The poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ gives us an insight into the troubled life of the poet Sylvia Plath. She lost her father at an early age. Supported solely by her mother she went through a very rough childhood. In fact, Sylvia Plath escaped a near fatal accident in her childhood and went on to attempt suicide twice in the following years of her life. In the poem, Plath lets her emotions flow and sheds light on her distress.
In this poem, Sylvia Plath uses Holocaust imagery extensively.
The Holocaust, as is widely known, refers to the inhuman torture and exploitation of the Jews by the Nazis. The first mention of the gruesome Holocaust comes in the form of a comparison between herself and a Nazi lampshade. Unbelievable as it may seem, the Nazis used the skins of the Jews to make lampshades. Plath feels that she has been used in a similar manner. Throughout her life Plath had been in and out of hospital.
So much so that she felt like an object on display; a mere, inconsequential living thing on which the doctors happily carried out various experiments. The Nazis used to take away all valuable articles from the Jews, including expensive fabrics like linen. Plath refers to her skin as Jew linen, again indicating that she was used as an object.
Plath suffered a nervous breakdown in her childhood. To cure her, doctors had no choice but to use shock treatment, subjecting her to unbearable pain in the process. In the poem, Plath uses the word ‘charge’ which has a pun on it, referring to the brutal pain inflicted on her by the doctors.
In this instance, a parallel can be drawn to the inhuman torture experienced by the Jews.
In the poem, Plath refers to herself as a ‘valuable’ and a ‘pure gold baby’, which is again an example of Holocaust imagery. It is widely believed that the Nazis were so cruel that they not only used the Jews to do physical work but also used their bodies to make objects like soap. Their golden teeth were plucked out and melted to make valuables such as wedding rings. Their corpses were then burnt to erase all trace of their existence. The mention of all this in the poem makes us believe that Sylvia Plath considered herself to be stifled, oppressed and exploited, just like the Jews.
Finally, a striking similarity is noticed in the manner in which Plath chose to end her life and the methods used to exterminate the Jews. The Jews were killed in gas chambers where poisonous gases devoured their internal organs. Plath committed suicide by putting her head inside an oven, and died as a result of gas poisoning. In my opinion this was perhaps because she felt herself so alike the Jews that she preferred to end her life in the very same manner.
Thus, we can safely conclude that Holocaust imagery forms a significant part of Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Lady Lazarus’.
After critically analyzing the poem, the Holocaust imagery which has been used widely, seems fairly effective in conveying the poet’s message. It is clear from the poem that Sylvia Plath felt she has been driven to suicide by society as a whole. Evidently, she believed that life had been too unfair to her.
This feeling stems from her childhood, when she lost her father. This horrific incident left a gaping void in her life. A major part of her moral support had been cruelly snatched from her. To add to this, Plath had a pitiable medical record. She made frequent visits to the hospital throughout her life. The excruciating shock treatment she received shook her completely. Once Plath got married, her personal life suffered even more. Her husband had been unfaithful to her, further aggravating her pitiable condition. Overall, Plath’s life was depressing to say the least. Plath was consumed by self-pity throughout her life.
In this regard, the Holocaust imagery used by Plath is very effective and appropriate. It reminds us of history’s most vicious tale of cruelty. This justifies its use to depict Plath’s life.
However, in other respects, the Holocaust imagery cannot effectively portray Plath’s life. An important reason being that the Jews always had the will to survive. They were members of an affluent community who were stripped off all their possessions by the Nazis. Plath on the other hand had attempted suicide twice. This is a glaring difference between Plath’s life and the Holocaust, making it quite ineffective in conveying her message.
Another important difference is that the Holocaust was a planned genocide which involved the death of approximately six million people. Plath’s comparison seems quite irrelevant in this aspect, as she talks about the death of a single person (herself).
Finally, one of the most important differences is that Plath considered death to be a performance. At the end of the poem, Plath says that she was about to rise like a phoenix, referring to her own death. To her, attaining death was like being resurrected, as she would be freed from her troubled life. Plath believed death to be a means of attaining victory over life. She clearly mentions that when she survived her second suicide attempt, it was a theatrical comeback. In comparison, the Holocaust was only about forcing people into giving up their lives.
Thus, in my opinion, taking these factors and many more subtle differences onto consideration, the Holocaust imagery is fairly effective in conveying Plath’s message.