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Summary and Analysis of the Poem Lady Lazarous

"Lady Lazarus" is a poem commonly understood to be about suicide. It is narrated by a woman and mostly addressed to an unspecified person.

Summary of the Poem Lady Lazarus

Lady Lazarus is a poem commonly understood to be about suicide. It is narrated by a woman and mostly addressed to an unspecified person.

The narrator begins by saying she has "done it again." Every ten years, she manages to commit this unnamed act. She considers herself a walking miracle with bright skin, her right foot a "paperweight," and her face as fine and featureless as a "Jew linen". She addresses an unspecified enemy, asking him to peel the napkin from her face, and inquiring whether he is terrified by the features he sees there. She assures him that her "sour breath" will vanish in a day.

She is certain that her flesh will soon be restored to her face after having been sacrificed to the grave, and that she will then be a smiling, 30-year-old woman. She will ultimately be able to die nine times, like a cat, and has just completed her third death. She will die once each decade. After each death, a "peanut-crunching crowd" shoves in to see her body unwrapped. She addresses the crowd directly, showing them she remains skin and bone, unchanged from who she was before.

The first death occurred when she was ten, accidentally. The second death was intentional - she did not mean to return from it. Instead, she was as "shut as a seashell" until she was called back by people who then picked the worms off her corpse. She does not specifically identify how either death occurred.

She believes that "Dying / Is an art, like everything else," and that she does it very well. Each time, "it feels real," and is easy for her. What is difficult is the dramatic comeback, the return to the same place and body, occurring as it does in broad daylight before a crowd's cry of "A miracle!" She believes people should pay to view her scars, hear her heart, or receive a word, touch, blood, hair or clothes from her.

In the final stanzas, she addresses the listener as "Herr Dockter" and "Herr Enemy," sneering that she is his crowning achievement, a "pure gold baby." She does not underestimate his concern but is bothered by how he picks through her ashes. She insists there is nothing there but soap, a wedding ring, and a gold filling. She warns "Herr God, Herr Lucifer" to beware of her because she is going to rise out of the ash and "eat men like air."

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Lady Lazarus is a complicated, dark, and brutal poem originally published in the collection Ariel. Plath composed the poem during her most productive and fecund creative period. It is considered one of Plath's best poems and has been subject to a plethora of literary criticism since its publication.

It is commonly interpreted as an expression of Plath's suicidal attempts and impulses. Its tone veers between menacing and scathing, and it has drawn attention for its use of Holocaust imagery, similar to "Daddy." The title is an allusion to the Biblical character, Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.

The standard interpretation of the poem suggests that it is about multiple suicide attempts. The details can certainly be understood in this framework. When the speaker says she "has done it again," she means she has attempted suicide for the third time, after one accidental attempt and one deliberate attempt in the past.

Each attempt occurred in a different decade, and she is now 30 years old. Now that she has been pulled back to life from this most recent attempt, her "sour breath / Will vanish in a day," and her flesh will return to her bones. However, this recovery is presented as a failure, whereas the suicide attempts are presented as accomplishments - "Dying is an art" that she performs "exceptionally well." She seems to believe she will reach perfection by escaping her body.

By describing dying as an art, she includes a spectator to both her deaths and resurrections. Because death is a performance, it necessarily requires others. In large part, she kills herself to punish them for driving her to it. The eager "peanut-crunching crowd" is invited but criticized for its voyeuristic impulse.

The crowd could certainly be understood to include the reader himself since he reads the poem to explore her dark impulses. She assumes that her voyeurs are significantly invested - they would pay the "large charge" to see her scars and heart.

However, she imbues this impulse with harsh criticism by comparing the crowd to the complacent Germans who stood aside while the Jews were thrown into concentration camps. Further, the crowd ultimately proves less an encouragement than a burden when they also attend the resurrection. She despises this second part of the process and resents the presence of others at that time. Whether this creates a vicious circle, in which that resentment is partially responsible for the subsequent attempt, is implied but not explicitly stated.

