Analysis

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Last Updated on December 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 786

Though a poem can and should be interpreted as an independent entity without reference to external or assumed background factors, Sylvia Plath's “Daddy,” like many of her other works, is difficult to fully analyze without understanding the poet's biography.

It may be doubly difficult to do so for those who...

(The entire section contains 2746 words.)

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Though a poem can and should be interpreted as an independent entity without reference to external or assumed background factors, Sylvia Plath's “Daddy,” like many of her other works, is difficult to fully analyze without understanding the poet's biography.

It may be doubly difficult to do so for those who are already familiar with at least the outlines of Plath's life. “Daddy” is at once a denunciation of a woman's father and a longing for him, or a longing for the positive father-figure she wished him to be. Plath was only ten when her German-born father died. The speaker in “Daddy” has mythologized the man, making him a gigantic symbol of evil and, somehow, of a good he never fulfilled. He is described as a divinity and debunked as a kind of parody of one, a “bag full of God.” His imagined statue has a head that rises from the sea like Poseidon, but it's also a “ghastly” sight with “one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal.”

To this god, as terrible as he was, the speaker has prayed. The outer world as depicted is a gruesome one, with the god's head in the “freakish Atlantic,” but the sea lies off the “beautiful Nauset” of Cape Cod. The effect of Plath's style is to constantly shift the ground under the reader, wavering violently between hate and love, ugliness and beauty.

The obsession with Germans and Germanness is arguably the dominant element of the poem, presented in a starkly negative way. Daddy, the person, is or seems to be a Nazi. His origin haunts the speaker, as does, by extension, his Naziness. Yet she wants to commune with him, to speak his language. All she is capable of is stuttering repetitions alluding both to him (“Ach, du”) and to herself (“Ich, ich, ich, ich”). She identifies him with all Germans, with everything that is German, but this is a trope of her remoteness from him, for all she can associate Germans with is Hitler and the Nazis. As one who was squelched by her father, she identifies herself with the Jewish and “gipsy” (Roma) victims of the Holocaust.

The strangest and perhaps most revealing theme occurs in the stanza beginning

Not God but a swastika

Here the positive image appears totally destroyed, and the father a metaphor of pure evil. But then:

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

The speaker recalls her father as a teacher, at the blackboard a kind of Satan with the cleft in his chin substituted for one in his foot. The father was buried when she was ten, and this left her heart bitten in two. At twenty, she tries to commit suicide—presumably in order to join him in death, this man she hated and longed for—but she is revived, brought back. This is what happened in Plath's own life with her early attempted suicide, fictionally described in her novel, The Bell Jar.

Here the poem plunges even more fully into autobiography. At the age of twenty-three, Plath married the poet Ted Hughes. Whether Hughes is literally the “man in black with the Meinkampf look,” a “model” she “made” of her lost father, does not really matter for one's understanding of the poem. But this is the man whom the speaker of “Daddy” conceptualizes as a kind of ideal—a man with “a love of the rack and the screw”—in other words, a sadist, a torturer. When she says, at this point, “Daddy, I'm finally through,” the implied meaning is that in saying “I do” to this replicant of her father, she is consummating that love-hate at last.

Both the original father and the secondary one are described as vampires who drank her blood—but also as vampires she has killed. In her final line, “Daddy, you bastard, I'm through,” it's as if the speaker has sacrificed herself to these evil male figures but then has destroyed them, not necessarily for revenge, but because this was the inevitable trajectory of her existence.

Altogether the poem is a supreme example of the truism that love and hate are conjoined, are opposites but nevertheless two forms of the same emotion. “Daddy” above all is about obsession. It is an oedipal fixation, but one contextualized into both history overall and the speaker’s personal story. Plath has the speaker represent the victimized millions as well as an unfulfilled and violently unhappy individual who found a kind of ultimate success as an artist but also wished from the start to destroy herself, as Plath herself would do several months after writing the poem, when she died from suicide by asphyxiation.

Commentary

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Last Updated on December 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 533

“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 earlier stanza:

No God but a swastikaSo black no sky could squeak through.Every woman adores a Fascist,The boot in the face, the bruteBrute heart of a brute like you.

Additional Commentary

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Last Updated on December 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1427

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.

