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"Lady Lazarus" and The Death of The Feminine

Plath attempts to document the collapse of the system of repression in her dramatic monologue Lady Lazarus by turning women into active subjects. The poem immediately places gender at the fore-front with the title, and the remainder of the poem depicts the persona’s struggle to transcend the societal expectations of gender norms by being reborn, thus shedding the constraints of objectification.

In Lady Lazarus, Plath stages a poetic rebirth in order to harmonize the division felt by a woman poet between her femininity and her writing self. This discrepancy between writing and being a woman is embodied throughout the poem by Plath’s efforts to break out of the chains of objectification by male idolatry and become an active agent in control of her narrative. The poem opens with Plath’s persona constructing a blazon of herself, showing that what defines her as a woman are her physical attributes. However, the bodily images Plath’s persona lists are grotesque:

“My skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade, My right foot A paperweight” (Plath, ll.4-7)

Figure 1: Portrait of Sylvia Plath

This is a reference to the idea that lampshades were created by the Nazis out of the skin of the Jews. The horrific nature of the images subverts the typical use of the blazon as a tool for admiration and shows the persona attacking the constricting effects of treating women as objects. Alicia Suskin Ostriker in remarks in Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America that “The drama of social and political life plays out, on a nightmarishly large scale, the victimisation of the body” (Ostriker, 1987, p.101).

In order to achieve this transcendence of female limitations imposed by societal norms, Plath’s persona views death as the only solution, “And like the cat I have nine times to die” (Plath, l.21). She views suicide as the ultimate achievement of control by ridding herself of the constraints of femininity. She compares herself dying to an “opus” or valuable gold that “melts to a shriek” (Plath, ll.67-70). The reference to opus and works of art is a direct link to women being restricted to the role of muses; an idea that the persona intends to abolish. What is physically left of the persona after her death is simply “A cake of soap/A wedding ring/A gold filling” (Plath, ll.76-78). Plath’s persona leaves behind objects relating to what women are defined by, their appearance and their marriages. She outwardly rejects all expectations demanded of her as a woman- she compares this living death to the dissolving of identities cast by society.

Figure 2: "The Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt" painted by Van Gogh

At the end of the poem, Plath is resurrected as indicated by the biblical allusion to Lazarus, liberated from the limitations imposed upon her gender into what Elisabeth Bronfen coined as an “empowered agent of motion and energy” (Bronfen, 2004, p.64). The final line of the poem- “And I eat men like air” (Plath, l.84)- is a direct warning that she has recaptured her agency. Bronfen argues in her book Sylvia Plath: Writers and their Work that her resurrection is a culmination of the combination of her longing for transcendence and her wanting for death. This translates into “fantasies of transformation, of escape from constriction and engulfment, and of flight, where casting off outgrown selves and overused masks leads to naked renewal” (Bronfen, 2004, p. 64). The final image we are left with is the red-haired phoenix, signifying transformation and rebirth- the ultimate symbol of strength and renewal.

One distinct characteristic of Plath’s poem is its performative aspect. Tim Kendall in Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study surmises that the frequent repetitions found throughout help construct the poem as rhetorical and incantatory, “conscious of its status as performance” (Kendall, 2001, p.149). The poetic structure of the dramatic monologue also helps contribute to the performativity, as the persona chooses to directly address the readers. Initially, the persona addresses an audience that is described as a distinct, separate entity to the readers, with the persona choosing to descriptively narrate for the benefit of the latter, “The peanut-crunching crowd/Shoves in to see/Then unwrap me” (Plath, ll.26-28). However, the tone switches to the public rhetoric of a ringmaster as the readers are implicated in the scene.

Figure 3: Katsushika Hokusai's Phoenix painting

Plath’s persona turns herself into an object of spectacle, hypnotically fixing the audience’s gaze onto her; “The big strip tease./Gentlemen, ladies” (Plath, ll.29-30). The readers are criticised for the role they may have played, active or passively, in creating such a restricting environment. The persona attacks the readers for their voyeuristic impulses and renders them powerless as she becomes more vengeful. Kendall sees the poem as an “affront” against the audience, both spellbinding and appalling them (Kendall, 2001, p.160). The biting rhythm of the poem, constructed through frequent use of punctuation, almost seems to be taunting the reader. Plath’s persona posits death as a performance, “Dying/Is an art” (Plath, ll.43-44), and she casts the readers as the audience needed for the spectacle; without the audience there would be no need for the death in the first place.

The persona in Plath’s poem does not simply criticize the patriarchal society stifling her abilities, she outrightly threatens it. The powerlessness felt by the persona channels itself into a desire to kill herself, but it also festers into a desire to kill others. She begins to associate the audience witnessing her death to people who participated in the Holocaust, “So Herr Doktor/So Herr Enemy” (Plath, ll.65-66). Plath’s persona therefore aligns herself as a victim of the Holocaust, creating a juxtaposition between the powerful authority of her voice and the victim roles she casts herself in. She then extends her anger to all male figures, “Herr God, Herr Lucifer/Beware/Beware” (Plath, ll.79-81). Male figures come to epitomize a cultural scenario wherein masculine authority, depicted as tyrannically violent, dominates the binary worlds of society and personal life. The final line of the poem “I eat men like air” (Plath, l.84) is an unwavering condemnation of the forces that have repressed her, and her vow to disregard the creative limitations placed upon her based on her femininity is delivered to us in the final form of the poem.

Figure 4: "Lady Lazarus", painting by Bori Mate

Plath utilises the dramatic persona in her poem as a device for social commentary regarding the status of women confined to objectification. Plath’s persona embodies the voice of the repressed woman striving to be free from the constraints of society and achieve agency and empowerment. The only solution for Plath’s persona to transcend these limitations placed upon their gender is through the spectacle of death and rebirth.

Bibliographic References

Bronfen, E. (2004). Sylvia Plath: Writers and their Work. Devon: Northcote House Publisher Ltd.

Kendall, T. (2001). Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study. London: Faber & Faber Ltd.

Ostriker, A. S. (1987). Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. London: The Woman’s Press Ltd.

Rees- Jones, D. (ed.) (2005). Modern Women Poets. Tarset: Bloodaxe.

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Megan Maistre

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