Plath's "Lady Lazarus"

The Explicator - Spring 1998

by Theresa Collins, Kean University

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well. (lines 43-45)

The process of dying is Lady Lazarus's proclaimed art and, significantly, the inspiration of much of Sylvia Plath's work. The poem can be interpreted as a struggle for control over one's own art. For Lady Lazarus, dominion over her art (death) is prevented by her torturer, Herr Doktor. This powerful character is a Nazi doctor who brings the speaker back to life from her suicides, performing experiments that echo actual atrocities of the Jewish Holocaust. The poet uses Holocaust imagery andreferences to magnify the controller/controlled relationship. Plath captures the three main aspects of the poem's struggle by tracing the name Lazarus through Catholic history. Each of the three religious figures bearing the name represents a particulardimension of the relationship between the speaker and Herr Doktor.

The first and most obvious connection is between Lady Lazarus and the Bible's Lazarus of Bethany. In John's Gospel, when Jesus receives news that his friend Lazarus is deathly ill, he says, "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby" (John 11.4). Although Lazarus died, Jesus miraculously raised him from the dead. However, this resurrection was not fueled by love or mercy, but out of Jesus' desire to advertise his own power. This parallels Herr Doktor's talent for bringing Lady Lazarus back from death - interfering with her art. He resurrects her in front of a crowd, so that his "opus" can be admired and his power acknowledged.

To the crowd Lady Lazarus had previously referred to as "a million filaments" she says, "There is a charge / For the eyeing of my scars..." (57, 58). She is competing with Herr Doktor's power with her own godlike omniscience. She sees the gathered crowd for what they are - their concern is as fake as the light from a light bulb's filament compared with that of the sun. There now seems to be a reversal of roles in this control-based relationship, as we notice that Lady Lazarus is the one"charg[ing]" the crowd. Aside from demanding money, she is also the source of the electric current causing the "filaments" to glow.

The second Lazarus is a character in a parable from Luke told by Jesus called The Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man in this anecdote prospered in life while ignoring the suffering beggar Lazarus, who lived at his gates. Lazarus was "full of sores"; in fact, the name Lazarus became synonymous with "leper" (A Dictionary of First Names). Leprosy is still equated with the loss of the extremities, one of the symptoms of the disease if left untreated. Like a leper, Lady Lazarus's body parts aredetached and scattered in the poem:

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
A paperweight
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen. (Lines 4-9)

These gruesome creations of Herr Doktor not only recall the history of the Holocaust; his inventions (a paperweight, a lampshade, a desk cloth) are familiar objects in the desktop setting of a poet's environment. This portion of the poem stands out, along with other parts of the piece, for its autobiographical relevance. It hints at the speaker's manipulation of her horrific experience to set the stage for her art. The whole process of dying and being brought back to life intensifies her art.

The parable ends with Lazarus being rewarded in heaven while the rich man pays for his sins in hell. Looking up from hell and seeing Lazarus enjoying the comforts of heaven, the rich man begs Abraham, "Have mercy on me and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue: for I am tortured in this flame" (Luke 16.24). As suggested in the last stanza of the poem, with the image of red hair rising, the speaker becomes her own hell and the ultimate judge of her ownuniverse. So through her final masterpiece, she becomes her own god.

Death and suicide permeate this poem as well as many of Plath's other works, bringing us to the significance of St. Lazarus the Confessor. St. Lazarus was an eleventh-century stylite monk belonging to an order known for its strict discipline, which, they believed, would allow them to reach a higher spiritual state. Given the strong parallel between the monk's way of life and a poet's ascetic life, St. Lazarus the Confessor possibly represents the poet herself. The poem is a confession, withall of its autobiographical similarities. The poet's familiar exhibitionist style is her own artistic device to have us stirring through her ash remains (her poem) like the Nazi doctor (73-75). As a stylite monk would grow closer to God through his self-discipline, Plath becomes closer to being her own artistic god through her poetic performance. The revenge and immortality promised in the last two stanzas are taken out of God's hands and attained by the speaker, who may actually be the poetherself.


A Dictionary of First Names. Oxford U P. 1990.
Plath, Sylvia. "Lady Lazarus." Ariel. New York: Harper Perennial, 1965. 5.

Copyright (c) 1998 THE EXPLICATOR

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