Sylvia Plath – “Lady Lazarus”

When reading Sylvia Plath’s poems I was really struck by her Holocaust symbolism, especially in “Lady Lazarus”. The poem is clearly about her suicide attempts and even foreshadows her successful suicide later that year. However, it seemed odd that she would compare her attempts to the Holocaust. It seems odd that she would relate her struggles with suicide to the experience the Jews had forced upon them. I was also interested in the fact that she only used the words Nazi and Jew once then resigned herself to subtleties and vague descriptions. Stanzas one and two illustrate the moment in time she is relating herself to while the rest of the poem relies on the reader to understand the points she is trying to make:

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Furthermore, I saw a lot of her comments about being a show for other and crowds coming to watch her as another way to relate to the experiences of the Jews and how people took pleasure from the horrible conditions in which they lived and got joy out of seeing the emaciated beings the Jews had become. She also uses the term flesh and bone a couple of times which is how the Jews were described during their time spent in concentration camps. The use of the word Herr to talk to the doctor could be relating to her German past but could also be a reference to the oppressive nature of the Germans during WWII.

What does everyone think about using the Holocaust as a point by which to measure her experiences? It almost seemed to me that she was trying to make her experience less personal by saying what she felt and went through was the same as thousands of other people at the hands of a race. Or does anyone think it was just a way for her to make others understand how she was feeling?

The last stanza says:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

What did you think of how she ended the poem? In following the Holocaust allusions, I saw the ash as her past and the brushes with death she had, or actual death for the Jews, and her red hair as a way of saying she was in no way Aryan thus a victim of the Germans. However, I did not know exactly what to make of the last line. It seems to me that the ending is her way of taking control of her past and saying that no one can control her or what she is planning on doing. She describes all of the doctors as men, and it is possible that her last line is showing that she is above them and will not follow what they say. I saw the ending as her way of finally standing up for herself and realizing that she had a say in her life, or her death as it ended up being. Did anyone else find it kind of disheartening that she seems to finally have power in her life and then chooses to end it not much later? On the other hand, it almost seems that this poem was her way of finally releasing herself for good to achieve peace.

With regard to her other works, how does her Holocaust influence in this poem relate to how she uses similar ideas in “Daddy”? What does it mean that she seems to align herself with the Jews and her father with the Nazis? What did you make of the fact that “Child” was written near the very end of her life but seems less accusatory and angry than her other poems? Why do you think the editor of the Anthology chose to represent her poems in the other that they appeared?

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2 Responses to Sylvia Plath – “Lady Lazarus”

  1. vlevasseur11 says:

    I didn’t feel like the poem was commenting on what happened in World War II. It might just be that the Plaths were of German descent. Thus, when she says her skin is “Bright as a Nazi lampshade” she could be implying that she is composed of “Jew linen” because, according to the footnote, the skin of prisoners in concentration camps was used to make lampshades. However, it’s difficult to conclude if she’s sees herself as a victim of a German force, or if she is just making references to her father.
    The rest of the poem seems like a warning or perhaps a confession that soon she will no longer live “soon, soon the flesh/ the grave cave ate will be/ at home on me”
    Plath refers to removing and peeling back what we see on the surface so that we can see what is beneath: “peel off the napkin,” “unwrap me hand and foot.” After she unwraps herself to the reader she confesses or explains part of her history (i.e., attempted suicicde twice) and goes on to speak in an almost threatening manner. The use of anaphoras make it seem like the poem would be read faster and at a higher volume than before.

    I was curious if anyone else was caught up in the references to performance and the “art” of dying Plath brings up in this poem: “The peanut-crunching crowd shoves in to see…the big strip tease” “For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge/Fir the hearing of my heart…and there is a charge, a very large charge/ For a word or a touch / or a bit of blood / or a piece of my hair or my clothes”
    Who would want to observe such things? A doctor? Her family? The public?
    Is Plath screaming for attention, sending out a cry for help, or warning her viewers to beware of her capabilities or immortality?

    • Whatcher12 says:

      I thought that the allusions to the Holocaust were a way of universalizing her depression. It is hard to write how one feels when they are in a low state, so maybe she is using the Holocaust simply to evoke the horrifying, depressive images that accompany it. I think the first four lines embody the whole idea of the poem: “A sort of walking miracle, my skin/Bright as a Nazi lampshade,/My right foot/A paperweight.” For me it seemed that her “right foot/A paperweight” represented the thing holding her to life after her several attempts at suicide. She is “A sort of walking miracle” because she is still alive. In comparison to the Holocaust, which only became miraculous if someone made it out of concentration camp, perhaps life for Plath is miraculous in the fact that she is making herself to be the tortured soul that escapes death.
      This idea I think crescendos in the last lines: “Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air.” As someone mentioned, her “red hair” makes her a Nazi victim, but the fact that she is rising “out of the ash” like a phionex implies that the depression/or Nazis failed to kill her completely. “I eat men like air” perhaps is a last defiance. It is also interesting to think whether the “men” mentioned here are the Nazis or the Doctors. If they are the Nazis then it would seem to say that Plath survives by consuming or trumping their tyranny as if it were air. But if the “men” are doctors then perhaps Plath is mocking their futile attempts to save her, as it were, from herself.

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