Write an analysis of "My Papa's Waltz," in terms of speaker, audience, other character, and situation.
The speaker seems to be an adult reflecting on memories of his childhood; specifically, he recalls the way he would dance with his father as a young boy. We know this because the speaker uses past tense verbs and refers to the effect of his father's whiskey-breath on a "small boy," implying that he no longer is one. This poem, as told by a speaker who is also a participant in the action but who narrates after the action has taken place, is written in a first-person objective point of view.
The audience seems to be the speaker's father himself. The speaker addresses the "whiskey on your breath"—seeming to speak to his father directly. He also refers to "every step you missed," again speaking directly to his father; in addition, "You beat time on my head" sounds as though the speaker is addressing his father as his audience. This is a technique called apostrophe—when the narrator addresses someone or something that cannot respond.
In terms of situation, many read this poem as a sweet one—a memory shared by so many of us of our own childhoods with our own parents. This experience is common. However, I have also heard some people interpret this poem quite differently due to the language choices: some read it as a poem that details abuse in an unexpected way. First, the father has been drinking quite a bit, enough that his breath might "make a small boy dizzy." Second, the son hangs "on like death"—this does not sound very positive; nor does the line, "Such waltzing was not easy." Next, the fact that his mother's face "Could not unfrown itself" could be read as her disapproval of the father's treatment of the boy. Next, the father's hand "held [the speaker's] wrist" rather than his hand, which would be a pose more typical of restraint rather than dancing. The father, perhaps, might strike the son, and this could "batter" his "knuckle." In the final stanza, the line, "You beat time on my head" doesn't sound particularly positive; the word choice of "beat" rather than "kept," for example, could be read much more negatively.
In "My Papa's Waltz," the speaker in the poem is the son of "Papa."
In the poem, the speaker recalls a special memory of his father, using vivid sensory details (the smell of liquor, his father's battered knuckle, the belt buckle that scrapes the boy's ear, his father's palm caked with dirt, etc.).
The nostalgic memory speaks to the audience about a special moment shared by a family. The boy and his father waltz around the room, shaking pans on the kitchen shelf; the boy's mother watches, with a frown, but even so, we don't get the sense that she is truly distressed, but simply doing what a mom would do when carrying on starts.
The situation speaks for itself: a young boy remembers dancing with his father, something many of us remember doing, perhaps with our feet placed on top of our father's shoes, our socks slipping off with each step, and a tight grip on a shirt back or belt to keep from falling. Perhaps it happened too infrequently or the moment passed too quickly. Perhaps we never had the opportunity to do so, but are caught up in the moment as we imagine the experience, especially in light of the descriptions that appeal to our senses.