Identify images that point to an abusive relationship in the poem.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If one is going to search for images of an abusive relationship in the poem, then the poem has to be read in a different light.  The standard reading of the poem is a tender nighttime ritual between a father and a son. One must move away from this and still see the poem as a ritual, but one in which tenderness gives way to abuse.

There is a repetition of how little the boy exists in comparison to the size of the father.  This dichotomy helps to bring out the abusive element. The little, tiny child who "clinged to your shirt" is defined in starkly oppositional terms to the father who "beat time on my head."  This image feeds into something larger established from the first stanza.  Consider the notions being offered such as "such waltzing was not easy" and "I hung on like death."  This is added to the opening line of the smell of whiskey on the father's breath.  It is one in which the alcohol image adds to the abusive element.

The "waltz" itself carries effects that can be seen as conveying abuse.  The look of fear on the mother's face is one such element: My mother’s countenance/ Could not unfrown itself."  The mother's look seems to be a bit more than simply disapproving of the waltz that dislodges pots and pans in the kitchen. Consider the force of the dance that brings about pots and pans crashing to the ground and here again, another image that terrifies is present.  This little child being thrown around the kitchen, crashing into cookware as a result of the force of the waltz is an image of fright.  Combined with the other images present, this one conveys something terrible in the waltz, something painful.  The picture of the little boy's ear being scraped due to the force of the waltz is another image that conveys hurt and violence as a result of this dance.  

The ending of the poem is one in which there is much sadness.  The lullaby that carries off the child to bed is one where personal pain and terror lies.  The father that waltzes sends his child to bed "clinging" to the father's shirt.  While it is perfectly acceptable to see this entire dance as a spirited and exuberant display of parental love, when one sees it in a different light, many images and pictures of terrifying abuse seem to present themselves.

Read the study guide:
My Papa's Waltz

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