of Lazarus, ‘show’ of speaker of the poem, Lady Lazarus, is not presenting miracle with God’s power; Lady Lazarus even warns God, calling him “Herr God”. She does not depend on God or Lucifer; she resurrects by herself. She opposes to all authority. The main addressee, “Herr Doktor”, which is also addressed as “Herr Enemy, could be representing male authority. She is using this show to warn him. In this poem, the speaker seems to admit that she belongs to male authority by saying, “I am your opus.,/I am your valuable,”(67-68) but she later mentions that all they have is her body, not the soul: “You poke and stir./Flesh, bone, there is nothing there─”. Her soul is free that she “rises with her red hair/ And she eats men like air.” 

Another interesting trait of her show is that Lady Lazarus charges the audiences. While Jews watching Lazarus revived was not required to return anything but faith, Lady Lazarus charges her audiences for watching her show.

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge

For the hearing of my heart ─

It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge

For a word or a touch

Or a bit of blood 

“Scars”, “heart” and “blood” are all a symbol of Lady Lazarus’s life and resurrection; hearing or touching them is experiencing the miracle. However, she charges the experience to announce ownership of her and only let those who paid to take advantage of her. Nevertheless, it is still not a perfect freedom, a complete resurrection. In order to gain freedom from her “scars” and “Doktor,” Lady Lazarus needs to burn herself. Therefore, she “turns and burns”. Her resistance is most strongly heard through “shriek.” Therefore, she is not owned by anyone.

While the show is used to gain freedom, Lady Lazarus is enjoying the show indeed:

I do it so it feels like hell.

I do it so it feels real.

I guess you could say I’ve a call.

She regards dying and reviving as her calling, and what makes her feel real. It also “knocks her out.” As a reviving one who “like the cat has nine times to die”, she clearly knows her role and how to enjoy it. In this calling, there is no God or Lucifer. Lady Lazarus is a myth by herself. Moreover, the mythic figure “rising with her red hair” could be reflecting mythic symbol of phoenix. Plath used biblical allusion in “Lady Lazarus” to present existing myth, and broke it to create her own myth. Lady Lazarus resists the male authority represented as “Herr Doktor”, “Herr God” and “Herr Lucifer” and dies to eliminate their possession of her; then she revives “Out of the ash” like a phoenix as a finished mythic figure to “eat men”.

Moreover, the form of “Lady Lazarus” well supports the speaker’s voice. There is no rhyme pattern or rhythm pattern in this poem. This shows raw and free voice of the speaker. Lady Lazarus has just revived, so she is as raw as a new born baby; and the raw form of poem represents her raw voice. Moreover, there are many run-on lines, such as, “The grave cave ate will be/At home on me” and “Dying/Is an art”. These run-on lines pace up the voice of the speaker and make an unexpected stop during sentences that results in unstable atmosphere overall. The poem has 3 lined stanzas, and often sentences do not finish in a stanza. They jump up to the next stanza or even halt to give sudden burst on next word. When describing revival from death, Plath cut a sentence in between. “It’s the theatrical//Comeback in broad day”. As a result, word ‘comeback’ holds burst in sound after a space of gap, which is similar as ‘revival’ after short death.

The core of conflict in “Lady Lazarus” lays in Plath’s life. Sylvia Plath is well-known as a poet who committed suicide by putting her head into a gas stove because of her unfaithful husband Ted Hughes; but Plath’s attachment to suicide starts back from her childhood. When Plath was nine, her father Otto Plath died of pulmonary embolism; and when Plath reached ten, she made a suicidal attempt by trying to cut her throat. In Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”, her experience is reflected through “The first time it happened I was ten./It was an accident.” Plath had her second suicide attempt when she was 20. She took 50 sleeping pills in the basement. “The second time she meant/ To last it out and not come back at all.” Plath is associating death and resurrection from it to failed suicide attempt. Waking up from sleeping pill overdose may have been like “A miracle” to her that she even thinks it as a theatrical one. Therefore, she is imagining of her third suicide attempt in this poem. Turning failed suicide attempt into a resurrection, Plath turned her life into a show as well.

The cause of Plath’s first suicide attempt, her father is reflected in “Lady Lazarus” with her husband, who was the cause of her third successful suicide attempt. On stanza 2, Lady Lazarus says her skin is “bright as Nazi lampshade” (4-5) and then on stanza 3, she says her face is “a featureless, fine/Jew linen.” “Nazi lampshade” refers to a lampshade that Nazis made out of human skin during the Holocaust, which is related to “Jew linen.” Not only because Lazarus is a Jew, has Lady Lazarus identified herself with Jews because of the relationship between Jew and Nazis during the Holocaust. The reason to this connection is tracked back to Plath’s father, Otto Plath, who was a German. Plath had a sense of deprivation because of Otto’s death and therefore felt more oppressed by his absence. Because Otto was a German, and an oppressor in her mind, Plath regarded herself as a Jew, who was oppressed by Nazis. The cause of Plath’s actual third suicide attempt, her husband, was reflected in “A wedding ring,” which remains with ash that does not belong with her soul. Plath has hardships because of her marriage, as her husband, Ted Hughes was not faithful to their marriage. However, there was another cause to Plath’s suicide attempt and her rebellious sprit against male figures. 20th century was still not opened for female poets to be acknowledged easily. Moreover, she had an obligation of taking care of her babies. In her confessional fiction “The Bell Jar”, Plath wrote, “A man doesn’t have a worry in the world, while I’ve got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick, to keep me in line.” Eventually, this pressure formed an oppressing male figure in her, reflected into poems as well.

