“The poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was god. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also Nazi and her mother very possible part Jewish. In the daughter the two strands marry and paralyze each other—she has to act out the awful little allegory once before she is free of it.” – Sylvia Plath
Sylvia herself suffered from Electra complex (father-fixation) which makes this poem semi-autobiographic and shares deep connection and reference to her personal life. She penned ‘daddy’ four months before her suicide where she drives a stake through not only her father’s image but also metaphorically kills all other men in her life including her husband. This is a free-verse quintain with no particular rhyme scheme; however there is a constant repetition of the constant repetition of the sound ‘oo’ throughout. This coupled along with the childlike vocabulary like ‘achoo’ and ‘gobbledygoo’ and the allusion to the nursery rhyme ‘the old lady that lived in the shoes’ in the first line adds a childlike quality to the poem.
Her father, a German, died when she was eight years old and just out of her phallic stage—the third psychosexual development stage where children can develop an Electra or Oedipus complex—this lead to a fixed image being set in the mind of the author where the father is:
Marble heavy, a bag full of god,
Ghastly statue with one grey toe,
Big as a Frisco seal.
She describes his body as marble since a corpse is cold and white and calls his soul God, the ultimate being of importance in one’s life, which is inside the ‘bag’ i.e. body. Otto Plath—Sylvia Plath’s father—had suffered from a disease in his foot which was triggered by diabetes leading to swelling and ultimately death. His swollen foot is ‘ghastly’ and ‘big as a Frisco seal’. Here the diction and sarcasm used portrays Sylvia’s dislike towards the disease that took away her father before time.
As an eight year old child the memories she has of her father are as unsure as the polish town she tries to locate her father’s roots to. With the fuzzy memory Sylvia Plath creates a picture of her father with imagination of a child and holds on to it until late in her life.
‘Daddy’ seems more like a rant of a frustrated, angry child that believes her father left her when she needed him the most. Otto Plath passed away a year or so after the world war two started, leaving behind an alone Sylvia that despised her German roots due to the current conditions where almost all Germans were stereotyped and despised.
The child even though adores the father has a very dominating, cruel image of him:
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
A liberation of sorts where the author exasperated of her barely human conditions puts her foot down—no pun intended—and breaks free. Using imagery she links her oppression to the subjugation of a poor by rich giving us a clear meaning.
The description of brutality increases as the poem flows. She compares her torment and harassment to the oppression of a Jew by that of a Nazi:
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, Ich, Ich, Ich,
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene
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
With the use of simile the author connects herself to a Jew who is tormented by a German. The revulsion she has for Germans is extended to the language too. German suffocates her as she cannot understand it yet the ‘Ich’ or ‘I’ is written in German to give out a sense of alikeness to the Jews.
‘I thought every German was you.’ This adds to the vague sense of familiarity she had with her father where she imagined he was like every other German, cruel and speaking the same ‘obscene’ language. She symbolizes all the men in her life with her father, looking for him in every oppressive cruel male that spoke the same tongue.
The oppression, the suffering, the suffocation, it all feels like a concentration camp where she is forced and similar to the oppression and force in real life, she compares her current surrounding to an almost concentration camp where the suppression makes her feel like a Jew.
Her fear for the father hasn’t left her yet, instead it has amplified. Sylvia sees her father in not only any German but specifically in those that are more fierce and oppressive because she compares him to ‘Luftwaffe’ and ‘panzer man’ where he with his Aryan looks and ‘gobbledygoo’ subdue and quash her, leaving her broken. This symbolizes her broken or rather disrupted state of mind that is also a symptom of Electra complex.
The father is a figure of huge importance in her life that has time and again been compared to god and a large statue always shadowing her life the way her father always left an impression. The tone of the poem vacillates from childish rant to adult rage very swiftly leaving the reader struggling behind to catch up.
Not god but swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
As rage encompasses her she compares her father to the swastika, a symbol of evil and oppression for the Jews.
Rage intermingles with love and bursts, releasing the unbeknownst need for domination. Lacking the protection of a father figure during her childhood the author wants someone to control her and her life. To dominate her and tell her off like a father would to his child. The adoration and need for fascism roots deep down in her childhood that was created by the gaping hole a father’s presence should have filled.
