Poetry Analysis: Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”

Updated on October 5, 2019
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Rukhaya MK, an award-winning writer, has published her works in national and international anthologies and journals.


“Daddy" by Sylvia Plath was penned in October 12, 1962, shortly before her death. The poem was published posthumously in Ariel ( 1965). In the form of a nursery rhyme and utilizing the holocaust as a powerful metaphor, the poem verges on instinctual Empedoclean love for her father. Like the Bloomian anxiety of influence, she wrestles with his memories and attempts to fight off his influence. The critic George Steiner has said that, "It is a poem by which future generations will seek to know us." He has also called it, "the Guernica of modern poetry." Sylvia Path introduced the poem as one about a girl with an Electra complex” in a BBC Radio reading. Though Plath’s father Otto Plath was a German, he was not a Nazi. The holocaust is utilized here as a metaphor here as his memories haunted her just as the Jews were persecuted in a concentration camp. The metaphor connotes a sense of claustrophobia, insecurity and helplessness. The father is loved and hated, intensely remembered and desperately required to be forgotten, a God and a Devil, a protector and persecutor. Critics also state that the poem is a desperate attempt to attack her own religious belief as she was brought up to be a Unitarian. The father figure in “Daddy" can be compared to the massive statue that she endeavours to reconstruct in “The Colossus” or the god of the sea in "Full Fathom Five” who is “ancient, ethereal, mysterious, and powerful.”



The poem begins with a declaration that the father figure no longer casts a shadow on her. The indomitable father figure exerts his influence on her like a black shoe. The colour black connotes overshadowing, and also stands for the Nazis. She is contained by the shoe that contains her and shapes her existence. It limits the thirty years of her life within its narrow confines. She barely breathes and does not defy the claustrophobic atmosphere. The poem in the form of a nursery rhyme also reminds one of the age-old “There was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” The act of sneezing is one of instant relief that if controlled can also prove to be detrimental. "Achoo” is also a German word expressing anguish.

She asserts that that she had to kill the influence or the sway his memories had on her. He died before she had the time to truly hate him. In an empedoclean paradox, the poetess states that she loves him so much that she cannot get rid off his influence. He is marble-heavy, the marble balls being reminiscent of childhood. Childhood is a heavy baggage for her: a baggage full of associations with a God-like figure. In “Future of an Illusion” Freud traces God to be a cultural construct that originated from the unconditional reverence that a child has for his father. He comes across as a ghastly statue with a large gray toe as huge as San Fransisco. The idea of the statue brings in a sense of towering over and being static devoid of emotions. The ambivalence in her love for him comes across. A statue is built out of the idea of veneration but the poetess ends up hating its effect. His gray aspect foregrounds the whole picture. Probably the ’gray Frisco seal’ refers to the fire and earthquake of 1906 that left the whole of the city of San Francisco destroyed.

The father’s head stands conspicuously on the ‘freakish’ Atlantic ,the ocean that is once emblematic of life itself. The word 'freakish’ signifies both unnatural and fantastic. Her father, an enemy to life, is juxtaposed against something symbolic of life, particularly since life originated in water. The ‘word ‘bean’ means lively. Green and blue are the colors of the ocean, and are the colours generally associated with the flow of life. The Nausets were tribes that people present-day Cape Cod, Massachusetts and lived close to the sea. They were the colonist’s greatest allies. She endeavours to locate her father who had migrated from America. "Ach, du” is the German equivalent for “O, you.”

The father’s guttural tongue is an uninvited phenomenon in the Polish town that he inhabits. It has lost its individuality, and in spite of his commanding nature he was ask to conform and be politically right as the war situation demanded. Otto Plath was often questioned for his pro-German sympathies during the First World War. The allusion is probably to this aspect. The word ‘wars’ is repeated three times to emblematize that the war was a war at the political level, social level and personal level. At the personal level, individuality fought against conformity. Just as Sylvia Plath while writing the poem was at war with remembrances of her father. She says the name of the town is common addressing a Pollack or Polish friend. A proper noun is transformed to a common noun here. Plath implies that the war that was being fought was a universal one, of man against man, and of people against their own past. Otto Plath, during the times, had emigrated to Grabow, a Polish town.

