The key ideas of this poem are rebirth and resurrection and self-actualisation, the male gaze and the performativity of gender roles and resistance against male-dominated society
The Hughes poems it can be paired with are Red and A Picture of Otto
If A Birthday Present establishes Plath’s contempt for male dominated society and her desire to escape it by means of death, then Lady Lazarus brings into full focus the process of attempting that escape, and what it means for a woman suffocating under the unbearable weight of the patriarchy.
The title of the poem is an allusion to the Biblical character Lazarus, who was resurrected by Jesus after being dead for four days. By prefacing the name with ‘Lady,’ Plath establishes her feminist reinterpretation of the Biblical story. The Holocaust imagery, ‘a Nazi lampshade, / My right foot / A paperweight, My face a featureless, fine / Jew linen.’ Introduces the disembodiment of Plath’s feminine identity as a result of being disenfranchised by the patriarchy. Plath deliberately invokes the imagery of the Holocaust to convey to her audience the true horrors of male-dominated society. By the 1960s, the depravity of the persecution of Jews by the Nazis had been revealed (the depictions of different body parts being used for decorative purposes is a reference to the infamous Nazi practice of using human remains to make household items.) Accordingly, the Nazis came to exist in Western cultural imagination as the definition of pure evil. In mentioning the Nazis, Plath is drawing a direct comparison between their reign of terror and that of the patriarchy.
Plath’s poem continues to navigate the complex tension between hopelessness and empowerment; while the apocalyptic imagery ‘What a trash / To annihilate each decade.’ Captures her delight at resisting male expectations, the metaphor of the ‘strip tease,’ observed by the ‘peanut-crunching crowd’ affirms how she cannot truly escape the male gaze, and the engendered performativity of feminine existence. She recalls past attempts at suicide, and how each time she has been ‘resurrected’ – or, in a more literal sense – denied the opportunity to unshackle herself from male-dominated society. Through her imagery ‘Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.’ Plath comments on the artifice of society and the corresponding performativity of gender roles, while referencing her personal anguish at the thought of being anything less than exceptional. Her conceptualisation of society as being performative and voyeuristic is affirmed by ‘It’s the theatrical / Comeback in broad day.’ Plath knows that as a woman, she is endlessly subjected to the male gaze and scrutinised, even in her moments of vulnerability. In the final few stanzas, Plath attempts suicide again as she directly addresses the way in which she is objectified by male society: ‘I am your opus, / I am your valuable, / The pure gold baby.’ She again invokes the memory of the Nazis in ‘Herr God, Herr Lucifer.’ ‘Herr’ is German for ‘Mr.’ and following WW2 became a popular way of invoking the memory of the Nazis. By attaching ‘Herr’ to ‘God’ and ‘Lucifer,’ Plath reduces them to human (and male) forms, stripping them of some of their power. ‘Beware / Beware.’ Is a dramatic threat that culminates with the phoenix imagery ‘Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.’ Plath has been resurrected, and though she remains in the confines of the patriarchy, this time she is seeking revenge.
Lady Lazarus depicts the culmination of Plath’s internal battle with depression and suicidal thoughts and her desire to achieve self-actualisation. She understands that her feminine identity can never be fully realised so long as the patriarchy suppresses and disembodies her, and so looks to suicide as the ultimate act of resistance and escape.