How might one discuss the symbolism used in the poem "Lady Lazarus," by Sylvia Plath?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Sylvia Plath’s striking and vivid poem “Lady Lazarus” features a speaker – a young woman – who seems to have faced death on three different occasions.  The poem draws on a numerous sources of imagery and symbolism, including popular culture (26, 29, 51-52) and crude commercialism (61-64), but the most shocking and most memorable symbolism derives from the holocaust – the systematic attempt by the Nazis, during World War II, to destroy the Jews (9). In this effort, at least six million people died.

In particular, Plath’s speaker compares herself repeatedly to the victims who suffered in Nazi concentration camps. Many of these victims were gassed to death, had their gold teeth removed, had their skin removed and turned into lampshades, had their fat boiled down and rendered into soap, and were finally disposed of by being burnt to ashes in crematoria. Often the victims were only babies, since babies were useless to the Nazis as workers or slaves (5; 65-80). The holocaust is commonly regarded as one of the most horrific atrocities in the history of humankind (which is saying quite a lot, given the long record of man's inhumanity to man).

Clearly the speaker of this poem sees herself, especially near the end of the work, as a victim, in much the same way that the Jews were victims of the Nazis. This, however, is arguably a highly questionable equation.  Apparently the speaker has twice come close to dying through suicide attempts – deliberate choices to kill herself. Perhaps her choices were irrational and therefore not entirely under her control. Perhaps she genuinely does consider herself oppressed. However, it is arguably in very bad taste for the speaker (rational enough, after all, to be the articulate, literate speaker of this poem) to compare her suicide attempts to the victimization of millions of innocent men, women, children, and babies in the Nazi concentration camps.

It is possible to argue that the speaker simultaneously trivializes the deaths of others and sensationalizes her own deliberate flirtations with death. It is possible to argue that the poem exhibits both poor taste and bad faith. Perhaps Plath even intended it to be read as a subtle, covert satire of the speaker. At the very least, perhaps she even hoped that the symbolism and imagery used by the speaker would give us some slight pause and cause us some slight uneasiness about the speaker's possible egotism.

Interpreted in this way, the symbolism linking the speaker of the poem with the victims of the holocaust can seem, at least to some readers, grossly overblown and inappropriate:

So, so, Herr Doktor.  65 
So, Herr Enemy.  

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby  

That melts to a shriek. 70 
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.  

Ash, ash--
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there--  75 

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Are we really meant to sympathize with this speaker?  Can we really sympathize with this speaker?  These are questions that may, for some readers, not be easy to answer. The poem’s heavy reliance on holocaust symbolism is, perhaps, entirely too heavy after all.


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