Sylvia Plath “Lady Lazarus”


The use of imagery by Sylvia Plath in “Lady Lazarus” reveals theinjustices towards Jews during Nazi Germany, and is supported byhistorical references on the horrors of Jewish Holocaust under NaziGermany.

In “Lady Lazarus”, the poet talks about a woman who was aliveduring the Nazi era. In addition, it appears that the woman was heldat the German concentration camps. Plath talks about her struggles inlife while in the camps, which pushed her to contemplate suicide.Upon reading the poem, one realizes that the poet must have beensuicidal. This is because on numerous occasions, she recounts how shehas been rescued from committing suicide. However, the suicide sherefers to is the desire to escape the hardships she faced as a Jewduring the holocaust. The holocaust refers to the systematic massmurder of Jews by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. It is arecurrent point of reference by Plath in the poem, as she identifiesherself as one of the Nazi’s victims. In doing so, the poet usesimagery to bring out the horrors of the holocaust.

In the second stanza of the poem, Plath describes herself as “Asort of walking miracle, my skin bright as a Nazi lampshade” (1).By comparing her skin to a Nazi lampshade, the poet reveals one ofthe horrors of Jewish holocaust. Historical research indicates thatthe Nazis used human skin obtained from the bodies of Jews, to makelampshades. When Hitler took over German leadership in the SecondWorld War, he waged a war against the Jews. According to Perlin (28)

“Hitler convinced the masses that non-Aryans were human mutationsand were causing the downfall of society by adding their corrupt genepool to the mix. He managed to exterminate 11 million people – 6million of whom were Jews. This became part of a grand economic planin which they used Jews as slave labor… and even used human skin tomake lampshades”.

Further research indicates that the Nazis would stretch and tan humanbody parts, which would then be used to make lampshades (Jacobson14). It is horrifying to imagine that human skin can be used in suchmanners.

According to Garner (1) “the consensus among historians is thatthese Nazi lampshades may well be a myth rendered from Jewishcorpses. But soldiers, journalists and survivors reported seeing suchlampshades at Buchenwald after its liberation”. In the book, “TheLampshade” by Mark Jacobson, he writes stories on the existence ofsuch lampshades. These stories revolve around Ilse Koch, alsoreferred to as “the Bitch of Buchenwald” (Garner 1). She was thewife of a commanding officer at one of the Nazis’ concentrationcamps, who ordered for human skin lampshades. Jacobson acknowledgesthat DNA tests ascertain that the existence of the lampshades is nota hoax (Garner 1). Plath probably envisioned that her skin would beused to make a lampshade once she had passed away. Hence, she usesthe imagery as a reference to how her body would eventually be usedas an item. By doing so, the reader is able to envision the crueltysubjected towards Jews during the holocaust.

Apart from using human skin to make lampshades, the Nazi’s turnedhuman skin into paperweight. This is evident in the poem as Plath (1)notes’ “my right foot a paperweight, my face a featureless, fineJew linen”. In these lines, the poet reduces herself to somethingless valuable and fabric, which is a paperweight and Jew linen. Itbecomes clear that she is a Jew, because she compares herself tolinen that is Jewish. This brings to mind the Jewish holocaust, andpossibly is an indication that Plath is suffering from a mentalagony, which compares to Jews’ suffering during Nazi Germany. Byusing the word “featureless”, the poet is not only describing herown outlook of herself, but also how other people view her. In thiscase, the imagery refers to how the Nazis viewed the Jews. “TheNazis smashed the complete freedom of self-expression as well as theidentity as an individual” (Daiya 167). The Jews were viewed asobjects and not human beings. This explains why it was possible fortheir skin to be used in making paperweight.

Additionally, the words “Jew linen” could also imply somethingthat belonged to the Jews, but was taken away by the Nazis. Duringthe holocaust, the Nazis took away everything that the Jews owned,possibly including linens. Hall (1) notes that the German’s wareffort would require a lot of funding. As a result, the Nazis mademoney by forcefully taking away and selling Jews possessions. This isperfectly illustrated in the comparison between the poet’s face andlinen. The face is something that is valuable to every human being,like the Jews possessions. However, when it is taken away, it losesits value to the owner and is merely reduced to another person’spossession. Plath uses the imagery to highlight the atrocities ofNazis in ripping off anything valuable that could be attached to theJews, and in the process makes the Jews valueless.

In another stanza, the poet notes that “and like the cat I havenine times to die. This is number three. What a trash. To annihilateeach decade” (Plath 1). It is believed that a cat has nine lives,meaning that a cat suffers near death experiences nine times. At thispoint, the poet seems to be referring to the fatal experiences ofJews during the Jewish holocaust. It can only mean that the Jews weresubjected to too much suffering, to the extent that it becomesimpossible to imagine that most of them survived until they wereexecuted. It could also imply that the Jews endured too muchsuffering to the extent that they could not endure any longer andcontemplated suicide. As Daiya (167) explains,

“The poet takes the events from a personal to a historicalperspective. The Nazi lampshade, paperweight and Jew linen remind usof the heinous crimes perpetrated on Jews by the Nazis. They denotethe commodification and exhibitionism of human beings. Plath’sskill in transforming a very personal experience into a publicspectacle is exhibited here”.