Seeing her father in a light that shows him betraying her and leaving her when she needed him, she despises him even though she needs him. Paradoxically, she despised him because she loved him. Love and hate amalgamates to evoke and stimulate extreme emotions in her.
She partially breaks the childhood imagination of her father being a god and now calls him a ‘brute’ that broke her heart and a devil:
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
Bit my pretty red heart into two.
Authentically, Sylvia had a picture of Otto Plath wherein he is near the blackboard as his profession was that of a teacher. The cleft in chin, a very common feature of millions around the world is suddenly turned to something more beastly as she comments on the lack of it on his feet. Like a devil, a beast, who has hooves instead of feet and has clefts on his hooves. Imagery and metonymy is used to paint the picture of an evil man with a ‘black’ heart that hurt her. A man so selfish that he left her in the middle of a malicious world only to retreat safely to the peace of the heaven himself.
So broken was she, when stranded, that she tried to cope but after failing at it she tried to go back to her father whom she loved at that time. Sylvia Plath describes her first attempt at suicide that took place in the world outside the land of literature:
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But the pulled me out of the sack
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
Plath first attempted suicide by swallowing sleeping pills and crawling under her house at the age of twenty when she was suffering from depression. So depressed she must’ve been from her life and so needy of a potent paternal shadow that could set things right for her that she tried to join her father in the kingdom of Hades.
However, after three days she was ‘pulled’ out of her hiding, crawl space and put under medical care for six months. She was not only pulled out from her hiding but she was also pulled away from her father who was a ‘bag full of god’.
‘Stuck me together with glue’ can have several meanings when connected to her real life. She could be stuck together with the help of medical treatment or by winning the scholarship to Cambridge University. The ‘glue’ here could also be her husband Ted Hughes whom she met shortly afterwards. The latter seems more relevant since in the next para she describes how she made a model of her father:
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw,
And I said I do, I do.
Ted Hughes had many similarities with Otto Plath—one of them being their common love for animals and nature—thus somewhat fulfilling his need in Sylvia Plath’s life. The “surrogate father” as he is often called, Ted had blonde hair and was over 6ft tall with an infamous love for black clothing. Many of his colleagues described him as a strong-minded, control freak who did not listen to anyone; something similar to the needs of Plath. This explains their quick marriage—within four months of meeting.
However, things did not go as they planned and Ted eventually cheated on her leading to their separation. This put Sylvia off from all the men around her; already scarred by her father she did not see men as trustworthy anymore.
She compares the emotional trauma Ted sent her through to the physical pain one might experience from the horrifying torture instruments. This grotesque use of hyperbole here and with the Jews has been a topic of debate for many critics. What can even come close to the physical oppression of Jews and the pain of having your limbs torn off your body while you are breathing? The effort put in by Plath to explain or rather describe her situation with such symbolism has largely gone wrong.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.
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.
Plath lost faith in god shortly after her father’s death yet the ‘black telephone’ symbolizes the rejection of the society and her stubbornness that no one can convince her otherwise. The mention of murder here, similar to the one in the second para where she says ‘daddy I’ve had to kill you’ implies the killing of the image of the father and her husband not the actual body. She has finished all the sweet, naïve feelings she ever had for them and sees them for what they truly are in her eyes – vampires, blood sucking creatures that have always sucked the life out of her leaving behind a very drained and weak Sylvia.
She tries to exorcise these devils, these beasts and wants to purge herself from their shadow. Her attempts of psychic purgation from the paternal statue looming in her life and the similar husband are what she states in the last paragraph 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.
The child’s rant blends with the feminine hatred to give birth to a mystical and fictional metaphor where the vampires are killed by the traditional way of driving a stake through their hearts. Consoling herself by thinking that she wasn’t the only one hating them (men) and the villagers who could also be women who have suffered the same tragedy hated them too. The finality and the venom in the last line of the poem comes off so strong with the use of apostrophe that it leaves the reader out of breath.
As “one of the most nakedly confessional poems ever written” ‘Daddy’ has garnered widespread attention from feminists, psychologists, authors and critics. It has had its fair share of brickbats and bouquets and is one of the most notable works of Sylvia Plath. Featuring many controversial topics, ‘Daddy’ has been assessed in almost every way one can image by hundreds of people worldwide and yet, after 50 years of being published, continues to catch the attention of literature students and teachers alike.