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    On Wislawa Szymborska's "Lot's Wife"

Mary Ann Furno

Lot’s wife has fallen into the hands of a poet. This creator or “maker”[1] revives the Biblical story and places Lot’s wife in a “border zone where human actions are hinged together with the divine powers” [2] veering within the margins of happiness. What we “see before the eyes”[3] and hear in this space are momentary actions merged into a defining footnote we now call her life. She begins:

[t]hey say I looked back out of curiosity. . . .
It’s possible I fell facing the city.

And so Lot’s wife begins and ends with her side of the story. Strapped between two opposing poles of reasoning lies her compelling account-a narrative-governed by “looking back.” In “Lot’s Wife,” we hear this nameless woman’s voice. We become privy to an interior monologue that, up until now, had been embedded in stony silence. Lot’s wife’s need to explain why she looked back is the counterpoint to a “don’t look back” that reflects a duality in her God, who desires to save but at the same time issues a command with veiled threat. We experience Lot’s wife’s recounting of this event as a reliving of the capriciousness of “looking back”:

Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
Checking for pursuers . . .
setting my bundle down . . .
not knowing where to set my foot.

Recalling her righteous husband’s unswerving adherence to God’s command also provoked her turning to “look back.” Surpassing her husband in the virtue of hospitality, Lot’s wife experienced God’s graciousness and thus

struck by the silence
ventured to “look back”
hoping [that] God had changed his mind.

That “they” attribute “looking back” to “curiosity” connotes a character flaw or sinfulness in Lot’s wife, and is a far cry from its original intent of “taking pains,” or “attention” and “full of care” that resonate more with her wish that God would spare her home and loved ones. In contraposition, God thrusts this mortal into a situation of insuperable want:

I looked back mourning my silver bowl
. . .
I felt age within me. Distance.
The futility of wandering. Torpor.
. . . .
I looked back in desolation.
In shame because we had stolen away.
Wanting to cry out, to go home.

To know desolation, lethargy; to grieve, crying out for home; shamed and guilt-ridden about leaving loved ones to perish-a “fatal frenzy that inspires mortals with audacity.”[4]

the disobedience of the meek

chiseling itself out into a self-defining human form. Through a creation of likely events, our poet produces an ironic reversal of stone into soul. Cast within these events, Lot’s wife’s actions now throb with life. It is in these now soul-filled events (said or done) that we realize and “see” Lot’s wife in her singularity. The poet arranges it so that Lot’s wife could not otherwise come alive outside the “making” of these actions and events, nor understand the horrific outcome. Her “looking back” was so integral to and necessitated by the natural course of events that

[O]nly when a sudden gust of wind
unbound my hair and lifted up my robe

did “other reasons” emerge.
It is in the poet’s “sudden gust of wind” that we find both human and divine inseparably at work. A “sudden gust of wind”-a probable and natural occurrence under the circumstances-signifies a divine intervention that prompted Lot’s wife to “look back.” “[T]he designs of [God] and [Lot’s wife’s] plans or passions are both at work”[5] in her seemingly banal act of “looking back.” A “gust of wind”-now, a memory-but only one presaging havoc and fated destruction.

It seemed to me that they were watching from the walls of Sodom
and bursting into thunderous laughter again and again.

This once hospitable woman now “looks back”

in anger
To savor their terrible fate

Caught in a gusty wind of synesthetic collisions: “rocks growling at me and eruptions of torched laughter bellowing from the pith of the earth” -“[a]ll that [Lot’s wife] feels and says springs from [her] character....but at the same time these feelings...and actions appear as the expression of a religious power, a daimon operating through them that does not prevent also appearing as extraneous and exterior.”[6] Lot’s wife’s “I looked back” culminates in “I looked back involuntarily” with all the human motivation this involves, and the religious forces that this action inexorably sets in motion.[7] Looking back involuntarily is overdetermined action that precludes moral culpability. The forces were such that Lot’s wife was both pulled toward and repelled from looking back, ominously reflecting a duality, an ambivalence, in her God who wished both to save and destroy. “For the poet, the boundary between the voluntary and the involuntary, the limit of purpose and of happiness, is still the shifting margin between the human and the divine.”[8] This shifting margin intensified a deep ambivalence in the soul of Lot’s wife, who herself was pulled into a decisive conflict. It is a turning point in a dynamism of inner and outer forces.

It is not inconceivable that my eyes were open to a cataclysmic reversal of events:

I crept, I flew upward
until darkness fell from the heavens
and with it scorching gravel and dead birds.

What once appeared as external converges as within her; the realization that she had become a “moving accident”[9]-the suffering of a felt discontinuity-when

a sudden crack. . . stopped me in my tracks

A “sudden crack,” dry and sharp-giving voice to the recognition of that distant, benumbing visage.

No, no I ran on

A traumatic reversal of action reflecting divine terror.

I couldn’t breathe and spun around and around.

Lot’s wife was “knocked sideways”[10] and

It’s possible. . . fell facing the city.

In keeping with common belief and interpretation,the poet leaves Lot’s wife facing the city, a likely outcome in the midst of such tumult. In doing so, the poet dramatizes a denouement: the image of duality that remains concretized in the imagination. “The divine causality and the human initiative that [had] appeared to be so clearly opposed to each other [had] now come together”[11] stilled in stone.

In resuscitating Lot’s wife within a probable course of events, our poet reclaims her in her humanity: she couldnot have acted any differently than tolook back for the reasons given above, and only as such “erred” or “missed the mark”-sinned-and as they say. . . looked back out of curiosity.

Within the margins, the spectator heard “reasons” and plausibilities for actions Lot’s wife could not understand. But the subtext-moments, unabashedly-appeals for recognition of her suffering. That Lot’s wife’s suffering culminated in petrification arouses the spectator’s pity. Her suffering was undeserved; her punishment was excessive, coupled with the fear that one is similarly vulnerable. A certain catharsis occurs here, if catharsis is understood as the spectator’s identifying with Lot’s wife through the experiencing of pity and fear. The plight of Lot’s wife has shadings of a classical tragedy.

A poet or “maker” is one who “imitates,” the precise meaning of which “is to stimulate the presence of one who is absent.”[12] Our poet, WisÅ‚awa Szymborska, through the medium of language, forges an image of Lot’s wife in action, and in effect “makes” her soul visible to the eyes. And if “plot is analogous to soul”[13] in tragedy, then our poet has re-created an event within which a much-maligned woman is verily crafted into a tragic figure.


1. Aristotle, Poetics, chapter 9. Richard Janko, editor, Poetics (Indianapolis, IN/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987).
2. J. P. Vernant, Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece (New York: Zone Books, 1988), 47.
3. Aristotle, Rhetoric,
Book II, chapter 10.
4. Aeschylus, Agamemnon.
5. Vernant, 74.
6. Ibid., 37.
7. Ibid., 35.
8. Ibid., 47.
9. Lane Cooper, On the Art of Poetry (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1913), 37.
10. R. D. Dawe, “Some Reflections on Ate and Hamartia,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 7 (1968), 107.
11. Vernant, 79.
12. Aristotle, Poetics, chapter 6.
13. Ibid.

Additional bibliography
Halliwell, Stephen, Aristotle’s Poetics (Chappel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986).
Belfiore, Elizabeth S., Tragic Pleasures (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
Rorty, A. D., editor, Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
Shipley, Joseph T. , Dictionary of Word Origins (New York: Philosophical Library, 1945).

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The Sarmatian Review
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