Analysis of the poem ‘Daddy’

The following is an analysis of the poem ‘Daddy’ written by Sylvia Plath:

This poem is written through the viewpoint of a girl suffering from Electra complex, a condition where she has an unresolved, unconscious libidinous desire for her father. This girl is none other than Plath herself.  Plath’s father died when she was just eight years old; a time when he was like God to her.  As she grew up the imago of her father began to create troubles for her.  Her father’s strong dominance over her mind had caused her frustration.  This frustration had led her into depression.  The poem ‘Daddy’ shows Plath’s struggle to overthrow his dominance.

The reference to her father as a shoe wherein she has “lived like a foot” tells us how trapped she has felt in her father’s memories.  The memories had oppressed her so much that she could hardly dare to breathe or sneeze.

According to the Freudian psychology, at some stages in its development, a child is ‘in love’ with the parent.  Having died at such a stage in her development, Plath spits hatred for her father in the poem.

In the second stanza, Plath describes her father as ‘marble heavy’ and a ‘ghastly statue’.  He being also linked with the beauty of the sea, Plath seems to act ambivalent here.  These love-hate feelings of Plath for her father have stayed with her for so long, that they have eventually begun to trouble her psychologically.  Hence, to attain relief, Plath finds it essential to destroy the memory of her father.  The line “Daddy, I have had to kill you” shows the metaphorical murder of her father to have been a necessity –the word had in the line expresses this and shows the poet’s desperateness clearly.  “Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal / And a head in the freakish Atlantic” suggests that the statue of her father stretches from the Atlantic to San Frisco.

Contradictory to the tone of the second stanza, the line “I used to pray to recover you” in third stanza shows that no matter how much hatred she expressed so far for him, she still was very emotionally attached to him, so much that she would pray to God to bring him back from the dead.

In the next two stanzas, Plath speaks about her efforts to discover her father’s origins.  Like many, her father migrated to America during the Second World War.  Although she knows that he hailed from a German-speaking town of Poland, due to war the town is now unrecognizable and the German spoken there is lost.  Despite knowing the name of his town, she fails to discover his roots, for the name is so common that it doesn’t serve its purpose anymore.

Through these two lines, “I never could talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw.” Plath tell us about how terrorised she used to be as a child when she was with her father.  This fear is given a different level of intensity by associating it with the persecution of Jews during Hitler’s reign. “It stuck in a barb wire snare” the jaw representing the barb wires of the concentration camps.  From here on, for the next five stanzas, Plath relates her memories to that of the Jewish Holocaust.  The Plaths, as other German Americans, were aghast by Hitler’s deeds and followed the news from Europe closely.  As a child, the death of her father concurring with dreadful threats arising from her father’s home country might be the reason why Plath associates Hitler, the Nazis, and the Jewish persecution with some of her ill memories related to her father.  Also, these historical references, allow her to dramatize her rebellion against her oppressive father.

“Ich, ich, ich, ich, / I could hardly speak” the word ‘ich’ in this line is like a barb wire of the German language that examines Plath’s tongue and then cuts it off  as the language isn’t hers but her father’s.  The repetition of ich gives a stammering effect, emphasizing the fact that she didn’t know how to speak German.  The repeated self–assertive ich of the German language recalls the sound of the engines carrying Jews to the concentration camps. In revolt of the obscenity of the language –which is an extension of the emotional revolt against the father– the daughter begins to “talk like a Jew”; that is, she identifies herself with the suffering Jews of the concentration camps.  References to Dachau, Auschwitz, and Belsen support the degree of Plath’s mental suffering.

Plath’s claim of she might be a “bit of a Jew” combined with the fact she is partially German intensifies her emotional paralysis for her father with whom she is both connected with love and enmity.  Commenting on the persona in a BBC interview, Plath herself said that “the two strains of Nazi and Jew unite in the daughter and paralyze each other so the girl is doubly incapacitated to deal with her sense of her father, both by virtue of her mixed ethnicity and her childish perspective. As the persona recalls the father of her early years, she emphasizes and blends the two perspectives of impotence: that of the child before its father and of the Jew before the Nazi.”

The usage of cadences from nursery rhymes and the usage of baby words such as “Chuffing,” “Achoo,” and “Gobbledygoo” give the poem a child’s perspective.  The phrase “Scared of you” in the line “I have always been scared of you,” also shows childhood talk, but in earnest. The word “Gobbledygoo” in the following line has a similar effect. However, having been applied to her father that word does not make much sense.  It seems that it was chosen mainly for reasons of rhyme and for infusing the speech of a child.

The ‘neat moustache’ is an allusion to Hitler’s moustache.  The bright blue Aryan eyes refer to the Nazi symbol of racial purity.  The German word for a tank is ‘panzer’ and the men who manned German army tanks were called “panzer–men”.   The use of such terminology subtly connects Plath’s father with Nazi Germany.

By the tenth stanza, Plath no longer associates her father with God but with a swastika. She describes him as a Nazi officer.  By making him a Nazi and herself a Jew, Plath very cleverly dramatizes the war in her soul.  In the lines, “The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you”, Plath is furious; apart from the diction used, this effect seems to brought about well by the oo rhyme used extensively in the poem.

In the eleventh stanza, Plath describes a picture of her father.  The man at the blackboard in the picture of her father is transformed symbolically into the “man in black with a Meinkampf look.” The link between each of these associations is the word “black,” which also relates to the shoe in which the Plath has lived and the swastika, “So black no sky could squeak through.”

“no not / Any less the black man who / Bit my pretty red heart in two.” These lines bring in a new character in the poem; the character is her husband Ted Hughes.  In the twelfth stanza, Plath tells us about her attempt at committing suicide in the past, at the age of twenty.  She attempted to commit suicide with the desire to join her father amongst the dead.  The line “I thought even the bones would do” shows how desperate she was to join him.

Having failed in committing suicide to escape her father fixation, Plath chose another man who had many of her father’s characteristics, in the hope that his presence will exorcise her obsession with her father. The line “And I said I do, I do” confirms Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes.

The final two stanzas of the poem discard the well-established Jew-Nazi allegory.  The vampire-husband who impersonates the Nazi-father sucks her blood for seven years –the length of their marriage. “And drank my blood for a year, / Seven years, if you want to know” This is a vivid metaphor for the pain that their relationship must have caused Plath.

Plath shows awareness that her rage is partly a tantrum by allowing the cruelty to be depicted childishly.  Her psychology portrayed in the last stanza goes like this: Daddy died and hurt me; so, he must be a bastard.  I hate him for his cruelty; everyone else hates him too: “the villagers never liked you.”  As ‘daddy’ is a vampire only in Plath’s mind, the line “the villagers never liked you”  seems less credible.  As the last stanza proceeds, there is a gradual release of suppressed anger, building to the victorious dismissal: “Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”  Plath knows that Nazis and vampires are her self-created mental images.  But she still persists in relating to them as if they were real. Finally when she lets go of these images, she has nothing left and she is finished –“through”.   Ultimately, Plath declares herself free, both from the clasp of her ghostly father and of her husband.


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