Lady Lazarus’s resist against the oppressing male figure is described as heroic in this poem. ‘Hero’ is who fights with greater obstacle, following his belief regardless of his own profit. In Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”, Lady Lazarus can be seen as a heroic figure since she resists “Herr Doktor” and “Herr Enemy”, who possesses her as his “opus” and “valuable” by burning herself up. “Herr Doktor” is a symbol of authority. ‘Doktor’ means ‘Doctor’ in German; it is connected to reflection of Plath’s father, who has high authority in her life while ‘Doktor’ itself also has authority in that male of high social status get this title. Her strong yearning of freedom from the possession and oppression of “Herr Doktor” keeps her from giving in to the pressure. A similar case of female hero is found in Sophocles’ Greek tragedy, “Antigone”. Antigone is also a character who fights for her belief against oppression. To give her brother a proper funeral, she risks her life by confronting Creon the king. Creon appoints himself as a protector of law, and lawmaker:

We keep the laws then, and the lawmakers,

And no woman shall seduce us. If we must lose,

Let’s lose to a man, at least! Is a woman stronger than we? (Antigone, 538-540)

Therefore, he is mightier than anyone, especially than women like Antigone. He does not stand to see anyone crossing his authority. In front of the power of Creon, Antigone is powerless, and all her efforts might be meaningless. However, she does not yield to follow what she believes. Therefore, Antigone is a heroic figure.

Nevertheless, these heroes are different from conventional heroes. Conventional heroes, such as Oedipus in “Oedipus Rex” and Ahab in “Moby Dick”, share traits of hero; they fight to protect their belief regardless of their profit. Oedipus confronts destiny and keeps finding out the truth, and Ahab tracks down the white whale even though it may cause him death. Antigone and Lady Lazarus are sharing these traits as well. However, Antigone and Lady Lazarus are confronting their world as ‘the other’. Both Oedipus and Ahab are accepted in their world; Oedipus as a king, and Ahab as a captain. On the other hand, Antigone and Lady Lazarus are treated as ‘the other’ in their world. Lady Lazarus is an “opus” of someone, and crowds “unwrap her hand and foot”; Antigone is suffering “for the curse on Oedipus.” (Antigone, 3) Excluded from their own world, both Lady Lazarus and Antigone confront the existing male authorities. Moreover, they are different in the way they resist. While conventional heroes take action against their antagonist, Lady Lazarus and Antigone take action on themselves. Lady Lazarus show “The big strip tease” and “melts to a shriek.” Antigone resists to Creon by pouring dust on her brother’s body and hanging herself. Both actions do not harm Creon directly. It is same for Lady Lazarus’s case; nobody is hurt directly. Even though she threatens with “The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth” or saying that she will harm men, (“And I eat men like air”) no actual harm is done.

The ways of Lady Lazarus and Antigone resisting to their antagonists, however, cannot be evaluated as invalid. Lady Lazarus’s show is very symbolic. She performs her resurrection ‘show’ in front of the crowd and charges them for experiencing the miracle. (“For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge”) Regarding Plath’s suicide attempts reflected in the resurrection, it is hard to connect the show to the mean of confronting male authority. However, the show is not merely a representation of suicide. It is a proclamation of Lady Lazarus on the ownership of herself by rejecting all helps from authorities. (“Herr God. Herr Lucifer”) Moreover, it proves Lady Lazarus’s ability to break all convention. Death belongs to another world in conventional sense. However, Lady Lazarus crosses the world and brings death back to life. It is only possible for Lady Lazarus, who is excluded from the world, considered as ‘the other’. Her “shriek” is also a message showing her resistance to “Herr Doktor”. Even though she admits that she is his “opus” and “valuable”, she expresses she does not want to be possessed by him through “shriek”. Likewise, Antigone’s action is valid as a resistance because of its symbol and message. Antigone burying her brother is an action of resistance to Creon’s law, and her suicide also left message that the law of Creon is unjust. As a result, Antigone’s message was passed on to Creon through his son and wife’s death after Antigone’s death. Therefore, the messages these heroic figures leave could be even stronger than the direct confrontations of conventional heroes.

In conclusion, the subtle trait of Antigone and Lady Lazarus’s heroic action elevates one step more when it meets the everlasting trait its message holds; beyond heroes, they become myths. As mentioned previously, Lady Lazarus is a myth created by Plath. These mythic heroes have the most powerful weapon, a message. Message even can be sent through death. Even though Antigone was locked up in a “tomb, vaulted bride-bed in eternal rock,” her message eventually reached Creon. Lady Lazarus came back from death by herself, and even if she were to become ashes, she still rises with her red hair. Through creating the mythic hero ‘Lady Lazarus’, Sylvia Plath tried to overcome her oppressions. Male centered society, shadow of her father and her husband were symbolized in to a male figure, which is to be defeated through eternal resurrection of her myth. Lady Lazarus may die in ash, but she “rises with her red hair” like a phoenix because her message never dies but remains forever.

16 December 2021
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