Lady Lazarus Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

People who return from the edge of death often speak of it as rebirth. “Lady Lazarus” effectively conveys that feeling. It is principally, however, about the aspiration to revenge that is felt by the female victim of male domination, conceived as ubiquitous. The revenge would be against all men, though the many are rendered as singular in the poem. The text forces the reader to take the father as prototype, which drives one to read it in terms of the Electra complex. Why, one asks, is the speaker malevolent toward the father rather than amorously yearning? What has he done to inspire the hatred which has displaced love?

The poem is mythic. It leaves the father’s, the male’s, basic offense at the general level of brutal domination. One might rest there, taking control and exploitation as the male’s by nature, practiced universally and with special vigor toward spouses and daughters. The idea will come short of universal acceptance, but the text does not disallow it.

If one looks at the “Enemy” as modeled on Plath’s own father, one finds something else, though certainly no Fascist. Otto Plath’s blameless offense was his death in Sylvia’s childhood, which seems to have left her feeling both guiltily responsible and angry, a common reaction. One normally expects the adult child to overcome this confusion by reasonably understanding it. This poem is not about that experience; it is about the wish, however futile, to turn the...

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