The main themes in “Daddy” include death, ambivalence, and history and myth.
- Death: The poem’s speaker says she has had to kill her father but that he died before she could do so, after which she tried to reunite with him through suicide.
- Ambivalence: The speaker expresses both hatred for and obsession with the malevolent figure of her father, eventually saying “I do” to a man who is a “model” of him.
- History and myth: References to both World War II and folklore pervade the poem, with the speaker describing her father and his replica as Nazis and vampires.
Last Updated on December 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 958
Plath's poem expresses a wish for the death of a father-figure, but ironically, it is a death that has already occurred. The speaker felt that she needed to kill her father, but the father cheated her by dying on his own. Despite the hatred fells felt for him, she wishes to be reunited with him in death:
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I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
This alludes to a failed suicide attempt, following which the speaker has found a man resembling her father, or rather, one she wants to remake in her father's image. Successful in this, she regards herself as having killed two men: the father and his doppelganger, both of whom she likens to vampires, who are already dead—the living dead.
An emotion pulling the speaker, and the reader along with her, in opposite directions is the essence of the poem. It is difficult not to see the dominant feeling for the father-figure as pure hatred. Again and again, negative, destructive images are summoned; a “ghastly statue” represents him, and he is restricting, remote, unreachable:
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.
I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—
Not God but a swastika
The number of allusions to Germans, Nazis, and brutality throughout the poem is astonishing. And yet amid all of this, the intensity of the obsession indicates how central the father-figure is as an object of a kind of desire. At one time she prayed to “recover him.” Later she states,
Every woman adores a Fascist.
The man she sees as a recreation, a replicant of her father, is the one to whom the speaker says, “I do.” Both men are vampires, the undead, who have drunk her blood, and she has both loved them and killed them.
History and Myth
The historical background of “Daddy” is overwhelmingly that of World War II. This is linked to the speaker's personal story. As the Germans tortured and killed the Jews and Roma, she herself has been tortured, and so she merges with the persecuted groups and imagines herself one of them. More distantly, the father-figure is linked with mythology and religion: he is a sea god, rising from the “freakish Atlantic,” but one she sees as a parody of the worshipped divinities of the past; he is a “bag full of God.” If the personal story of the speaker is contextualized within history, the central event of her imagination, World War II, is contextualized within history overall. The assumed town of her father's birth has been devastated, “scraped flat by the roller / Of wars, wars, wars.” Man's legacy is one of endless violence, here perpetuated in the story of an abused woman. As a kind of summation, the vampire myth is associated with that story. Men have been vampires, drinking her blood and draining her of life, but as in legend, they have been destroyed with the stake in the heart.
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
If the “villagers” are a trope for the world throughout history, the implication is that violent men, such as the father- and husband-figure, are the type that has inflicted constant misery.
Though the poem expresses a kind of victory in the revenge inflicted upon the father and husband, it is a hopeless revenge. In the final line, the speaker celebrates the father's death, but the victory is hollow. Few readers, arguably, would think the closing statement is anything but a despairing cry that nothing positive has been accomplished. In saying “Daddy, I'm through,” the speaker is both saying that the legacy of the father has finally been destroyed, but that she, as well, is finished. Being “through” has multiple connotations. It is as if the father, in his harshness and cruelty, was all she had to live for, and now that his life, and his life as it existed in her mind, has ended, so has her life. It is an unforgivingly grim conclusion.
Many readers will sense a sexual undertone to the poem. The work contains obsessive, repetitive phrasing and the emotional “Ach, du” (Ah, you), as one would say to a lover. The father restricted the speaker, and yet she prayed to “recover him” from the dead. The speaker also directly links her father with the man to whom she will marry, or say “I do.” The entire poem can be considered oedipal, and it is difficult not to see that the speaker's feelings suggest some type of sadomasochism. One does not know if Plath is being ironic when stating:
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
Though it is not stated directly, many readers might speculate that the speaker was the victim of sexual abuse as a child. In the opening she describes herself as “living like a foot / For thirty years” in the “black shoe” that her father was. Plath was thirty when she wrote the poem. The implication is that it is only now that she has found this restriction, this dominance by the father-figure, unsatisfactory. Yet she is still obsessed with him, to the point of having married a man who either was already similar to this menacing father or whom she deliberately made into a copy of him. This last possibility is the most revelatory thing of all in a poem that is terrifying in its openness and its confession of the dark side of human nature.