The friend is referred to by a Polish identity as was common during the times of war, and is therefore defined by his nationality. She seeks to locate her own identity in her father’s, but fails to establish even that of her father’s as the Polish friend informs her that there are dozen places that he belonged to or resided in diluting the experience more, or more dangerously only two - making each country stronger leaving him divided between two strong identities. Therefore she could never say where he put his foot or established himself, or where to exactly locate his roots. And because she could never communicate with his existence, she remains stuck for she cannot judge which tongue to converse in. Critics comment on how Plath utilizes a polyphonic language replete with hypochorisms, formal language, colloquial language, transliterations, and circumlocutions. This polyphonic language served to subvert the German tongue that was militaristic and rigid.

The day Sylvia Plath was born, Otto Plath was desperate for a boy. He announced on the day Sylvia Plath was born “All I want from now on is a son born two and a half years to the day.” And he got what he wanted after two years. His friends toasted him stating: "The Man who gets what he wants when he wants it.” Sylvia Plath being well-acquainted with this fact, may have been a victim of Attention Deficit Syndrome, and this may be partly the reason for the loathing towards the father. Particularly she was left in her grandparents’ care as Aurelia Plath lost her husband Otto Plath early to diabetics, and had to work full time to support her family.

The speaker likens herself to a Jew particularly since her mother Aurelia Plath had a Jewish strain in her. The image of the snare brings in a sense of deliberateness. How everything was planned and executed deviously by Destiny. The onomatopoeic words points to her intense anguish, and sense of helplessness. She could only think and not speak and was denied the basic freedom of expression. Her father’s identity has been defined by collective attributes rather than individualizing traits. This is why she discovers her father in every German. The language might be obscene to her as her father probably was abusive to the mother who was 21 years junior to him. Records show him to be unpopular among his students. This probably had left a deep-seated imprint on the mind of the little girl.

The impact is like an engine that is ‘chuffing’ her off. ’Chuff’ is an onomatopoeic word, and a euphemism for a powerful expletive. The idea of ‘chuffing off’ also exemplifies the callous attitude of the Nazis towards the Jews who were destroyed without any human regard. The populace of the Jews were also removed for the reason that their belief was deemed to be abnormal or deviant from the normal set of religious beliefs. Moreover, the Jews were taken to concentration camps by the Nazis in trains during the Holocaust. The train is a metaphor here for the German language due to its run-on effect, its inherent cacophony and the indelible impact it left on her. It crushes her before she can react, leave alone respond. The speaker lists some concentration camps, Dachau and Belsen in Germany, and Auschwitz in German-occupied Poland, pointing to the universality of the experience.

The Tyrol is part of the Alpine mountain region, with many snow-capped peaks. It borders Germany, in part, but is mostly between the Italian and Austrian border. Therefore, Tyrol may my stand for Sylvia Plath's identity that verged on her German father and Austrian mother. The clear beer of Vienna stands in contrast to her mixed ancestry that also has a gypsy strain in her as opposed to the sophisticated life she thrived in. Her existence was a conglomeration of various identities. It was neither pure nor true as it quite often negated itself. The purity with reference to the Nazis may refer to the practice of ethnic cleansing that they resorted to, and the question of Aryan racial purity they were obsessed with. The gypsy with the Taroc pack may use her trump card here. However, in her situation even the trump card goes against her. She utilizes two negatives here to make a positive affirmation when she states: "And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack .“

She reaffirms that she has also been afraid of this larger than life figure that she herself created. ‘Luftwaffe’ refers to the German air force that was very much in vogue during the Second World II. In Mr.Noon, D.H.Lawrence elaborates on the chauvinistic patriotism that underlined the nation following the wars. ‘Gobbledygoo’ is a language characterized by circumlocutions and jargon’.’Panzer Man' refers to the Nazi Panzer armoured division which specialized in sudden rapid attacks. The carnivelesque comes into play here where her multiphonic voice comes into clash with the militaristic-masculine German language in keeping with Julia Kristeva notions of the semiotic and symbolic where the symbolic/poetic discourses seeks to subvert ,disrupt the authoritarian semiotic flux. The father’s Aryan eye that is blue has the stamp of a true German who was perceived to be of pure and superior ancestry as compared with the Jews with adulterated lineage. In the poem, "Little Fugue”, Plath expresses the impact of her father’s blue eyes. Plath says:

I remember a blue eye,

Arranging my morning.

