What happens in Daddy?

Sylvia Plath explores her complicated relationship with her father in "Daddy." The speaker's father died when she was ten, before she had time to reduce him from a larger-than-life figure to a mere human being. Consequently, the speaker has "had to kill" her father.

  • The speaker compares herself to a Jew struggling against a Nazi. She confesses, "I thought every German was you," and describes her hatred of the German language, which is just like an "engine/ Chugging me off like a Jew." Her allusion to the Nazi concentration camps of Dachau, Auschwitz, and Belsen underscores how evil her father was.
  • Nevertheless, the speaker loved her father. "Every woman adores a Fascist," she says, and describes how her father's brutality made him into an idol. Ten years after he died, she attempted suicide in attempt to "get back, back, back to" him. She hates him and loves him and wants to put all this pain behind her. To destroy him, she likens him to a vampire with a stack in his heart and imagines villagers stomping on him. In the last line, she declares, "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I'm through."

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The Poem

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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 grave for her to join him. When she believes that she has broken his thrall, she announces victoriously, “The black telephone’s off at the root,/ the voices just can’t worm through,” mingling images of telephone and grave.

The poem telescopes the events of Plath’s life in her recurrent pattern of contamination and purification. The father was unreachable when alive; she could not talk to him: “The tongue stuck in my jaw,” the speaker says. “It stuck in a barb wire snare./ Ich, ich, ich, ich.” The repetition of the German word for “I” expresses that she could not articulate herself and establish her individuality, and it reinforces the German-Jew image while sounding like something flapping, painfully ensnared.

“I was ten when they buried you,” she says. (Plath was eight when her father died.) “At twenty I tried to die/ And get back, back, back to you,” she continues. Unable to find and escape him simultaneously that way, she tried a kind of voodoo: She married a man like her father and separated from him, thus “killing” both the husband and the father. The end of the poem is a triumphant assertion of rejection and freedom: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

Like the ending of The Bell Jar , this triumph seems to be contradicted by Plath’s suicide four months later. Perhaps more accurate in reflecting her state of mind is the ambivalence in an...

(The entire section is 1,960 words.)