Sylvia Plath: Poems Summary and Analysis
by Sylvia Plath
"Daddy," comprised of sixteen five-line stanzas, is a brutal and venomous poem commonly understood to be about Plath's deceased father, Otto Plath.
The speaker begins by saying that he "does not do anymore," and that she feels like she has been a foot living in a black shoe for thirty years, too timid to either breathe or sneeze. She insists that she needed to kill him (she refers to him as "Daddy"), but that he died before she had time. She describes him as heavy, like a "bag full of God," resembling a statue with one big gray toe and its head submerged in the Atlantic Ocean. She remembers how she at one time prayed for his return from death, and gives a German utterance of grief (which translates literally to "Oh, you").
She knows he comes from a Polish town that was overrun by "wars, wars, wars," but one of her Polack friends has told her that there are several towns of that name. Therefore, she cannot uncover his hometown, where he put his "foot" and "root."
She also discusses how she could never find a way to talk to him. Even before she could speak, she thought every German was him, and found the German language "obscene." In fact, she felt so distinct from him that she believed herself a Jew being removed to a concentration camp. She started to talk like a Jew and to feel like a Jew in several different ways. She wonders in fact, whether she might actually be a Jew, because of her similarity to a gypsy. To further emphasize her fear and distance, she describes him as the Luftwaffe, with a neat mustache and a bright blue Aryan eye. She calls him a "Panzer-man," and says he is less like God then like the black swastika through which nothing can pass. In her mind, "Every woman adores a Fascist," and the "boot in the face" that comes with such a man.
When she remembers Daddy, she thinks of him standing at the blackboard, with a cleft chin instead of a cleft foot. However, this transposition does not make him a devil. Instead, he is like the black man who "Bit [her] pretty red heart in two." He died when she was ten, and she tried to join him in death when she was twenty. When that attempt failed, she was glued back together. At this point, she realized her course - she made a model of Daddy and gave him both a "Meinkampf look" and "a love of the rack and the screw." She promises him that she is "finally through;" the telephone has been taken off the hook, and the voices can no longer get through to her.
She considers that if she has killed one man, then she has in fact killed two. Comparing him to a vampire, she remembers how he drank her blood for a year, but then realizes the duration was closer to seven years. She tells him he can lie back now. There is a stake in his heart, and the villagers who despised him now celebrate his death by dancing on his corpse. She concludes by announcing, "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I'm through."
"Daddy" is perhaps Sylvia Plath's best-known poem. It has elicited a variety of distinct reactions, from feminist praise of its unadulterated rage towards male dominance, to wariness at its usage of Holocaust imagery. It has been reviewed and criticized by hundreds and hundreds of scholars, and is upheld as one of the best examples of confessional poetry.
It is certainly a difficult poem for some: its violent imagery, invocation of Jewish suffering, and vitriolic tone can make it a decidedly uncomfortable reading experience. Overall, the poem relates Plath's journey of coming to terms with her father's looming figure; he died when she was eight. She casts herself as a victim and him as several figures, including a Nazi, vampire, devil, and finally, as a resurrected figure her husband, whom she has also had to kill.
Though the final lines have a triumphant tone, it is unclear whether she means she has gotten "through" to him in terms of communication, or whether she is "through" thinking about him. Plath explained the poem briefly in a BBC interview:
The poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. The father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyze each other –she has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it.
In other words, contradiction is at the heart of the poem's meaning. Neither its triumph nor its horror is to be taken as the sum total of her intention. Instead, each element is contradicted by its opposite, which explains how it shoulders so many distinct interpretations.
