© 2014 Shmoop University, Inc. All rights reserved.
Lady Lazarus

Lady Lazarus

by Sylvia Plath

Lines 16-42 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 16-24

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

  • The poem really starts to come together in these stanzas. Earlier, we had a whole bunch of grotesque bodily descriptions and references to Nazis. Now, Lady Lazarus gets more specific.
  • She's telling us that, soon—just as soon as the stale breath vanishes, we're guessing—the flesh that was eaten by her grave will feel at home on her.
  • In coming close to dying, it's like her grave ate her flesh. She has already started to rot. Lovely.
  • She tells us her age—thirty—and that she's smiling. What in the world does Lady L have to smile about? Maybe she's talking about how people see her. Maybe they're mistaking her grimace for a grin. Either way, it's a disturbing image in a poem about death.
  • Then she drops a little simile on us: she is like a cat. (Remember that old wives tale that says that cats have nine lives? That's what Plath is referring to here.) But instead of talking about the number of lives she has, she's talking about the number of deaths. Emo alert.
  • Lady Lazarus tells us that "this" is "Number Three." So she is somehow (in the imaginary time of the poem) experiencing her third death. If we think back to the first lines of them poem, we now know that the "it" is death.
  • But if she's dead, how is she speaking to us? And if she's alive, is she just playing dead? If she's just playing, where are her eyeballs? Why all the corpse imagery if she's alive? What's up with this flesh-consuming cave?
  • Unfortunately, we can't answer these questions. Fortunately, we're not supposed to! Plath's ambiguity here is so strong that it's impossible to decide if Lady L is dead or alive, and we think that's precisely the point.
  • We have to go with the poem's crazy logic and accept that the speaker can be dead and alive at the same time. In the world of the poem, even death is ambiguous.
  • Now, the speaker is giving more detail about her third time dying. Annihilation is a really cool word for destruction, so we're guessing that she feels as if she's been destroyed, once a decade.
  • Yet, she exclaims that she's trash. Her life, which is destroyed once every ten years, is nothing but trash in the first place. "Why not annihilate something worth destroying?" these lines seem to ask.
  • And let's not forget about form here. Notice all of the internal rhymes in these stanzas, in words like "grave," "cave," and "ate," and in "nine" and "die." There are so many rhymes that it feels like the poem is collapsing in on itself. Like Lady Lazarus's world is shrinking, and everything now sounds the same to her.

Lines 25-34

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.

  • Though this line is in stanza 9, at first glance it could fit with either stanza 8 or stanza 9, sense-wise. Read a little more of the poem though, and it looks like this line elaborates on "What a trash," from line 23.
  • Regardless of where this line fits in the context of the poem, you might be asking, what in the world does it mean?
  • Well, filaments are like tiny little strings. You can have filaments of gold, filaments of hair, filaments of wire, filaments of cells. A filament can also be a tiny part of a flower, or the wire inside a light bulb, which is the part that actually lights up.
  • We think that, though our speaker took all of those meanings into account, she's imagining her own body as a million little strands of fine linen.
  • And, as she said in lines 23 and 24, these filaments are trash, to be annihilated each decade.
  • Now Lady Lazarus imagines that she's in front of a "peanut-crunching crowd." We're imagining she's at a circus or a carnival. And, it turns out, she's the main event. Folks are so excited, they're shoving their way in to see her.
  • The crowd unwraps her clothing, and she's forced into an imaginary striptease. They can see her body parts—her hands, her knees, her skin and bone.
  • This is another violent set of stanzas. In this imaginary scene, Lady Lazarus loses control of her body. It seems fun for the crowd—they are crunching peanuts, after all, but this is a violent experience for Lady L. She is an object of spectacle for a hungry crowd.
  • But, she tells us, she is the "same, identical woman." What does Lady L mean here? We can think of two options:
  • One, she's the same naked as she was clothed, which means that she is the same before and after her public stripping. In other words, this experience hasn't changed her.
  • Or, we could take a different tack. She is the same woman now as she was before her death. (This scene, after all, is happening in the kind of lifey-deathy limbo that Lady L is imagining.)
  • Our speaker is stressing that though she's come back from the dead, she hasn't changed. There has been no metamorphosis, and yes, it's truly her, coming back again, and not some twin pretending to be her. Her feat, of coming back from the dead, was real.
  • Finally, note the weird power dynamic going on in this poem. Lady L seems so in control of her precise, curt language, but this contrasts with the powerlessness that she feels as an object (or even a victim) of the crowd. And let's not forget that she casts herself not just as the object of a circus spectacle, but also as a Holocaust victim.
  • So who ultimately has the power in the poem? It's up for you to decide!

Lines 35-42

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.

  • Here, Lady Lazarus decides to fill us in a bit on her first two lives, or really, her first two deaths.
  • Once again, we have that mysterious "it"—but now we know that that "it" equals "death."
  • Or, does it? We might try to be a bit more accurate. We find out in these lines that Lady L's first "death" was an accident. Her second death was on purpose, though. She "meant" to "not come back at all." But, she was found and brought back to life.
  • With all of this information in mind, it's a little clearer what's going on. Lady L is talking about all of the times that she almost died. She doesn't actually have nine lives, not even in the world of the poem.
  • To sum up, she once came close to death because of an accident when she was ten. Then, she tried to commit suicide and failed.
  • Sylvia Plath, by the way, tried to commit suicide during her college years. She took a whole bunch of sleeping pills and then hid in the crawl space of her mother's house. (She writes about this incident in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar.)
  • Plath uses a pretty powerful simile here; she says that she "rocked shut / as a seashell." She creates a powerful image of Lady Lazarus, all curled up, trying to shut the world out, trying to harden and die.
  • Then "they"—whose who want to rescue her, have to repeatedly call for her, and pick worms off of her as if they're pearls. Are the worms real? Are they in her imagination? We can't know for sure, but the simile comparing worms to "sticky pearls" creates another image in our minds—this time of an oyster, all shut up. And it connects that shut-up sea creature with death, when a body becomes worm food, not to put too fine a point on it. It's as if, even though she survived, she was already dead, just for a little bit. The worms were already eating her.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement