Slyvia Plath’s Reinvented Lazarus
Sylvia Plath’s Reinvented Lazarus
“The speaker is a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is the Phoenix, the libertarian spirit, what you will. She is also just a good, plain, very resourceful woman.” -Sylvia Plath, 1963 (qtd. in Curley 213)
One of Slyvia Plath’s final works of poetry, “Lady Lazarus,” reinvents the biblical story of Lazarus, where a loving deity uses his power for good. Instead, Plath uses this opportunity to exhibit her distaste for patriarchal oppression. An expression of her own suicide attempts, the poem takes on a menacing tone as the speaker struggles to find recognition among her male peers. As a whole, Plath uses decisive literary techniques to re-gender the male Lazarus and likewise convey her personal feminine energy.
In “Lady Lazarus,” Sylvia Plath deliberately uses literary techniques like intentionally numbered stanzas, consistent repetition, and psychoanalytic comparisons to establish parallels between herself and the speaker, likewise further intensifying her feminist message. Written in the few months preceding her final (and successful) suicide attempt, Plath’s poem outlines a woman’s multiple suicide attempts (“I have done it again”) and her subsequent experience being reborn, or resurrected from the dead (1). Interestingly, the poem consists of twenty-eight subtly rhymed triplets, mimicking the number of days in a normal, reproductive cycle. The undeniable feminine presence illuminated in the number of stanzas establishes a woman’s plight before the poem is even read. Furthermore, Plath’s conscious control of her stanza and meter underscores, as well as highlights, the problems with which women have no control: menstruation, childbirth, miscarriage, divorce. To enhance the morbid aspects of the poem and add to the eery tone, Plath repeats images of dismembered body parts “skin,” “foot,” “flesh,” “bone,” ect. Similarly, she details the “peanut-crunching crowd” that rushes in to watch her suicides as if they were an act (26). Finally, her comparisons between Herr Doktor, who medically experimented with patients in Nazi extermination camps, and Herr Enemy, “who saved her life when she wanted to die” contribute to her later comparison between God and Lucifer, whereas good and evil all become one male entity that she aspires to “rise…and eat… like air” (Meyers 2; Plath 83-84). Essentially, Plath’s use of literary devices are only the start of her profound feminist message.
More compelling, however, is Plath’s ability to transform the biblical story of Lazarus from 2 John into a female martyr. In the Bible, Lazarus had died after enduring perpetual suffering and Jesus is asked by his sister Martha, who represents devout belief as opposed to religious contemplation, to resurrect him from the tomb. Indeed, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead so that the “people standing [t]here…may believe” (John 11:42). This blatant display of Jesus’s power does not merely highlight God’s dominion, but also benefits Lazarus and the surrounding crowd. The people who witnessed Lazarus’s return and renewal were simultaneously offered the promise of eternal life. In the Bible, Lazarus’ purpose was to illuminate Jesus’s powers and help convert the skeptical, onlooking Jews. However, the story does not take the opportunity to tell the reader how Lazarus felt when he was brought back from the dead, bound like a mummy with a piece of cloth used to keep his mouth sealed shut. In response to the lack of elaboration, Plath uses this chance to employ her creativity and assert an everlasting feminine presence.
