Sylvia Plaths “Lady Lazarus” is a complicated poem about death and rebirth, which ties in images of the Holocaust to explain the speakers own feelings of oppression about her life. It is a very compelling poem which has a big emotional impact on readers, even though it can be very difficult to understand and at times Plaths language does not even really make sense. What is most interesting about the poem is the speakers distaste at rebirth and her desire for death, both of which are not what would be expected. Ultimately, through the descriptions of these deaths and rebirths, “Lady Lazarus” is best understood as an example of what it feels like to be viewed as a spectacle instead of a human being.
The opening section of the poem pulls the reader in very strongly, without it necessarily being clear what the speaker is talking about. The speaker says she has “done it again” (1) and, without explaining what “it” is, goes on to show how “one year in every ten / I have managed it” (3). While at first this sounds hopeful, the way the image of the narrators “skin / Bright as a Nazi lampshade,” (4-5) immediately undoes that effect, and the poem quickly becomes very dark. Even with this one simple image, the poem makes the reader anxious, and brings in an atmosphere of oppression, pain, and hatred.
It is not until halfway through the poem, though, that it becomes clear that the speaker is talking about death. “I am only thirty,” the speaker says, “and like the cat I have nine times to die.” (20-21). This announcement throws everything that came before into relief. The poem is now clearly about death. But the next few lines add an extra level on top of that. The speakers impending third death is described as “a million filaments,” with a “peanut-crunching crowd” which “shoves in to see” (26-27). Now, not only is the speaker attempting to die, but there is a crowd of other people who view her as a sort of entertainment. They perhaps want her not to die, but they only want that because they find it exciting.
This image is built up again and again in the remaining lines of the poem. The speaker describes how easy dying is, and that it is “easy enough to do it and stay put” (50). What draws the crowd is not her dying, but the “theatrical / Comeback in broad day / to the same place, the same face, the same brute” (51-53). The words used to describe a return from death are more pessimistic and negative than the words she uses to describe death itself, showing that she views the way the crowd watches her as contemptuous and worse than death itself. Later she refers to the doctor as “Herr Enemy” (66), which makes it even clearer that she does not want to live. It also suggests that even the doctor does not care about her as a person, only about his part in the performance of her death and rebirth.
Even though the poem is complicated and sometimes the language is difficult to make sense of, when the images about dying and being reborn are viewed altogether, the speakers sadness and despair really comes through clearly. It is a very powerful poem which gets under your skin and makes you think.