Coming from the desk of the acclaimed poet Sylvia Plath, ‘Daddy’ is a gut-wrenching and heartfelt confessional poem that will move any reader to the core. Read this Penlighten post for an in-depth analysis of ‘Daddy’.
From The Poet
“The poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. The father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyze each other – she has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it.” ~ Sylvia Plath, in an interview with BBC radio.
Written by the famous American poet Sylvia Plath, ‘Daddy’ is a poem that is sure to surprise and shock you with its language, frankness, and open contempt. Sylvia Plath was famous for creating such honest pieces of work, and her personal life reflected in most of her poems. She even wrote a novel named The Bell Jar, which is another such acclaimed creation. She had a very turbulent and tumultuous life, losing her father at a very young age, and battling depression for many years. She attempted suicide several times, and was successful in 1963, when she poisoned herself with gas at the age of 30, months after separating from her adulterous husband, poet Ted Hughes. Despite such a controversial life and saddening end, she has managed to create some phenomenal works, ‘Daddy’ being one of them. Read on for an in-depth analysis of this poem.
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo
The narrator compares her father’s presence to that of a shoe, in which she had to live like a poor and white foot, confined and stifled. She is terrified of him, and is too scared to talk or even sneeze. Notice the child-like usage of the word achoo, which suggests that the narrator has regressed back in time, to her childhood, when her father was alive, and his presence was ominous. The words ‘For thirty years’ mean that even after so long, when she is thirty years old and her father is long gone, she still feels like that trapped foot in the all-engulfing and dark presence of her father.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal.
This is the first instance of imagery and metaphors in the poem. The first line symbolizes that the narrator has to bring up the traumatic memories of her father, and then destroy them. The second line is similar to Plath’s life, as her father Otto died when she was eight, from undiagnosed diabetes. The ghastly big statue is the ominous presence of the narrator’s father. Plath’s father’s toe had actually turned gray due to diabetes, and his foot had to be amputated; he died soon after. The abrupt disappearance of her father’s oppressive presence must have traumatized the young narrator greatly.
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off the beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
The ‘freakish Atlantic’, near New England, was where Plath and her brother spent their childhood days. Nauset is an area that now encompasses Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. This was an ancient land where the Nauset Indians once lived, but it doesn’t exist anymore. This may be symbolic of the narrator’s belief in God, which has also ceased to exist. ‘I used to pray to recover you’. It then switches over to German with the words ‘Ach, du’, meaning ‘Oh, you’. The significance of the German language in the poem is explained in the subsequent paragraphs.
In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
Plath’s father hailed from a German town named Grabow, which is the name of many towns in Poland. This territory was ruled by Germany for long, but is now a Polish area. The narrator tells her father that she tried to find out where he came from; she had the name of his Polish hometown, that was then German, and had been totally wiped out during the World War. But, she says, it is a very common name, as her Polish friend has told her.
Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.
The first three lines are a symbol of illusion and mystery. The narrator is angry at her father for never being present in her life, and for stifling her freedom. And then she also says that he is a mystery to her. Not only did she not know him in person, she also does not know of his roots, where he came from. Thus, he is a mysterious figure who was never a solid presence in her life; she cannot relate to him at all. The last two lines again tell the reader of the effect her father had on her; she could not talk to him about anything. It was like her tongue would freeze in her jaw.
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene
Here, the graphical descriptions initiate, with the first line being an apt example. ‘Ich’ is German for ‘I’, and again a depiction of the narrator’s speechlessness in front of her father. The last two lines symbolize her hatred for the German language. In Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, she has written about how, during the first World War, her mother had been stoned by the other children in her school for speaking German. The words ”… each time I picked up a German dictionary or a German book, the very sight of those dense, black, barbed-wire letters made my mind shut like a clam.”, are quite explanatory of the last 2 lines.
An engine, an engine,
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
This paragraph seems a bit theatrical; it is a comparison of the narrator’s relationship with her father, with the dreadfulness of the Holocaust. These lines were criticized by many for their reference to the concentration camps and the horrors that took place, as it is a very graphic and extreme comparison. Here again, the word ‘chuffing’ is a reminder of the state of mind that the narrator is in, deeply lost in her childhood memories.
The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.
Critics believe that this is a reference to Hitler, and his rise to power. Vienna was where Hitler developed his anti-Semitic views. Tyrol is a mountain range near Austria, whose snow, the narrator says, is not as clean and pure as it looks. Something dark and terrible is brewing underneath it. Then she again calls herself a Jew, with a gypsy ancestress, who has not been specified. In truth, Plath was of German origin, not having any Jewish roots.
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—-
The Luftwaffe is the German Air Force, showing that the narrator’s father may have been a pilot. The neat mustache and the bright blue Aryan eye are the characteristics that were promoted as ‘pure Aryan’ by Hitler. Plath’s father did not actually have these features; the narrator is trying to establish a connection between this scary image that was etched in the minds of the people, and the fact that she found her father scary in a similar way. The last line describes a person who drives a Panzer, which is a popular and common German army tank.
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
The words ‘not God’ may be symbolic of Hitler’s act of playing God and deciding the fate of so many people. The narrator says that her father is like the German swastika, dark, ominous, evil, someone who usurps all the light and joy. The third line may be a reference to the poet’s mother Aurelia Plath, who was her husband’s student before she married him. ‘The boot in the face’ is an example of punishment, terror, and control. Some believe that these lines were an attack against male dominance.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
In this para, the narrator calls her father the devil, the black man. She says that in the picture she has of him, he has a cleft chin, which should instead be on his foot, making it cloven-shaped, which is a mark of the devil. The same foot with which he metaphorically ‘booted… in the face’ owing to his brutish behavior.
Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
There are some resemblances here to the poet’s own life. She had tried to commit suicide when she was 20, by overdosing on sleeping pills. However, she was rescued and put into a facility, where she was given electroshock treatments and lots of therapy. The words ‘back, back, back to you’ symbolize the narrator’s guilt at feeling so much hatred for her dead father, which she tries to atone by attempting suicide, to reconnect with him in spirit.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
The first two lines are depictions of Plath’s treatment at the psychiatric facility. And then, the narrator says, she knew what to do, like finally obtaining an answer to a long drawn-out dilemma. As the poet had said in the BBC interview, the narrator has an Electra complex, where she will end up marrying a man like her father, to make up for some unfulfilled childhood expectations from her father, and the fact that she has been unable to get out of his spell even now.
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.
Sylvia Plath’s marriage to poet and author Ted Hughes is often cited as the inspiration behind these lines. The last two lines describe Plath’s move to London after her separation from Hughes. The house was very old; the telephone was not working, and the poet was not in touch with the outside world. In the poem, the narrator probably means that she has finally had enough, and that the haunting thoughts are now far gone; those voices and memories cannot bother her anymore.
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
The narrator likens her husband to a vampire, who drank her blood for seven years. Plath’s marriage to Hughes lasted for seven years, at which time he treated her not very well. He apparently saw to his own success first, putting her works and their marriage in second place. He eventually left her for another woman. This is one of the most literal confessional portions of the poem.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
Some critics believe that this is symbolic of the fall of Hitler and his government, and the rejoicing that followed thereon. The people were dancing merrily, with a metaphorical stamping on his body. This is also symbolic of the narrator’s closure. The use of the profanity and the raw, brutal language make this paragraph disturbing and dark.
The tone of the poem is bitter, angry, and contemptuous. The sound ‘oo’ has been used throughout in most of the words, giving the poem an eerie aura. That, and the use of the word ‘Daddy’ are clear signs that the narrator has regressed back to her childhood, and is writing as if she was 10 years old again. The ‘oo’ sound has been described by many critics as ominous and chilling, with some saying that it sounds as if the narrator is trying to ward off evil spirits. It moves from her childhood to her suicide attempt, to Nazi Germany, the suffering of the Jews, to her husband, to finally attaining closure.
Her increasing anger and hatred can be felt with each progressing line; the end, however, does not feel calm but instead filled with hatred and vengeance. It gets more and more dark, stark, frank, and graphic as it continues, with one line setting the tone for the next. The use of the word ‘Daddy’ deceives the reader, as it is a word that a small child would lovingly use for her father, with whom she has a good relationship. In the poem, the narrator is not scared anymore. Her father is dead, and now she can finally tell him the truth and set herself free.
This poem is replete with many themes. Some of the major ones are listed below.
The narrator of the poem has suffered a great setback due to the sudden and untimely death of her father. It is because of this event that she has not been able to get out of her father’s suppressive shadow, as she has not been able to come to terms with his death. It is his passing that has driven her to this point of hatred, anger, guilt, and release.
The way the narrator has always felt around her father forms another primary theme of the poem. She continuously keeps saying things like ‘My tongue was stuck in my jaw’, ‘Too afraid to speak or Achoo’, which suggest that she was very scared of her father, and that he had enforced strict rules in place to be followed, causing the child to feel stifled and suppressed.
The poem’s narrator tends to victimize herself throughout, even likening her suffering to that of the Jews in Germany. She keeps on saying ‘I could not talk to you’, ‘I have always been scared of you’, and calls him a black shoe. This tendency reflects throughout the book, and tends to get a little theatrical at times.
Vampires, the black man, the devil, all give the poem a very ghostly, supernatural feel. As the narrator’s father is already dead, there are many examples used here that do not make sense in the real world. Even the line ‘They stuck me together with glue’ seems otherworldly and eerie.
The contempt and hatred that the narrator feels towards her father and then her husband is abundantly evident throughout the poem. This can actually be called the main theme of the poem, as it entirely circles around this aspect. There is a lot of rage and hostility in all the lines, that the reader can feel with every passing word.
Sylvia Plath grew up in the ’50s in America and England. At that time, women were not considered equals of men, and were hence not given as much importance. Many critics believe that this poem was Plath’s way of lashing out at the male-dominated society; a very raw and real feminist approach. Her father and husband were just representatives of this society.
So this is what ‘Daddy’ is all about. Not really something made for light reading, is it? This is a beautiful poem that captivates the reader in the first go, compelling them to delve further into the troubled and dark world of the narrator.