The primary concern of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus” is how the female speaker views her relationship with men; the emotions associated with her views of sex are equated to death, and the desire for her to die. This metaphor of death, used throughout the poem, parallels how she sees sex as an act worse than death, and that the institution of marriage is not only a prison, but for her, can be likened to a Nazi concentration camp. By analyzing each metaphorical section (the concentration camp, the mummy Lazarus, the circus, and the phoenix), and by examining literary techniques such as line enjambment and repetition, one can conclude that the speaker equated conventional marriage and relationships to a prison (or concentration camp), and when trapped by this, she would prefer to view herself as dead, rather than acknowledging any sexual acts in that marriage.
Beginning in the second stanza, and continuing into the third — “Bright as a Nazi lampshade, / My right foot / A paperweight, / My face a featureless, fine / Jew linen” (lines 5-9) — one can immediately see how she’s comparing something (that one later learns is a relationship) to the Holocaust, specifically the way the Nazis viewed the Jews as household products worth nothing more than the material possessions produced from their torture, and ultimately, death. The fact that the speaker focuses on items commonly found around the house is symbolic in the aspect that she feels trapped in household life, as a possession, where she feels tortured as well. This also sets the tone of the poem as a personal holocaust, because of the persecution she fears and experiences.
The second metaphor to examine is that of Lazarus, the namesake of the poem. Like Lazarus, the speaker feels she has the power to rise from the dead.
Soon, soon the flesh / The grave cave ate will be / At home on me. / And I a smiling woman. (16-20)
This passage is in reference to Lazarus’s rise from the dead emerging from the cave. The speaker uses this to show her inner strength: that when forced into a cave, paralleled to a relationship, she will emerge better than before, that this rebirth will bring an end to the tortuous time, and that she will smile outwardly throughout the ordeal.
In the next stanza, lines 23-24 — “What a trash / To annihilate each decade” — show the reader that she is equating something to death, that around every ten years something forceful occurs that compels her to view the last decade as a waste. This is the emergence of her views of sex in the poem. Here she references a forced sexual act, or some form of abuse that has happened twice in the speaker’s life, which she fears is going to happen again. Stanzas 12 and 13 give us a limited background of the speaker; she notes in lines 35 and 36: “The first time it happened I was ten. / It was an accident.” By now, one has established that she equates death to sex, as she couldn’t possibly have actually died a physical death at age ten; her claim that it was an accident shows her innocence of youth, that even twenty years later, she can maintain that a sexual act could have been an accident. In the next stanza, she states: “The second time I meant / To last it out and not come back at all” (37-38). That passage simply lets the reader know that by the second time, chronologically at twenty years old, the speaker wanted nothing more to do with the act of sex, or for her, the pain and suffering that “death” or sex brought. But she then goes on to say that “Dying / is an art… / I do it exceptionally well” (43-45). The speaker feels that she dies each time she has sex, and eventually, she has come to accept this as her gift, a sordid way to kill herself (or a part of herself) every time she engages in the act.
“The peanut crunching crowd” (26) exemplifies how the speaker views her life almost as a circus; she feels constantly watched by spectators, that she is being judged for each and every action. “The big strip tease” (29) is a reference back to the mummy of the Lazarus metaphor, but adds more to the tone of anger, the sarcasm apparent in this entire poem. The speaker has almost mummified herself, a form of perseverance; even if she is a spectacle in the circus, judged and monitored when they strip away all the layers, she realizes “…I am the same identical woman” (34).
The final metaphorical section to examine is found within the last stanza:
Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air. (82-84)
In this passage, the speaker compares herself to a phoenix; like the phoenix (and Lazarus), the speaker is born anew after each “death.” Similarly, she feels she rises out of her own remains, stronger than before. These final lines seem almost a warning to not only “Herr God, Herr Lucifer” (79), but to all men, a warning that they should watch out because, like a fire, she plans to consume and destroy all men in her rage and rebirth.
The form of this poem is rather constant: it’s a collection of three-lined stanzas with no discernible rhyme pattern or syllabic scheme. It is very repetitive in form, and, in fact, as the poem progresses, the same words are repeated. This is not so much for emphasis, but for one to see how trapped the speaker feels inside of her life, her relationships, and even the very poem describing her entrapment. There are a few cases of enjambment, but the most important and relevant occurs in line 53: the repetition “…the same place, the same face, the same brute” automatically makes the reader assume that “brute” is a noun, presumably referencing her partner. Upon continuation in line 54, however, the phrase “Amused shout” makes “brute” into an adjective describing the doctor’s shouts. There is also repetition of the phrase “I do it” (“it” referring to sex) in lines 45-47, as a mantra for her to regain some sense of control, to reclaim a part of herself that she feels is lost; by repeating this phrase, by convincing herself that she is in control, she can maintain some power in the matter. In lines 65 and 66, there is not only repetition — “So, so Herr Doktor. / So, Herr enemy” — but a uniting of all of the metaphors. “Herr” is German (the language spoken by the Nazis) for “mister” or “sir,” the title given to all men. To paraphrase the following stanzas, the speaker states that she recognizes that she feels like a valuable piece of property that one man claims to own, and then she becomes incensed. At this, she proceeds to announce her likeness to the phoenix and issues a warning to all men, both in this world and in the “afterlife.”
Essentially, the poem “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath uses multifaceted metaphors to show how the speaker feels scrutinized and owned by her relationships, trapped in a marriage. Plath accentuates this feeling by repetition, enjambment, and the underlying equation of sex to death. The speaker has continued to “die” and has reached her breaking point. She plans to rise again, and all men should take heed to beware her wrath.
Plath, Sylvia. “Lady Lazarus.” The Norton Introduction to Poetry. Ed. Alison Booth, J. Paul Hunter, Kelly J. Mays. 8th edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2002. 519-521.