The nine times Plath talks about is a historical reference to themany times the Jews suffered. She explains how the Germans viewedthem as a commodity that could be used as many times as possibleuntil it was no longer useful.

Another illustration of imagery in “Lady Lazarus” is when Plath(1) says that “dying is an art, like everything else. I do itexceptionally well. I do it so it feels real…it’s easy enough todo it in a cell…it’s the theatrical”. The lines show aconnection amid death and art (Daiya 166). The poem makes it clearthat Plath has attempted to commit suicide a number of times. In allinstances, she has failed, but has now gained enough experience tocommit suicide like an expert. She now feels that it is easy to die,which explains the association between death and somethingtheatrical. The imagery can be used to explain how Nazis executedJews during the holocaust. The mass killings were conducted usingdifferent strategies. At first, the Nazis were interested incontrolling the Jews, which later escalated to killing them bygunfire.

“The core policy in the occupied territories of the East wasghettoization: confinement of Jews in overcrowded neighborhoods ofmajor cities. One could argue that with ghettoization came genocidalintent…following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, some 1.8million Jews were rounded up and murdered, mostly by point-blankrifle fire, dubbed the Holocaust by bullets” (Jones 239).

It is apparent that the Nazis were continuously perfecting the art ofkilling Jews. Plath is right in likening death to an art that istheatrical, because such mass murders explained by Jones (239)involved the participation of different players. These included theindividuals being murdered, the Germans shooting at the victims andonlookers.

Further research indicates that the psychological trauma associatedwith “the Holocaust by bullets” compelled the Nazis to deviseless stressful ways of murdering Jews.

“The intensely intimate character of murder by gunfire, with humantissue and brain matter spattering onto the clothes and faces of theGerman killers, began to take a psychological toll. The difficultywas especially pronounced in the case of murders of children andwomen…for people traditionally viewed as passive, dependent andhelpless…to reduce this stress on the killers, and to increase thelogistical efficiency of the killing, the industrialized death camp,with its gas chambers was moved to the fore” (Jones 241).

In the above quote, it is clear that the Nazis devised a moreeffective strategy of executing Jews. This further explains why Plathrefers to her dying as an art. Just like the poet, the Germans hadtried different approaches of eliminating Jews, which wereunsuccessful or challenging. But with every approach, they gainedmore experience, especially after the invention of gas chambers, theybecame experts. The interest to devise a perfect way of executingfellow human beings informs on the horrific events of the holocaust.

Later in the poem, Plath (1) refers to the remains of Jews afterthey were burned by saying “ash, ash you poke and stir. Flesh,bone, there is nothing there. A cake of soap, a wedding ring, a goldfilling. Herr God, Herr Lucifer”. Plath makes reference to theHolocaust by explaining how Jews were burned to collect fat that wasused for making soap (Jacobson 115-116). Plath further uses the word“Herr” to refer to the Germans. The phrase is a German word forMr. In the context of the poem it has been used together with theword “God” to highlight how the Nazis wanted Jews to treat them.They felt that they were superior to Jews hence, acting as theirGod. At the same time “Herr Lucifer” highlights the evil natureof Nazis as they have been likened to Lucifer, a phrase used to referto someone wicked.

In conclusion, the imagery used in “Lady Lazarus” significantlyenhances knowledge on the Jewish holocaust. By analyzing the imagery,it becomes possible to understand that the poem is aimed athighlighting the injustices perpetrated by Nazis towards Jews. Thepoem informs on how Jews were murdered, robbed off their possessionsand how their bodies were used to make lampshades and paperweight.The poet uses her personal experiences of contemplating suicide tobring out the historical events during the holocaust.

Works Cited

Daiya, Krishna. Lady Lazarus: The Odyssey of a Woman from ExistentialAngst to Unrivalled Triumph. International Journal of Advancementsin Research and Technology, 2.12 (2013): 164-170.

Garner, Dwight. A Grotesque Artifact Starts a Journey from GarageSale to Buchenwald. The New York Times, 30 Sept. 2010. Web. 25Jul. 2016.

Hall, Allan. Confiscated Jewish Wealth Helped Fund the German WarEffort. The Telegraph, 9 Nov. 2010. Web. 25 Jul. 2016.

Jacobson, Mark. The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story fromBuchenwald to New Orleans. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.

Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. New York:Routledge, 2010.

Perlin, Michael. Fantastic Adventures in Metaphysics. Madison:Ozark Mountain Publishing, 2015.

Plath, Sylvia. Lady Lazarus, 1-1.