Sylvia Plath is one of the most recognized female poets of the postwar period. Her two major works include The Colossus, published in 1960, and The Bell Jar, which was published in 1965. The Bell Jar was coincidentally published only a few weeks before she successfully committed suicide on her third attempt. Her deep expression of personal torment and anguish is often compared to other poets like Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. There are critics that view Plath’s work as not autobiographical, but say that they are in fact dramatic monologues and that the character Plath puts into her work symbolic of a force that challenges and resists and can be lead towards transformation. Plath is defined by her use of unnerving imagery, violent, grim, and severe metaphors, and the way she addresses cultural, political, and societal conventions- especially the societal roles of women, regarding stereotypes and female identity. Lady Lazarus, written in October of 1962, is a perfect example of Plath’s verbalization on deconstructing the connotation of the traditional sex symbol.
The original binary that Plath generally deconstructed was that men are superior to women and women must follow a strict set of societal expectations. Women were expected to be married and care for the children while the men worked. This is no longer as evident as it was, but we still hold some of these connotations. Plath did follow these societal codes to some extent because she was married and she had children. Women were expected to be seen and not heard, and only allowed to speak when spoken to. With this binary, women who expressed themselves did so in a very flowery, soft, delicate way. Any issues they had, minor or major, were internalized or dismissed. Sylvia Plath, however, deconstructed this binary by using jarring language and violent, gruesome imagery. A perfect example of this deconstruction is her poem Lady Lazarus.
Lady Lazarus is said to be the climax of the creative period that is described as an “aesthetic of distortion” (Bayley). It is about the notion of turning the female body into a commodity by a sexually prying and oppressive society. This work depicts “a cruel deconstruction of the fifties sex symbol” (Bayley). The goal of this work is to horrify, rather than seduce. There is the idea that some readers may entirely reject Plath’s work because she presents an image of a “defiant” woman and the dangers that go hand-in-hand with being a defiant woman. A defiant woman was seen as something to be afraid of because they questioned the male authority and the patriarchy, they did not think that a woman was defined by a man and this raised disbelief and uproar in the 1960’s. The older generation of women saw it to be untraditional and highly opposed it. Sylvia Plath opposed this idea that women were inferior to men.
Scholar Arielle Greenberg thinks Sylvia Plath’s use of the literary strategy of linking the pathology of young female characters with the pathology of the culture is “what is wrong with the girl [is] emblematic of or metaphoric for what’s wrong with the culture”. This speaks to Plath’s concentration within the culture, especially issues regarding social elements of femininity during the 1950’s-1960’s.
Sylvia Plath was a voice for women at the time who were not allowed to speak. She devoted a lot of her writing to issues such as suicide, depression, politics, and gender biases, with undertones of racism and war.
While analyzing Lady Lazarus, it is evident that Plath is depicting the female body as a place of opposition against patriarchal expectations. Lisa Narbeshuber explains that Plath is using the body to convey the denial of any public discussion or voice to women. In turn, these women offer their bodies as public spectacles, completely exposing the disease of the culture. However, feminist issues were not the only issues that Plath confronted. The way she approaches death in Lady Lazarus is full of imagery is full of imagery from World War II and Nazi Germany. To begin to dissect Plath’s deconstruction of the binary of men and women, let’s look Lady Lazarus.
In the second, third, and fourth stanzas she makes a very disturbing connection, comparing her skin to that of the victims’ in the Nazi death camps, whose skin was stretched and used to make lampshades. “A sort of walking miracle, my skin/ Bright as a Nazi lampshade,/ My right foot/A paperweight/ My face a featureless, fine/ Jew linen/ Peel off the napkin/ O my enemy,/ Do I terrify?”(Plath 625). This is Plath using disturbing language to explain the ugly side of war, which is typically not the part that is glorified. A “Jew linen” being the actual skin of the Jewish people used as lampshades during World War II. She is also making connections to her body and collectively, all women’s bodies. This is done by mentioning her “featureless face” being juxtaposed to “fine Jew linen”. This notion is grotesque purposefully to oppose the delicacy of women. By doing this, Plath hoped to shock and disturb her readers in order to get their attention to make them better understand the atrocities of war.
