What's a fitting thesis statement for "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke?

Quick answer:

Although there is some evidence that the narrator's father was an alcoholic who abused his family, it would be a mistake to claim that the poem necessarily reflects this. The historical context of the late 1940s and characterizations within the poem indicate a loving father-son relationship in which it is likely that the narrator was recalling fondly an interaction with his father after a long day of work.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is one of my favorite poems because it leaves room for two very different interpretations, and I think it would be interesting to choose one of those interpretations and then base your thesis statement off that. Let's consider the evidence first.

On one hand, there is evidence that the narrator is reflecting back on an abusive childhood at the hands of an alcoholic father. Those who choose this interpretation will point to the mother's displeasure with the rowdy scene, the smell of whisky that is strong enough to make the narrator "dizzy," and the battered knuckle, indicating that the father has come home from a fight. The tone is thus dark, furthered by word choice such as this:

You beat time on my head

He didn't tap out the rhythm of the music—he beat it. That's a pretty strong and violent sounding word choice.

But not everyone reads the poem this way, and some believe that this is a loving scene of a father and son at the end of a long work day. This poem was written in the late 1940s, and a father returning home from work with whiskey on his breath would not have necessarily been cause for alarm. Fathers during this time period often worked jobs requiring manual labor, so a battered knuckle and dirt-covered palms supports that historical context. This interpretation also points to the familiar and loving use of "papa" to reference his father and to the fact that after this boisterous scene is finished, the son clings to his father's shirt as he is taken to bed, another loving gesture in itself.

Therefore, your thesis could be structured like this:

Although some believe this is a poem with evidence of an abusive childhood, the historical context and characterization in the poem indicate a loving father-son relationship.

(You could also flip this if you agree that this is a poem recalling the abuses of childhood.)

Your body paragraphs could then follow that thesis: one paragraph about the invalid (in this thesis) evidence of abuse, one examining the poem from its historical context, and a third examining the characterization of the father.

I hope this helps organize your thoughts. Good luck!

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Here is one way to approach thesis statements that offers you an opportunity as a writer to present and organize a thoughtful argument supported by literary analysis.

First, think of a subject you would like to cover in your paper. This subject can be a literary term you would like to explore. One example of a literary term from "My Papa's Waltz" could be diction, but there are many other possibilities that would make an excellent thesis statement.

Next, think of a verb and a focus that allows you to discuss the subject in an argumentative way and invites you to locate evidence in the literary work that supports your argument. For example, you could argue that the diction, or word choice, in the poem suggests (the verb) that the writer's relationship with his father is emotionally complex (the focus).

Finally, put the three elements together into a sentence:

Theodore Roethke's diction suggests that his relationship with his father is emotionally complex and is full of danger and pain.

When writing your paper, make sure you locate examples of diction that prove your argument. Organize them into a clear outline, then write, revise, and proofread your paper. And there you have it! Good luck!

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I encourage my students to use the following template when composing thesis statements regarding poetry: In [poem's title], [author's name] uses [literary device], [literary device], and [literary device] to convey the idea that [poem's main message or theme]. So, for this poem, you might use the following thesis: In "My Papa's Waltz," Theodore Roethke uses connotation, imagery, and simile to convey the idea that parent-child relationships are often fraught with both happy and painful feelings.

There are many words in the poem that have overly positive or negative connotations, which seem to make the relationship between father and child a mixed bag. Waltz, for example, is positive, but dizzy and death are negative. Other words that seem quite negative include unfrown, battered, scraped, beat, and hard. However, romped and waltzed continue to seem positive. The combination of words that seem painful with words that seem happy conveys the mixed emotions that characterize this relationship.

Further, the olfactory image of "whiskey on [the father's] breath" that makes his son "dizzy" is an unappealing one, but the visual and auditory image of "romp[ing] until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf" is comical, especially because it produces such a disapproving reaction from the speaker's mother. In the third stanza, the speaker is injured when his "right ear scraped a buckle"— a painful tactile image—but then he "cling[s] to [his father's] shirt" later on, another somewhat more positive visual image.

Finally, to say that the boy "hung on like death" to his father because their "waltzing was not easy" is a bit troubling. The simile, again, seems to present a mixture of feelings. Why hang on if it isn't fun? But why associate something fun with any aspect of death?

All of these poetic devices seem to convey the ambiguity of the feelings between the boy and his father.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I usually encourage my students to pick two or three closely-related poetic elements on which to focus in a thesis, like:

  1. Speaker, Audience, Tone
  2. Metaphor, Imagery, and Theme
  3. Prosody: Meter and Sound Effects

"My Papa's Waltz" presents a quandary among readers: younger readers fear the father, while older readers see him as relatively harmless.  Do you see him as an alcoholic child-abuser or a fun-loving, though rowdy, father?  So, take a position and, using approach #1 or #2 above, support it with textual support.

I find the poem interesting from a structural level: the first two lines of each stanza seem to be carefree, but the last two lines have slight turns to a darker side.  Why does Roethke do this?  Is there a musical or metrical connection to this approach?

Also, look what other editors have said about how to analyze the poem.  The TPCSTT method always leads to a good thesis as well.  Again, only focus on two or three of these:

Title: Ponder the title before reading the poem

Paraphrase: Translate the poem into your own words

Connotation: Contemplate the poem for meaning beyond the literal level

Attitude: Observe both the speaker’s and the poet’s attitude (tone).

Shifts: Note shifts in speakers and attitudes or form

Title: Examine the title again, this time on an interpretive level

Theme: Determine what the poet is saying

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What would be a good introduction to an essay on "My Papa's Waltz," with a thesis statement; Theodore Roethke uses tone, connotation, and imagery to convey the idea that parent-child relationships are often complex and involve both happy and painful feelings?

That's a great thesis and one that covers the complexities of images and language found in this poem. When I teach this poem, students typically find it to be a poem reflective of alcoholism and child abuse. I would argue that this is because they view the poem with a twenty-first century lens. And there are certainly images that would lead to those connotations, but the poem's language and imagery doesn't fully support that interpretation.

Therefore, I think examining the historical context is worthwhile in this introduction. Roethke was born in 1908; the poem was written in the late 1940s. Families living during this period of American history were shaped by different influences than those typical in twenty-first century America. A father's hands during this era would have been battered and dirty because of hard, manual labor. The fact that he's had whiskey at bedtime would not have been all that unusual. It's also important to note the use of the tender "Papa," which seems to support a warm relationship between father and son.

Bringing in the historical context allows you to show how the culture of a society shapes the interpretation and also allows you to bring out these contrasting images of the parent-child relationship. Their "waltzing was not easy," yet the son clings to his father to preserve that intimacy. The verbs sometimes sound harsh—battered, scraped, beat—yet these images are blended into a beautiful waltz.

The dynamics of a parent-child relationship are both painful and beautiful, and they are always evolving to reflect a constantly changing society.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on