The Incongruity Theory of Humor in “Lady Lazarus”
After the post-humous publication of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, the poet exploded into the scene of second wave feminism, widely regarded as a victim of her mental illness and the men in her life. While the tragedy of Plath’s life is inseparable from her work, more subtle elements of her poetry are often discarded to suit the narrative of victimhood, especially her complicated use of humor. Plath used humor in her poetry as a way of both describing and reckoning with her everyday life, often including Holocaust imagery as an exaggerated depiction of her existence. The style of humor she uses falls neatly into the category of “incongruity theory”, a theory that posits people find things funny when conventional narratives, “scripts”, are broken or flipped. Every aspect of “Lady Lazarus” is incongruous, from its premise to its poetic details. While the poem isn’t something most people would find laugh out loud funny, Plath’s use of humor to draw false equivalents between her own life and the life of Lady Lazarus reveals an existence that is undeniably tragic but relentlessly tenacious. Even in life, Plath was well aware of the effect her confessional poetry had on her legacy, shown in “Lady Lazarus” when she speaks of a “charge/a very large charge” for sharing a part of yourself so deeply personal (Plath 61). “Lady Lazarus”, one of Plath’s most well known poems, is an effort to regain control over her image and rebel against the common understanding that her existence is simply a tragic monstrosity. Plath creates the incongruous character of Lady Lazarus in order to illustrate her life as different forms of exertion of power and their reciprocal effects on the oppressed, likely in the hope that by reclaiming ownership of her power, she will once again be in control of her life.
The main incongruous element of the first part of “Lady Lazarus” is not only the narrator’s ambiguous existence somewhere between life and death, but her apparent feeling of pride in accomplishing it. At the beginning of the poem, Lady Lazarus is in charge. Her voice starts out proud and boastful, demanding praise for her achievement, proclaiming that once more, she has managed “it”. It, as it becomes obvious later in the poem, is suicide, or something quite like it. Lady Lazarus jokes with the reader sarcastically, saying “O my enemy/ Do I terrify?” (10-11). Since she maintains the appearance of a living skeleton, of course she terrifies. Not only that, she is proud to show off her body, including “the nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth” (Plath 13). She dares her enemy, or those that made her this way, to revel in the horror of their own creation so that she can draw power from their revulsion. Throughout the poem, Lady Lazarus returns to her initial sarcastic tone, since one of the few things she can control is how she talks about her life.
More interesting, but but less humorous, is the Bible verse from which “O my enemy” is borrowed (10). In Micah 7:8, one of the Israelites declares, “Do not rejoice, O my enemy. Though I have fallen, I will rise” (The Bible, Micah 7:8). This explicitly Jewish statement from the Old Testament juxtaposes oddly in what can only be considered a darkly humorous way with the Holocaust imagery. Lady Lazarus draws a relationship between herself and the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, describing herself as “A sort of walking miracle, my skin bright as a Nazi lampshade/ My right foot/ A paperweight/ My face a featureless, fine/ Jew linen” ( 4-9). As the Jewish people are dying in one of the most horrific genocides in global history, Lady Lazarus uses their religious text to describe her own return to power. While the inclusion of the Bible could be read as hopeful, or even a promise to rise again, the incongruity between the despair of the Holocaust and the hope of the Old Testament story leaves the success of Lady Lazarus’ efforts to regain control intentionally ambiguous.
The poem becomes even more incongruous when Plath switches perspectives to show what Lady Lazarus looks like when she isn’t a skeleton, describing her as “a smiling woman/ I am only thirty” (19-20). Despite our modern understanding that even those who are young and beautiful can be crippled by mental illness, the juxtaposition of internal reality with external reality doesn’t match up. More incongruous still is Lady Lazarus’ frank reckoning with her situation: “And like the cat I have nine times to die” (21). Fear of death, perhaps the most unifying human trait of all, is absent in Lady Lazarus. Still more concerning, she seems to revel in her talent to die and regenerate, or at least find it entertaining, which is especially apparent in the extreme mismatch between the rotten corpse she sees herself as internally and the smiling woman she appears to be. Her perpetual death and resurrection is almost cartoonish in that she appears to crave death, but is unable to achieve it.
The first power switch comes when Plath depicts Lady Lazarus being disrobed in a gruesome strip tease. Imagine the power dynamics of a traditional strip tease, in which a classically gorgeous, sensual woman tauntingly removes her clothing in front of a captive audience. Since it is a performance, the stripper holds all the power. The incongruity between a traditional strip tease and Lady Lazarus’ version is obvious. A strip tease is a display of the female body in all its sexual glory as desired by men. Plath breaks that script by replacing the alluring woman with a decayed skeleton regrowing its flesh. Since Lady Lazarus isn’t undressing herself, but is rather being unwrapped “hand and foot” (28), the power she would normally have as a performer is transferred to those unwrapping her and the “peanut-crunching crowd” (26). While the humor is grotesque, it is still humor in that Plath is comparing an attempted suicide to sexual display, making death erotic. It’s also important to note that this eerie performance is no less sexual in nature, since the crowd “shoves in to see” (27) her reveal her suicide scars with the same perverted fascination as a strip show. The strip tease emphasizes Lady Lazarus’, and even Plath’s, inability to choose how they present themselves as women struggling with suicide. No matter what else they may have to offer, the suicide attempts are all most people will see. Many of the lines in this section of “Lady Lazarus” are accusatory of the voyeuristic obsession with death, suicide, and depression that we associate Plath with to this day.