In the next few verses, she talks about stripping herself down to skin and bone. She uses provocative language to illustrate this scene but in such a grotesque way that it completely takes the femininity out of it. “What a million filaments./ The peanut-crunching crowd/Shoves in to see/ Them unwrap me hand and foot-/The big strip tease./ Gentlemen, ladies/ These are my hands/ My knees./ I may be skin and bone,/ Nevertheless, I am the same identical woman” (Plath 626). Here is a scene where Plath is depicting men lusting for the female body, only viewing her as a sexual object. She believes differently, seeing herself as the exact same woman whether she is clothed or unclothed.
Plath mocks the idea of women being kept as objects. “I am your opus,/ I am your valuable,/ The pure gold baby.” The original binary of women was that they were valuables, and seen as something to be displayed and kept safe, however Plath opposes this with her lines “I turn and burn. / Do not think I underestimate your great concern./” She is describing how she would go against the general idea of how women would be complacent and submissive and instead would stand up for herself, fight back, or lash out. The last line she uses a very heavy tone of satire in order to make a mockery of the males ‘concerns’ for women, because she knew how uninterested and unconcerned they really were.
Another key issue Plath brings up is suicide. At the beginning of the poem, she uses the lines “I have done it again./One year in every ten/ I manage it—“ We can deduce that what she has done again is attempt suicide due to the context of the rest of the poem. Later on, she says “The first time it happened I was ten,/ It was an accident./ The second time I meant/ to last it out and not come back at all./ I rocked shut/ As a seashell/ They had to call and call/ And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.” Throughout Plath’s life, she attempted suicide three times and evidently succeeded once. Speaking openly of suicide was something that was typically not done during the 1960’s. To Plath, death was very personal, and it was always on the forefront of her mind. To most people, death is something that is very negative and removed, something that many people do not like to think or talk about. She had no shame in expressing her desire to commit suicide, and this was against the societal normality, causing a mild panic with her readers.
We can see that death is very personal and close to Plath through her words “Dying/ Is an art,/ like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well.” She expresses how dying is an art form and that she does it so well that it feels real to her and she can do it anywhere. “I do it so it feels like hell./ I do it so it feels real./ I guess you could say I’ve a call./ It’s easy enough to do it in a cell./ It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.” Plath is very open about suicide to the point that she is dramatizing her whole situation. She is equating herself to a professional, but in something that is not a profession. She claims to be “good” at dying, and claims that it is an art form.
Juxtaposed to what she said about dying and how it is an art form, she always seems to come back to life. “Comeback to broad day/ To the same place, the same face, the same brute/ Amused shout: ‘A miracle!’/ That knocks me out.” In these lines, we gather that Sylvia Plath detests the idea of living. The phrase “the same brute” conveys her anger and resentment towards her husband and also towards men collectively.
Afterwards, Plath implies that there is a “charge” for being with her, being near her, looking at her, or having a piece of her clothing or hair. Although this “charge” is figurative and not defined, it is implied. “There is a charge/ for the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge/ For the hearing of my heart--/ It really goes./And there is a charge, a very large charge/ For a word or a touch/ Or a bit of blood/ Or a piece of my hair or my clothes./ So, so, Herr Doktor./So, Herr Enemy.” The first half of this quote is talking about a “charge” to live in her world, to understand her, and go through the same things she does. The usage of the word “Herr” is purposeful and deliberate. It is a play on words, one meaning “Mr.” in German, and the other representing females (‘her’). If you read the lines “Mr. Doktor,/ So, Mr. Enemy.” then we get the idea that she is talking directly to male authority figures, while if you read it as it is spelled with the English meaning, it takes on the connotation of a more literal approach. Later on we see this used in another stanza.
“Herr God, Herr Lucifer/ Beware/ Beware./ Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.” It is often thought of that these two figures are male, and they are thought to be two of the most powerful figures, yet here Plath is telling them to be afraid and careful of her. Typically, these two figures are considered to be the ultimate good and ultimate evil, both of which are men. This is slightly ironic because when she eventually succeeds in committing suicide, she would supposedly have met one of these figures in either Heaven or Hell, but she is trying to overpower them.
Looking at the lines at the end of the poem; “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair.” This is symbolic of rebirth and relates to the mythological creature of the Phoenix. This is because her “creativity is a manifestation of her reparation”. She felt as if women collectively deserved more from society, and her writing was meant to break them out of the mold they had been put into by the patriarchy. It is ironic how consistent she is with the theme of death and how comfortable she is with it, and in comparison, how she then brings up the idea of rebirth at the end of the poem. She is thinking of death as a new beginning, seeing it in a positive light, contrary to thinking that death is the end.
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