Critic Robert Bagg explores the speaker's contradictory feelings towards the crowd by writing that Plath "is not bound by any metaphysical belief in the self's limitations. Instead of resisting the self's antagonists, she derives a tremendous thrill from throwing her imagination into the act of self-obliteration." She can destroy her body, but her imaginative self remains a performer, always aware of the effect she has on others.

The poem can also be understood through a feminist lens, as a demonstration of the female artist's struggle for autonomy in a patriarchal society. Lynda K. Bundtzen writes that "the female creation of a male-artist god is asserting independent creative powers." From this perspective, "Lady Lazarus" is not merely a confessional poem detailing depressive feelings, but is also a statement on how the powerful male figure usurps Plath's creative powers but is defeated by her rebirth.

Though Lady Lazarus knows that "Herr Doktor" will claim possession of her body and remains after forcing her suicide, she equally believes she will rise and "eat men like air." Her creative powers can be stifled momentarily, but will always return stronger.

The poem can also be understood in a larger context, as a comment on the relationship between poet and audience in a society that, as Pamela Annas claims, has separated creativity and consumption. The crowd views Lady Lazarus/the poet/Plath as an object and therefore does not recognize her as a human being. Plath reflects this through her multiple references to body parts separated from the whole. From this interpretation, Lady Lazarus's suicide then becomes "an assertion of wholeness, an act of self-definition, and a last desperate act of contempt toward the peanut-crunching crowd."

The only way she can keep herself intact is to destroy herself, and she does this rather than be turned into commodities. Though "Herr Docktor" will peruse her remains for commodities, she will not have been defeated because of her final act.

As has often been the case in Plath's poems, the Holocaust imagery has drawn much attention from critics and readers. It is quite profuse in this poem. Lady Lazarus addresses a man as "Herr Dokter," "Herr Enemy," "Herr God," and "Herr Lucifer." She describes her face as a "Nazi lampshade" and as a"Jew linen." As previously described, one effect of these allusions is to implicate the reader, make him or her complicit in passive voyeurism by comparing him or her to the Germans who ignored the Holocaust.

However, they also serve to establish the horrific atmosphere than being understood as patriarchy, as a society of consumers, or as simply cruel humans. No matter how one interprets the crowd in the poem, they complicate the poem's meaning so that it is a sophisticated exploration of the responsibility we have for each other's unhappiness, rather than simply a dire, depressive suicide note.

About The Author and Poem

Sylvia Plath wrote "Lady Lazarus" in 1962, during a creative burst of energy in the months before her death by suicide in 1963. The poem remains one of Plath's most enduring works.

"Lady Lazarus," is both the title of the poem, and its speaker—much like the biblical Lazarus, the man Jesus resurrected from the dead in the Gospel of John, the speaker is also resurrected by external forces, and more than once. This resurrection, however, is unwanted—the speaker reveals she wants to die in order to escape the profound suffering caused by living in an oppressive, male-dominated society.

Instead, the speaker is forced to come back to life, each revival a carnival-like performance for a "peanut-crunching crowd." However, the speaker warns her enemies—the men who bring her back to life—eventually, she will return and "eat men like air," demonstrating a complicated dynamic of empowerment and hopelessness. Using metaphors of death and resurrection, Plath provides a dark insight into the suicidal mind, as well as a critique of society's twisted fascination with suffering, and of the horror of being a woman in a patriarchal world.

“Lady Lazarus” Summary

I have done it again. Once every ten years, I manage to kill myself and come back to life. I am a kind of living miracle, with my skin so white it looks like a lampshade the Nazis made from the skin of dead Jewish Holocaust victims, my right foot heavy like a paperweight, and my face, without its usual features, looking like a fine piece of Jewish cloth.

Peel off the cloth, you, my enemy. Do I scare you, without my nose, with my empty eye sockets, and a full set of teeth like a skull? The sour smell of decay on my breath will disappear in a day. Soon, very soon, the skin that decayed in my tomb will be back on my body, and I will become a smiling woman again. I am only thirty years old. And like a cat, I also have nine times to die.

