There are some elements in “Lady Lazarus” that are so autobiographically based that they must be acknowledged from the start. The poem is about attempting suicide; it speaks of close calls with death at the ages of ten, twenty, and thirty, and Plath did nearly die from an accident at age ten, tried to kill herself at twenty, and purposefully ran her car off the road at thirty. The poem was written in the frenzy of October 1962, when Plath was separated from her husband, Ted Hughes, and wrote nearly a poem a day just prior to her thirtieth birthday at the end of the month. “Lady Lazarus” is just one of numerous poems that has a voice radically distinct from that in Plath’s previous work, which was more controlled, impersonal, and traditional.
The poem’s title, its final line, and much of what is in between, focus on annihilation, rebirth, and female power. Its title refers to the biblical story in which Christ brought Lazarus back from the dead. However, in this poem, it is a woman who comes back from the dead—on her own—without the help of a male/God figure. Not only has she brought herself back from the dead, but she has done it three times (a number that has some significance in the Bible, also).
Curiously, the poem starts with the disarmingly colloquial comment about her power to bring herself back from the dead: “I have done it again.” The ability to bring someone back to life—what is usually construed as a divine power—has become humanized and almost too easy. But the narrator is not a human who has stolen divine power but one who just happens to have it. The feeling is reinforced by the narrator’s modest “I manage it,” as well as her description of herself as a “sort of walking miracle” (emphasis added).
Quickly, there is a shift in tone. Now the narrator is not just a victim of suicide who has made it back. Instead, it looks like she is not the only one responsible for this, her third death, for her skin is compared to “a Nazi lampshade” and her face a “featureless, fine / Jew linen.” She speaks now to “O my enemy” and asks “Do I terrify?” The narrator is far from just happy to be alive, then, but has another quest—revenge on her murderers. With this third rebirth has come courage. Later in the poem, allusions to the Holocaust will recur and intensify. Some critics, however, have found them highly inappropriate for the poem, a desperate grasp for a horrific image. Others see the imagery as both valuable for a poem about much more than one woman’s suicidal view and also as applicable in a modern brutal world.
Again, we are struck with a strong shift in tone in the middle of the ninth stanza.
Now it seems we are at a circus:
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
I am the same, identical woman. The narrator, now, is on display, a side-show act who is also her own promoter and announcer. She asks for attention from the audience that shoves in for the spectacle, wanting to look at something they know they shouldn’t, a person stripped of herself. Theirs is a cruel symbiotic relationship. At the same time, again there are references to Christ. He had been wrapped before being placed in his grave. His hands and feet were left scarred from the nails driven into them by his persecutors to hold him on the cross. Upon his resurrection, his doubtful disciple said he would have to feel and see Christ’s scars in order to believe him alive.
By the next line, the narrator is no longer the circus barker but addresses her reader directly. She explains that her first death was an accident, but that the second time she “meant / To last it out and not come back at all.” She doesn’t talk of the third death here, but comments on death overall: “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.” The ironic twist here is that dying is not really the art; what attracts the peanut crunchers is the fact that the narrator is reborn. Coming back to life, not dying, is the art. In fact, dying can be seen as what the narrator does exceptionally poorly, since it never lasts. Of course, without it the rebirth could never take place.
Just as the narrator tells us that when she is reborn she is the “same, identical woman,” now many lines later she reiterates that she comes back
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
That knocks me out.
There is now apparently some comfort in knowing she will come back as herself. And despite the fact that she still is herself, her onlookers are always amazed. The exclamation here of “‘A miracle!’” is especially vibrant in comparison to the line at the poem’s beginning where the narrator describes herself as “A sort of walking miracle.” The narrator, then, has gotten something out of this crowd, it is not just naked embarrassment but exhilaraton. But we are told that “There is a charge / For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge / For the hearing of my heart— / It really goes.” The crowd must pay for their look, just as the narrator must also pay a price to keep these parts of her self alive.
As the poem comes closer to its end, the Nazi analogy returns. The narrator provokes her persecutors with: “So, so, Herr Doktor. / So, Herr Enemy.” (“Herr” is “Mister” in German.) The use of “Doktor” alludes to the horrendous experiments that the Nazis performed on their prisoners. But then the narrator becomes the victim, “The pure gold baby / That melts to a shriek. / I turn and burn.” Still, she is the one whose sarcasm cannot be subdued. “Do not think I underestimate your great concern,” she says with bravado, since she knows she is reborn, no matter how horrifically she has been killed. But we cannot escape the deathly ovens so quickly. The enemy pokes in the ash at the narrator, where little is left, just a list, the first of which is “A cake of soap,” what the inhuman Nazis would make from the remains of their victims.
Yet this narrator is not to be victimized so readily after this, her death “Number Three.” Now her persecutors are not evil Nazis; Nazis were not enough of a challenge. Now her enemy is actually God, as well as Lucifer. God and Lucifer, in fact, may be one here. After this third death, the narrator comes back consumed with vengeance and now makes her victims as insignificant as they had wanted to make her. Their destruction helps sustain her and it is so very easy.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
Lady Lazarus Lecture by Dr. Priya K Nair
Aird, Eileen. Sylvia Plath. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1973.
Bawer, Bruce. “Sylvia Plath and the Poetry of Confession.” New Criterion 9 (1991): pp. 18–27.
Burnham, Richard E. “Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus.’” Contemporary Poetry 1 (1973): pp. 42–46.
Coulthard, A. R. “A Biblical Allusion in Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus.’” Notes on Contemporary Literature 21 (November 1991): p. 3.
Newman, Charles, ed. The Art of Sylvia Plath. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.
Skei, Hans H. “Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’: An Interpretation.” Edda 4 (1981): pp. 233–44.
Source: Bloom, H., 2001. Sylvia Plath: Bloom’s Major Poets. Chelsea.