Themes and Meanings

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Like the scriptural narrative upon which it draws, “Lot’s Wife” offers much opportunity for speculation. The fate of Lot’s wife is known, but neither her reasons for looking back nor her name are given in the Bible. Both her singular doom and the paucity of other information have prompted many reactions, from simple pity to elaborate speculation about her reasons for turning. Commentators have alleged motives ranging from desire for the corrupt pleasures of the doomed cities to rebellion against authority, although Genesis makes no such statement.

Szymborska’s character discusses most of the less lurid motives traditionally ascribed to Lot’s wife, including materialism (her desire for the silver bowl), resentment of her husband’s orders, regret for the doom of Sodom, and fear. However, she confesses to no truly evil motive. If she longs for her bowl, she seems more to miss a prized keepsake than to display greed. In her shame at “stealing away” from Sodom, she displays a possibly misplaced devotion, but she does not seem the sensualist imagined by some readers of the Bible. Indeed, many of the reasons she suggests imply no fault of her own, but only misfortune. She sounds neither especially noble nor ignoble if she is attempting to be truthful, although her trustworthiness itself is questionable.

The colloquial language reinforces the impression of Lot’s wife as an everyday person, probably in late middle age (she complains about having “felt old age” in her bones as she fell behind her husband and daughters). Her evident confusion about her own motives reflects not only the varied reasons ascribed to her by biblical commentators but also the confusion most people have about their own impulses, especially the soul searching they are likely to do after their actions lead to some catastrophe. The mystifying uncertainty as to whether the wife cannot remember or will not divulge what she does remember also recalls the often contradictory interpretations placed upon the scriptural story. Almost at the midpoint, as if mulling the issue over repeatedly has led her to some insight, she adds, impossibly, that she looked back for all the reasons she has considered, and probably a few of which she has not thought.

Lot’s wife demonstrates how difficult motives often are to analyze. She also suggests how unsure anyone’s knowledge of others is, for one cannot know fully what happened, just as the hypothetical observer would not have known whether the speaker was falling or dancing as she spun down the cliff. Lot’s wife does not seem particularly wicked to the reader of this poem, although the reader depends on her for this impression and cannot be certain whether she is confused, lying, or simply playing games in offering the multiple possibilities.

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