This sense of contradiction is also apparent in the poem's rhyme scheme and organization. It uses a sort of nursery rhyme, singsong way of speaking. There are hard sounds, short lines, and repeated rhymes (as in "Jew," "through," "do," and "you"). This establishes and reinforces her status as a childish figure in relation to her authoritative father. This relationship is also clear in the name she uses for him - "Daddy"- and in her use of "oo" sounds and a childish cadence. However, this childish rhythm also has an ironic, sinister feel, since the chant-like, primitive quality can feel almost like a curse. One critic wrote that the poem's "simplistic, insistent rhythm is one form of control, the obsessive rhyming and repeated short phrases are others, means by which she attempts to charm and hold off evil spirits." In other words, the childish aspects have a crucial, protective quality, rather than an innocent one.
"Daddy" can also be viewed as a poem about the individual trapped between herself and society. Plath weaves together patriarchal figures – a father, Nazis, a vampire, a husband – and then holds them all accountable for history's horrors. Like "The Colossus," "Daddy" imagines a larger-than-life patriarchal figure, but here the figure has a distinctly social, political aspect. Even the vampire is discussed in terms of its tyrannical sway over a village. In this interpretation, the speaker comes to understand that she must kill the father figure in order to break free of the limitations that it places upon her. In particular, these limitations can be understood as patriarchal forces that enforce a strict gender structure. It has the feel of an exorcism, an act of purification. And yet the journey is not easy. She realizes what she has to do, but it requires a sort of hysteria. In order to succeed, she must have complete control, since she fears she will be destroyed unless she totally annihilates her antagonist.
The question about the poem's confessional, autobiographical content is also worth exploring. The poem does not exactly conform to Plath's biography, and her above-cited explanation suggests it is a carefully-constructed fiction. And yet its ambivalence towards male figures does correspond to the time of its composition - she wrote it soon after learning that her husband Ted Hughes had left her for another woman. Further, the mention of a suicide attempt links the poem to her life.
However, some critics have suggested that the poem is actually an allegorical representation of her fears of creative paralysis, and her attempt to slough off the "male muse." Stephen Gould Axelrod writes that "at a basic level, 'Daddy' concerns its own violent, transgressive birth as a text, its origin in a culture that regards it as illegitimate –a judgment the speaker hurls back on the patriarch himself when she labels him a bastard." The father is perceived as an object and as a mythical figure (many of them, in fact), and never really attains any real human dimensions. It is less a person than a stifling force that puts its boot in her face to silence her. From this perspective, the poem is inspired less by Hughes or Otto than by agony over creative limitations in a male literary world. However, even this interpretation begs something of an autobiographical interpretation, since both Hughes and her father were representations of that world.
Plath's usage of Holocaust imagery has inspired a plethora of critical attention. She was not Jewish but was in fact German, yet was obsessed with Jewish history and culture. Several of her poems utilize Holocaust themes and imagery, but this one features the most striking and disturbing ones. She imagines herself being taken on a train to "Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen," and starting to talk like a Jew and feel like a Jew. She refers to her father as a "panzer-man," and notes his Aryan looks and his "Luftwaffe" brutality. One of the leading articles on this topic, written by Al Strangeways, concludes that Plath was using her poetry to understand the connection between history and myth, and to stress the voyeurism that is an implicit part of remembering. Plath had studied the Holocaust in an academic context, and felt a connection to it; she also felt like a victim, and wanted to combine the personal and public in her work to cut through the stagnant double-talk of Cold War America. She certainly uses Holocaust imagery, but does so alongside other violent myths and history, including those of Electra, vampirism, and voodoo. Strangeways writes that, "the Holocaust assumed a mythic dimension because of its extremity and the difficulty of understanding it in human terms, due to the mechanical efficiency with which it was carried out, and the inconceivably large number of victims." In other words, its shocking content is not an accident, but is rather an attempt to consider how the 20th century's great atrocity reflects and escalates a certain human quality.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine that any of Sylvia Plath's poems could leave the reader unmoved. "Daddy" is evidence of her profound talent, part of which rested in her unabashed confrontation with her personal history and the traumas of the age in which she lived. That she could write a poem that encompasses both the personal and historical is clear in "Daddy."
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