Given the emotionally damaged speaker’s mercurial discourse and her father’s protean nature, Plath’s characterizations of the two and their interrelations—particularly the series of continually modulating images of the father—are among the most psychologically sound, aesthetically impeccable, and effective formal accomplishments in “Daddy.”

There is a significant conceptual corollary to the poem’s frequent nursery-rhyme rhythms when, in the first stanza, the speaker echoes, with wit and irony, the nursery rhyme about the “old woman who lived in a shoe . . . [who] didn’t know what to do.” This character, however, is a woman who knows exactly what to do in order to end her thirty-year habitation in her old man’s shoe and to exorcize the related intimidation, control, passivity, and entrapment: She must commit a symbolic patricide.

For all the speaker’s strident declamations, however, there is nothing to obscure the fact that hers is an ambivalent discourse. Savior and tormentor, the object of nostalgic affection and vituperation—these are the conflicting dualisms that form her troubled attachment to the first man in her life (and to his reincarnation, her husband), dualisms that have set the terms of her persecution and imprisonment. Although she “used to pray to recover [her father],” her present goal, transformed by experience, no longer aimed at recovering, is to uncover—to lay bare the inventory of her heart’s wounds, which shaped and dogged the future, all father-inflicted during childhood. The resulting narrative, awash with untrammeled emotion, produces an intricately wrought compound image of the father.

The permutations that produce the compound image of the father follow a devolving trajectory. In broad terms, the father, first imaged as a god of titanic proportions (stanza 2), is transformed in short order into a sadistic devil (stanza 11) before being finally described as a vampire (stanza 15). Introduced as a worshiped and scorned god-cadaver-statue, the paternal image is modulated and degenerated into the image of a viciously racist, sadistically misogynistic Nazi. When, with bitter irony, the speaker says, “Every woman adores a Fascist,” the statement is cast as an affront to feminist sensibilities, so typical is it of male presumptions about what “every woman” wants. The feminist theme continues into the succeeding image of the father as teacher-devil, as traditional gender roles would typically represent, as complementary images, male tutors and untutored females. The semantically dense imagery and characterization that occur here are typical of Plath’s poetry.

In the poem’s final degenerative permutation, the speaker integrates her father and husband into a single ghastly image of a vampire, a parasitic male who has been drinking her lifeblood. The father’s precipitous fall from deity to evil incarnate, conveyed in the serial pattern of paternal imagery, sets up the poem’s denouement: a ritual killing of evil, the one necessary prerequisite for the speaker to regain a life worthy of the name.

In the course of discussing Sylvia Plath’s poetry, Joyce Carol Oates has contended that the poet did not like other people because she doubted “that they existed in the way that she did, as pulsating, breathing, suffering individuals.” The ostensible subject of “Daddy” is the speaker’s somewhat belated acknowledgment of her unhealthy attachment to and anger toward her father and her eagerness to explode the Oedipal prisonhouse in which she has been captive so that she might have a life that is truly her own. Accordingly, it could be said that “Daddy” is about individual freedom and two of its principal prerequisites: self-knowledge and courage.

Like all good poetry, “Daddy” raises many questions. In the case of “Daddy,” among the most compelling of these questions is, What is the speaker’s understanding of the predicament from which she seeks to escape? Certainly, the sincerity of her testimony is as apparent as her anguish and rage. She speaks as if she were the victim of an error that her current insights empower her to rectify. Herein lies a major source of the poem’s pathos: Plath’s speaker fails to detect the resemblance between her situation and that of the Greek hero for whom Sigmund Freud named her presumed psychopathology, Oedipus. She suffers from the intractable consequences of fate.

The speaker’s account also implies a subscription to a bizarre mutation of the doctrine of Original Sin, the central postulate of which is that all errors are the result of unconscious guilt. This moral drama entails two shaky assumptions: that the world is just and that, despite all contrary evidence, people who suffer have only themselves to blame. As Dorothy Van Ghent, however, once pointedly asked about tragic heroes, “Is one guilty for circumstances?” One must deal tactfully if not compassionately with human fictions—while under one’s breath lamenting their folly—and Plath’s speaker surely deserves such consideration. Unfortunately, redefining herself and reclaiming her life by assuming full responsibility for her dilemma offer the same prospects for complete success as railing at the world for not being just. Perhaps Plath understood the speaker’s inadequate sense of her situation sufficiently for suicide to emerge in her life as the more decisive, if unhappy, alternative.

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