The moustache carries the unmistakable signature of Hitler. The “o you" that follows these lines is an interjection expressing dismay at the vindictive image. He is then defined by the Swastika, a powerful emblem associated with the Nazis denoting and connoting negativity. The four claws of the Swastika were so menacing that even the sky could not squeak through. Women, the speaker says, adored fascists as they are were obsessed with the Romantic and chivalric notions associated with war and soldiers. They were programmed to be submissive as a daughter, a wife and later as a mother. She sees the boot as a persistent symbol of oppression now. His brutish heart perfectly matched his brutish temperament.

The father also stands at the blackboard, authoritative in his teachings. The picture of her father is once removed from reality. The picture she had in her memory is twice removed from reality. The devil is said to have cleft feet. But here the father sports it as a signature on his chin:

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
My pretty heart was bit into two.

The idea of ‘bit’ again brings to play a sense of deliberateness. It also is the hints at division pointing to her schizophrenic self: "Bit my pretty red heart in two”. She says that she was ten when they buried him. At twenty, she tries to join him through suicide. It may also be her way of ‘getting back’ at him or having her revenge. She imagines that if her animate being could not the trick, her inanimate bones would perform the feat.

But they pulled her out of the sack and they refused to let her die, and stuck her together with glue. The lines imply that the practice was artificial and could never get her back to her original shape. The broken pieces could never merge to form an organic or coherent whole. Since she cannot rejoin him in death, she constructs a model of him. Robert Philips calls it “a surrogate father.” The Electra complex becomes evident as she marries a Man exactly with the same traits as her father: Ted Hughes. There is an ambiguity in the sentence: "I made a model of you." This may imply that Otto Plath was her role model. On the other hand, it may also mean that she made a duplicate of him."Model’ is a singular word that contains the meaning ‘original’ as well as its opposite ‘duplicate’. Mein Kampf the book written by Adolf Hitler may stand as an extension of his policies as applicable to the speaker’s father here. ’Mein Kamph’ literally means ’My Battle’ and alludes to the struggles Otto Plath went through as he was suspected to be a spy. The rack and the screw are instruments that aid in gruesome torture. So like Hitler, not only did her father/her husband hurt women, they also relished the experience. They took care not only to kill, but destroy. Alan Williamson states: "Archetypally, Plath's father is represented either as godlike but fragmentary, protean, inaccessible…. Possibly the image stems from Plath's early anger at her father as a Prussian "autocrat"; yet her longing for him is so evident, in The Bell Jar and elsewhere, that one's mind is drawn more to the traditional etiology of masochism.”

She goes into matrimonial ties with his person affirming, “I do,I do.” However, now she has ultimately learnt to kick off this incorrigible obsession with her father. She endeavours to cut off communication right at the roots. The voices cannot worm or squeeze themselves through. The word ‘worm’ indicating decay and stagnation reflects her predicament.

She has killed two men along with one - the father and the husband, the living and the ghost, the real and the imaginary, the vampire and the vamp, the loved part of her father and the hated dimension. The image of Dracula projects the image of blood being sucked out of her, or the life being forced out of her.

In the ancient Goddess-worshipping cultures, the male was often offered to the gods as he was deemed expendable since the women were needed for procreation. The death of a father is not mourned here, it is rather celebrated here by the villagers in a ritual, raising it from a personal level to a social level where the dictator was killed. The death occurs on two levels here: at the personal and the social, the individual and the state .This is why the villagers rejoice. Judith Kroll in "Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath" points out: "Whenever exorcism, or attempted exorcism, of her father or his proxy occurs it is always as a preliminary to a rebirth which also entails the expulsion of her false self." The speaker employs this ancient practice as a myth to subvert the patriarchal set up that she thrived in. It is a cause that the villagers as a collective community have succeeded in, as they mark their victory by the “dancing and stamping” in a ritualistic stance. Sylvia Plath who failed to establish her own identity throughout her life, robs her father of his own identity with a transferred epithet as she asserts:

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

Works Cited

Alan, Williamson .From Introspection and Contemporary Poetry. Copyright © 1984 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Kroll, Judith. Chapters In A Mythology: The Poetry Of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.

Newman, Charles. "Dying is an Art”.The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium. Bloomington: Indiana University Press ,1970.

Phillips, Robert. "The Dark Tunnel: A Reading of Sylvia Plath." Modern Poetry Studies 3.2 (1972) Modern American Poetry. Web. 25 Jan. 2012.

© 2019 Rukhaya M K


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