I am currently dead, and this is the third time out of nine. What a shame, to destroy each decade like this. See the million flashing bulbs. The crowd, crunching on peanuts, shoves in to watch as my burial cloth is unwrapped from me, like some kind of strip-tease. Gentlemen and ladies of the crowd, here are my hands. My knees. I may be nothing more than skin and bones, but regardless, I came back as the same identical woman I was before I died.

The first time I died, I was ten years old. It was an accident. The second time I died was intentional. I meant for it to last, and to never come back. I rocked into a ball, shutting myself off to the world like a seashell. People had to call and call for me to come back to life, and had to pick off the worms, which had already begun to infest my dying body, as though they were pearls that were stuck to me.

Like everything else, dying is an art form, a skill. I'm extremely good at it. I try to die so it feels terrible like I'm in hell. I try to die in a way that feels as though I'm actually dying. I guess you could say that dying is my calling (since I'm so good at it).

It's easy enough to die in a cell (like in a mental hospital or prison. It's easy enough to die and stay in one place. It's the dramatic resurrection, the return in the middle of the day to the same place, the return to the same body, the return to the same old loud and surprised shout: 'It's a miracle!' that really tires me out. I charge for people to look at my scars, and I charge for them to listen to my heart—it beats fast and continuously. And there is a charge, a very expensive charge, for people to hear me speak, or to touch me, or to buy some of my blood, or hair, or clothes. So, Sir Doctor. So Sir Enemy, I am your great artwork. I am your valuable item, like a baby made out of pure gold that, when dying, melts until there is nothing but the sound of screaming. I turn away from you and burn alive. Don't think I underestimate just don't know how concerned you are for me.

Now I'm just ash, all ash—you poke at the ash, stir it around, looking for my flesh, or bone, but there isn't anything left— just a bar of soap, a wedding ring, a gold tooth filling. Sir God, Sir Lucifer, beware, beware. Out of the ashes, I will rise, my hair red (like a phoenix's feathers), and I will eat men like they are nothing, like I am simply breathing.

Lady Lazarus Themes

Death and Suicide

Throughout "Lady Lazarus," the speaker uses extended metaphors of death and resurrection to express her own personal suffering. The speaker compares herself to Lazarus (a biblical reference to a man Jesus raised from the dead), telling the reader that she has died multiple times, and is, in fact, dead when the poem begins. However, through external forces, the speaker is brought back to a lifetime and time again. For Lazarus, his resurrection was a joyous event, and one might assume that all such resurrections would be happy. But the speaker of the poem subverts that expectation—she wants to die. And so the efforts of those who want to save her—whether loved ones, or doctors, or whoever else—feel to the speaker like selfish, controlling acts committed against her wishes.

Obviously, the speaker is not actually dead but uses this metaphor to demonstrate how unbearable life is and, in turn, explain (and perhaps justify) her suicide attempts. Thus, the reader can interpret the poem as the musings of a suicidal mind, with death being alternately presented as freedom, escape from suffering, and the achievement of a sort of peace.

Throughout the poem, the speaker often contrasts life and death by using imagery that subverts the reader's expectations. Note how the speaker describes life through disturbing images, such as comparing her skin to a "Nazi lampshade," or describing her resurrection as "...flesh / the grave cave ate will be / at home on me." This imagery is surprisingly applied to the speaker's living body after it is resurrected. The speaker describes her experience of living as a kind of torture, almost as a kind of death—when she is brought back to life, her skin is like the dead skin of someone killed in the Holocaust, it is the skin of a dead woman forced back onto her living self. Thus, the speaker demonstrates how living, for her, is what death feels like for most people.

In contrast, the speaker describes death as a kind of calmness. For instance, when the speaker describes her second suicide attempt, the imagery evokes the peacefulness of the sea: the speaker tells the reader she "rocked shut," alluding to the rhythmic, calming waves of the ocean, while the "worms" or maggots that invade a decaying corpse are depicted as "pearls." The speaker also transforms into a "seashell," shedding her skin to become a creature with a hard, outer shell, implying that her death offers blissful solitude and protection.

