Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Daddy” has an ironically affectionate title, for this poem is a violent, discordant attack on the dead parent. One of the poems Plath wrote in the feverishly active last six months of her life, “Daddy” is a reworking of the evil-father theme so prominent in her poems. Because her father died when he still had mythic power to the child, the woman must deflate and exorcise the father figure somehow. She must go through a symbolic killing of the powerful ghost in order to be free.
In contrast to the subtle rhythms of her earlier work, this poem’s movement is direct and obvious. It uses harsh, insistent rhyme to hammer its message home. Its banging, jangling rhythms unnerve the reader and lodge in the mind. It relies on one repeated rhyme, an “oo” sound that becomes a cry of pain. Read aloud, the poem sounds like a chant, a ritual chant of exorcism and purification. In this poem and some others, Plath seems to be using words for their apotropaic value—as charms to ward off evil.
A series of metaphors presents the relationship between father and daughter in graphically negative terms. Progressively throughout the poem, he is a “black shoe” in which she has “lived like a foot” for thirty years; he is a Nazi and she a Jew; he is a devil and she his victim; he is a vampire who drinks her blood. The vampire and the victim are perhaps the most telling images, for she sees him as a dead man draining her living blood, calling from...
(The entire section is 533 words.)
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Overview (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
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.
(The entire section is 1427 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999.
Bassnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Gill, Joe, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Hungerford, Amy. The Holocaust of Texts: Genocide, Literature, and Personification. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Kendall, Tim. Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study. London: Faber, 2001.
Kirk, Connie Ann. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Rowland, Anthony. Holocaust Poetry: Awkward Poetics in the Work of Sylvia Plath, Geoffrey Hill, Tony Harrison, and Ted Hughes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.
Swiontkowski, Gale. Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath, Rich, and Olds on Life with Daddy. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2003.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.