Although as a disclaimer Plath refers to her re-gendered Lazarus as “the speaker,” the parallels between the fictitious character and Plath’s own life are simply undeniable. Indeed, the autobiographical heroine of “Lady Lazarus” does not actually return from the dead and “the analogy is inexact,” as Jeffrey Meyers points out (1). But instead, Plath describes each of her suicide attempts and details what it felt like coming back from each close call. The “paradox of the poem,” as Meyers explains, is that for Plath, life itself is a type of death and she continuously returns from near death “in order to get dead once again” (1). She refers to suicide as a kind of art or a calling that she does “exceptionally well,” yet is consistently rendered unsuccessful (45). However, each failure allows her an opportunity to “demonstrate her powers of self-destruction and self-revival” (Meyers 1). Plath finds recognition in approaching the blurred line between life and death and then somehow drawing back to find life once again. Biographically, like the poem alludes to, Plath attempted suicide three times. One for each decade of her life, the first of three was an attempt at age ten to drown herself two years following her father’s death. The second attempt was instigated by a nervous breakdown during her junior year at Smith College, where she overdosed on sleeping medication and crawled into the crawlspace underneath her childhood home (“They had to call and call / And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls”) (41-42). The third attempt, after her divorce to Ted Hughes, she tried crashing her car in the hope of finding peace in August 1962. It was not until February of 1963 that Plath successfully committed suicide by gas – as occurred in Nazi extermination camps. Similarly in “Lady Lazarus,” the speaker readily identifies with the Jewish victims of Nazi Germany and “equates her suffering with theirs” (Meyers 2). Plath compares herself to Jews many times throughout her poetry, psychologically justifying it on the grounds that her father was born in Germany as well as Ted Hughes’ new lover, Assia Wevill. The autobiographical quality of not only this poem, but the majority of Plath’s literature contributes to her struggle (and the struggle of all women) to gain accreditation in a male dominated society.
As previously stated, the majority of Plath’s poetry deals with a woman’s struggle to find autonomy in a patriarchal society. In contrast to the biblical story, Lady Lazarus’s resurrection by Herr Doktor produces a unique power struggle ultimately resulting in her destruction. Similar to Jesus, Herr Doktor displays his power in front of a crowd. However in contrast, he seeks to display his own power and achieve admiration from the onlooking “peanut crunching crowd” (26). Unlike Jesus, he does not offer any new life to the speaker or the crowd; he works for personal gain. In a humiliating scene, the speaker is “unwrap[pped]…hand and foot” by the male entities in the poem (29). By referring to this degradation as “the big strip tease,” Plath adds a sexual element that magnifies the male dominance over Lady Lazarus (30). As she is unwrapped, she becomes nothing more than a collection of body parts: a hand, a knee, skin and bone. She is transformed into Herr Doktor’s “pure gold baby,” his “opus,” and his “valuable,” essentially his personal possession (66-69). Furthermore, the scars the speaker refers to in line 58 represent a woman’s vulnerability to men, likewise symbolizing the pain of a male-dominated society. Yet, to counteract the omnipresent male dominance, the speaker exclaims she is “the same identical woman” and far more than simply a warm body provided to satisfy men (34). While Herr Doktor looks to make a spectacle of her suffering, she fights back, expressing her anger and aggression by asking the deity direct questions. Yet ironically by admitting her submission to this man (his “pure gold baby,” ect), she highlights the inevitability of women being forced to succumb to men’s power. The fight for power between the speaker and Herr Doktor is eventually given up by Lady Lazarus only to result in death instead of liberation. In essence, Lady Lazarus’s attempts to overcome a male-dominated world ultimately leads to her destructive art: dying. Only in the afterlife, rising from the ash, is she able to exert power over men (“I rise with my red hair / and I eat men like air”) (82-83).
In short, “Lady Lazarus” represents a mid-20th century woman’s struggle to define herself in a man’s world. By using elements from her own personal life in conjunction with carefully crafted literary devices, Plath is able to create a morbidly dark tone that mirrors ever-present feminine struggles. Yet, although the extremely confessional poem details the power struggle between men and women, the male presence is ultimately able to dominate the speaker and usurp her creative power. Only after death is the speaker able to take revenge on powerful and controlling males.
Curley, Maureen. “Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’.” Explicator 59.4 (2001). EBSCOhost. Web. 23 November 2015.
The English Standard Version Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments with Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. “Lady Lazarus.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry Volume 2. Ed. J. Ramazani, R. Ellmann, and R. O’Clair. New York: Norton, 2003. 612-614. Print.
Meyers, Jeffrey. “Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 42.3 (2012). Academic OneFile. Web. 23 November 2015.
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Sylvia Plath’s Reinvented Lazarus “The speaker is a woman who has the great and terrible gift of being reborn. The only trouble is, she has to die first. She is […]