For the speaker, skin, which falls away in death, is a symbol that the speaker is still alive. When she is resurrected against her will, the “flesh the grave cave ate” reappears on her. The speaker's disdain for her skin seems to stem in part from the fact that the skin both displays and is the receptacle of the pain and suffering of life. The speaker at one point mentions others "eyeing .. my scars," capturing both how the skin is scarred by trauma, but also how skin displays that trauma for the world to see. In this way, the speaker's skin subjects her to what she believes is an intolerable invasion of privacy. Death offers protection from that invasion.

When the speaker begins the poem, she reveals that she is currently dead—it can be assumed that she has tried to kill herself. She tells the reader she will be reborn as the woman she was. However, by the end of the poem, the speaker has transformed into a phoenix: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” Although this is seemingly a moment of empowerment for the speaker, this turn also conveys the hopelessness the speaker feels about her situation. The phoenix, a mythological creature, is known for its regenerative abilities. Thus, like the speaker, the phoenix dies and is reborn. However, because the speaker has transformed into a phoenix at the end of the poem, this could signify that the speaker is stuck in a cycle of dying and being reborn that she can neither escape nor control. In this way, the speaker expresses the intolerability of her life—though, logically, the reader understands that the speaker is not truly immortal, the speaker demonstrates that her life is so insufferable that it feels as though her life will continue indefinitely, through the exhausting patterns of suicide and being saved and brought back to a life she does not want. This pattern, in turn, also explains why death is so desirable for the speaker: because she feels as though she cannot die, and must suffer forever, death is the only solution to end her suffering.

Gender and Oppression

"Lady Lazarus," is told from the perspective of a woman in a male-dominated society, and the speaker directly blames her suffering on the men whom she sees as oppressing her. The poem strongly suggests that the men mentioned are the ones—whether loved ones or doctors—who keep bringing the speaker back to life, suggesting how little autonomy women can ever hope to have in a patriarchal world. The poem's metaphors of death and resurrection, then, come to illustrate how society seeks to dominate women’s lives and bodies. The implication is that one of the reasons that the speaker wants to die is because, ironically, it’s the only way to exercise some semblance of control over her own life—which then makes the fact that she can’t die all the more agonizing.

Most often, the speaker’s oppression takes the form of objectification; society treats the speaker like an object whose purpose is to please others, rather than a complete human being. The speaker even goes so far as to compare herself to a Jewish person in Nazi-occupied Germany. She calls her skin a “Nazi lampshade,” she faces a “Jew linen.” The former is a reference to an urban legend that Nazis made lampshades from the skin of Jewish people murdered in the Holocaust, while this line refers to the cloth used to wrap the biblical Lazarus in his tomb. Notice also that these are both domestic items—and as such are associated with typical conceptions of femininity. Although invoking the Holocaust is definitely macabre and controversial, this comparison is meant to indicate the extent of the oppression the speaker feels, the degree to which the speaker has come to feel she is seen as a thing rather than as a person.

Later, while addressing her "enemies," the speaker declares: “I am your valuable / The pure gold baby.” This metaphor not only reduces the speaker to someone else’s “valuable” item, like gold but also infantilizes her by making this valuable object a “baby.” The fact that the speaker’s body is so often seemingly put on display for others further suggests how women’s bodies are never really their own but instead used for the benefit/entertainment of other people. The speaker describes her suffering as being a spectacle for the "peanut crunching crowd," which is at once a condemnation of the macabre interest people take in others' pain and more specifically a commentary on how women's pain is particularly commodified; note the sexualized language likening the unravelling of the cloth covering her corpse to a "striptease." Altogether, it’s clear the speaker doesn’t feel like she really has much say regarding her own life—and, in her mind, the culprit is the patriarchy.

