Written on October 12, 1962, four months before her suicide, Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is a “confessional” poem of eighty lines divided into sixteen five-line stanzas. The persona, a daughter speaking in the first person, seeks to resolve the manifold conflicts with her father and paternal authority that have dogged her life. Her readiness for the task is unambiguously evident in the first stanza’s opening lines: “You do not do, You do not do/ Anymore.”
“Daddy,” begins the second stanza, “I have had to kill you.” The deceased, titanic patriarch, first represented as “Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,” has his godliness immediately modified when he is referred to as a “Ghastly statue,” with that phrase’s related intimations of corpses and ghosts. The death of her father, an awesome figure with “one gray toe/ Big as a Frisco seal” and “A head in the freakish Atlantic,” had not daunted the speaker’s hopes of reunion; as she puts it in the third stanza, “I used to pray to recover you./ Ach du.” Her belief in the power of prayer is, however, a thing of the past, no longer tenable.
The father’s European roots—he is imaged as a Nazi in the fourth stanza—prove elusive to the speaker, a relatively unimportant handicap, given the significant affliction she discovers in the fifth stanza: “I never could talk to you./ The tongue stuck in my jaw.” A less circumscribed and more dire speechlessness emerges in the sixth stanza.
In the seventh stanza, the Holocaust is introduced, and the speaker recovers her powers of speech in the context—if not as a result—of having pointedly established herself as a Jew. A couple of overworked Nazi emblems are demythologized in stanza 8: “The snows of Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna/ Are not very pure or true,” while she identifies herself with Gypsies, another group much hated by the Nazis. In stanza 9, she brazenly mocks fascist discourse as “gobbledygoo,” and does much the same to her father’s Nazi image: “And your neat mustache/ And your Aryan eye, bright blue./ Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—.” When, in stanza 10, one reads “Not God but a swastika/ So black no sky could squeak through,” one is confronted with a profoundly potent evil capable of overwhelming the heavens.
The penultimate patriarchal image appears in stanza 11: father as teacher-cum-devil. Although, she recalls, “You stand at the blackboard, daddy,/ In the picture I have of you,” the innocuous snapshot of a pedagogue does not distract her from perceiving the father’s demoniac nature. The hauntingly sadistic image, in the twelfth stanza, of the father who, before dying, “Bit my pretty red heart in two,” is juxtaposed with her vain pursuit of him ten years hence, in an attempted suicide. Failing at that, she tries, in stanzas 13 and 14, a more effective, somewhat less self-destructive tactic: “I made a model of you/ A man in black with a Meinkampf look/ And a love of the rack and the screw,” and marries the surrogate.
Predatory and erotic, the ruinous, eerie image of the father as vampire in stanza 15 anticipates the speaker’s ritualistic solution. “There’s a stake in your fat black heart/ And the villagers never liked you,” begins the poem’s sixteenth and final stanza. The speaker’s decisive, triumphant patricide permits her to say, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through,” and, for the first time, call her life her own.