Theodore Roethke depicts what should be a happy moment for a family. A dance with the father around the kitchen would be a memorable time in a young boy’s memory. Yet, “My Papa’s Waltz” presents a scene with an alcoholic father abusing his son with the mother unable to help.
The young boy is the narrator of the scent. There may be a waltz playing on the radio, or may be no music is needed. The tone of the poem is fearful and the room is filled with anxiety.
The language and vocabulary choices aim for the understanding that this dance was not the fun experience that it should have been. The connotations of certain words imply the boy has no choice in this symbolic dance of father and son.
The title begins with the words “my papa’s.” It is not the boy’s waltz or their waltz. If it were a special moment for the boy, the author would have had the boy share the title. This implies that the boy is at least uncomfortable dancing with this father.
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death;
Such waltzing was not easy.
In the first line of the poem, the reader learns why this is not a good experience for the boy. His father is drunk or drinking whiskey. His alcoholic breath is disgusting and so strong that the boy becomes dizzy from it. The dizziness may also have come from the dancing itself.
The boy is young and as they cavort around the room, he hangs on for dear life. Dancing with his father drunk is not easy. The author chooses the word hanging on like “death” [not for dear life or just hanging on]. Obviously, the boy is scared so much that he selected a word that has a fatal connotation.
In the second stanza, the pair is no longer dancing. Now, they are romping which implies that the dancing has gotten more out of hand. The dance is so wild that the pots and pans are sliding off the shelves.
Mother is frowning; however, the author chose the word countenance instead of face. The word countenance implies more emphasis on the entire person, demeanor, and her attitude. She is not happy; her frowning comes from the fear and anxiety for the boy and secondly probably herself.
For some reason, the father’ hand is battered. It is implied that he may have been in a fight, but this is not definitive. The father is holding on to his wrist. If the dance were one of pleasure, the father would hold his son’s hand. Instead, the father holds on to the wrist to brace himself or to make the grip tight so that the son cannot get away. The narrator further suffers because of the father’s belt buckle. Every time the father misses a step, he scraps the boy’s ear.
In the last stanza, the speaker reports that his father beat time to the music on his head. The important word comes in the next line when he describes his father’s hand as hard. His father hit his head hard as they moved to the music. The father’s hand was dirty. The last line of the poem is ambiguous. The boy clings to the father’s shirt, obviously wanting the relationship with his father. The fear, dizziness, and hurt keep him from relishing this experience.
Why does the mother not intercede? It was probably past the bed time of a young boy. The father was drunk, battered, and dirty. He is hurting the boy more than dancing with him. The mother may be afraid for the boy as well as herself. The man is dancing with the boy which means he is not focusing on her.