Throughout the poem, the female speaker expresses particular tension towards several men. The speaker frequently uses apostrophe, directly addressing various figures: God, Lucifer, Doktor (German for “doctor”), and a more general Enemy. She calls them all “Herr,” which is German for “sir,” indicating that they are all men (and it's also worth noting that Plath's father was of German descent). These men all represent the different kinds of male authority figures in the speaker’s life—religious figures, doctors or psychologists, her father—who all work to control her. But the fact that the men referenced span from the prototypically good (God) all the way to the prototypical evil (Lucifer) suggests that these men can also be seen as more generally representing all men, or the entire male-dominated society in which she lives. Ironically, the speaker’s wish to die might then be interpreted as a desire to escape this world and its oppression—that is, perhaps, to the speaker, death represents a sort of freedom or reclamation of control over her own life and body.

And yet, when she attempts to commit suicide, the speaker keeps being brought back to life! As such, the speaker warns that, when she returns from death, she will “eat men like air.” The speaker intends to destroy the men who have forced her to stay alive, and thus will finally be able to die as she wants. The speaker must consume men—and perhaps with them, their power over her—in order to finally do what she wants. Despite the tangible and almost frightening rage found in this revenge fantasy that ends the poem, though, it never quite pushes past being just a revenge fantasy, and thus seems ultimate not to promise an actual revolution but instead a condemnation of the impossibility of women’s liberation in a patriarchal world.

Suffering and Performance

The speaker sardonically declares that “dying is an art, like everything else,” and repeatedly presents her suffering as a performance for an audience that is eager to watch the show. To put it bluntly: the poem is deeply critical of society’s twisted fascination with others’ suffering.

The speaker describes her death and resurrection as being “theatrical,” and describes how “the peanut-crunching crowd”—you’d probably say “popcorn-munching" today—push and shove in order to get a glimpse of Lady Lazarus, wrapped like a mummy in death, being resurrected. “The big striptease,” the speaker ironically calls this show, suggesting that people view pain and suffering in much the same way they do sexual gratification: it’s all just fodder for their amusement.

The speaker even charges the audience for access to her: “There is a charge // For the eyeing of my scars” and “For the hearing of my heart” and even larger charges “for a word or a touch / Or a bit of blood / Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.” Not only are people able to watch the speaker suffer, but they are also able to actively participate in her suffering. People’s fascination with others’ pain, and lack of empathy, seemingly know no bounds. At the same time, the speaker herself does seem to find some sense of empowerment from this spectacle, complicating the notion of it as purely exploitative or degrading. The speaker clearly feels oppressed by a society that objectifies her, and, in a way, decides to use that objectification to her advantage by charging for access to her pain.

The speaker, in the lines immediately following, addresses her enemies: “So, so Herr Doktor. / So, Herr Enemy. // I am your opus, / I am your valuable.” The use of the word “opus” here implies that the speaker’s “work” or “art” of death and resurrection is not her work, per se, but rather is the artistic work of her enemies. This makes sense: all the speaker wants to do is die. The spectacle is created when she is continually forced to recover, to be resurrected, such that society can then look at and gossip about why she wanted to kill herself. The speaker suggests that the performance is being forced on her, that she is being forced to star in it.

Of course, this isn’t a real show—the speaker is using an extended metaphor to relate how much society craves sensationalism and gossip and to condemn those who use other people’s pain for macabre entertainment.

The performance could also be seen as a metaphor that represents the complicated dynamic between the artist and their art. The speaker describes the repetitiveness of the performance as exhausting, telling the reader that it's easy enough to die by herself, but it's the "theatrical comeback" to the "same place, the same face, the same brute / Amused shout" that truly "knocks her out."

Although the speaker's performance is both authentic to her experience, and a way in which she can derive a sense of empowerment from her suffering, she is also wearied by having to repeat her suffering over and over. This could reflect the struggle many artists have when they represent their suffering in their work, and come to believe that, perhaps, the performance of suffering is what makes their work popular or valuable to others, not what they have to say about it.

Summary and Analysis of the Poem Lady Lazarous
Summary and Analysis of the Poem Lady Lazarous

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