At this point in the poem, Lady Lazarus presents herself as an artist, fully in command of dying and coming back to life. Not only is it her livelihood, it’s all that she seems to have full control over. Neither “my enemy” nor the peanut-crunching crowd can limit her actual ability to die and resurrect. Plath presents this idea in the lines: “Dying/ Is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well” (45). There are a couple notable humorous aspects to these lines. For one, the enjambment after the line, “Dying”, is in itself incongruous, since it’s followed by the phrase, “Is an art”(43-44). This idea of dying as an art form elevates the work of Lady Lazarus before it comes crashing back down in the following phrase, “like everything else”(44). Her admission that everything is an art produces a flattening effect. If everything is an art, that means things like driving to work, clipping your toenails, and sorting the recycling are all works of art as well. Suddenly, Lady Lazarus’ hard won ability to die and resurrect is much less impressive. For Lady Lazarus, her cycle of death and resurrection is an attempt to feel anything at all. She says so dryly when she explains, “I do it so it feels like hell./ I do it so it feels real” (46-47). The lingering anaphora of those two lines points to the heart of this section of the poem: “I do it so it feels”.
The second power switch of the poem offers the reader a brief glimpse into Lady Lazarus’ existence as the commodified simulator of life and death under the ownership of “Herr Doktor/Herr Enemy”(65-66). While Lady Lazarus is still a work of art in this part of the poem, she is no longer her own work of art. She states explicitly, “I am your opus/ I am your valuable” (67-68). Once again Plath veers into the realm of Holocaust metaphors, addressing “my enemy”, the one who owns her and controls her, as Herr Doktor. The German spelling of Doktor is a clear allusion to Holocaust doctors like Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who conducted horrific experiments on Jewish children (United 1). Yet, even while she is dehumanized, commodified, and put on display by Herr Doktor, Lady Lazarus retains her boldly sarcastic voice, which is a way of reclaiming ownership of her body and life. At the cry of, “A miracle!” upon her resurrection, Lady Lazarus confesses, “That knocks me out” (55), as though she herself is doubled over in laughter at the nature of her existence.
The third and final power switch occurs at the lines, “Ash, ash —/You poke and stir” (73), and is evidenced by a return in Holocaust imagery and change in point of view. Lady Lazarus is now looking down on the crematorium where Jewish bodies are incinerated and imagines being burned herself. Rather than people watching her, as with the peanut crunching crowd, she is watching them, as if from beyond the grave. She describes the scene, saying, “Flesh, bone, there is nothing there/ A cake of soap,/ A wedding ring,/ A gold filling” (75-78). Despite her assertion that there is nothing to be seen, these everyday items are the last remaining evidence of the millions of lives lost in the Holocaust. The incongruity is blatant. There is nothing insignificant about these things, and more darkly humorous still is that an entire human life can be lived with nothing to show for it but a bar of soap to keep those that killed you clean.
At this point, Lady Lazarus’ formerly boastful voice changes menacingly to a warning to God and Lucifer, presumably also referring to Herr Doktor. In the lines “Herr God, Herr Lucifer/ Beware/ Beware” (79-81), she implies that she is a being more powerful than any of divinity. She will rise again, but unlike the Biblical Lazarus, she doesn’t require Jesus to resurrect her. The rejection of assistance is clear when looking at the difference in language between the Biblical text in which Lazarus is called back to life by Jesus (John 12:1-41), and Plath’s poem where Lady Lazarus “rises” of her own accord. Here, as Lady Lazarus rises from death like a phoenix regenerated, she reclaims her power. As fire consumes oxygen to fuel itself, Lady Lazarus eats men. Though she demands retribution from those who kept her power from her with an unrivaled vengeance, the ending of the poem is left intentionally ambiguous. Will Lady Lazarus succeed and eradicate her enemies, or will she fall back into the cycle of life and death, life and death?
Humor, even the darkest kind, seems deeply inappropriate in the context of suicide and the Holocaust, but Plath ignores convention in order to effectively interpret the existing incongruities in her own life. By popular understanding, a young woman should not be suicidal, but Plath is. A new mother should not wish for her own death, but Plath does. A smart woman should not feel trapped by the men in her life, but Plath does. In “Lady Lazarus”, Plath takes ownership of these accusations against her reality by expressing them in her poetry. While she describes her own hurt by comparing it to genocide, she doesn’t expect that comparison to be taken seriously. It’s a reminder that while her pain may feel on par with the suffering of the Holocaust, it isn’t in objective reality.
Plath’s use of incongruity underscores just how dark the subject matter of this poem is, since usually we laugh at dark humor as a form of relief. However, when reading “Lady Lazarus”, we find ourselves so horrified by the grotesque material and Plath’s candid delivery that we are unable to laugh and instead read with a mortified fascination, the same fascination of the peanut-crunching crowd. The transformation of the reader into the antagonist describes the greatest joke of the poem: We too will be eaten along with the rest of Lady Lazarus’ enemies to fuel her rise to omnipotence.
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