Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

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...

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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 tables on the father and his kind. Its dramatic overstatement of male evil may be, for one reader, an offense against fairness. For another, it may not even pertain to that problem, but only represent the extremity of long-borne suffering.

Whether the poem depicts the onset of successful revenge is problematic. Lady Lazarus has surely arrived at the point of reversing roles with her antagonist. She understands and intends to exploit his means of violent mastery, and at the last, the prefatory myth of the halting Lazarus is altered to the myth of the ascendant phoenix, the bird which immolates itself every five hundred years but rises whole and rejuvenated from its ashes. Lady Lazarus’s “red hair” suggests fire, which lives (easily) off oxygen. “I eat men like air,” therefore, seems the foreshadowing of victory, in the restoration of the true self and the annihilation of its detractor(s).

For a person, however, the “eating” of air is not nourishing; also, Lady Lazarus confronts men in every quarter of the universe, and her battle plan is of their design. She is even nominally male herself. Whether the phoenix is male or female is even uncertain, though Plath preferred to think it female. Perhaps the poem ultimately envisions the tension created in the victim by the wish for revenge and the fear of its frustration.

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