Daddy Plath Daddy

Daddy - Plath #

Context and Background: #

The death of her father when she was eight had a profound effect on Sylvia Plath. He died from undiagnosed diabetes, having already suffered the amputation of one foot. Was it the lack of one foot that causes her obsession with “shoes” in this poem? At any rate Plath returns to the death of her father in much of her poetry.

With her father very sick, Sylvia prays to God for his life. When her mother informs her of the death of her father, she pulled the blankets over her head and said: “I’ll never speak to God again”.

“Forever our father’s children, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby

Sub-consciously we choose our soul mates on the basis of our role models and Plath admits that her attraction to Ted Hughes is as an ersatz or surrogate father figure.

Her Polish father, domineering and authoritarian, and her mother Aurelia, of Austrian origin link the poem to the Nazis. This poem is likely an attempt to exorcise the male oppressive dominance of her life in an attempt to become free.

Daddy #

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.

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

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

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.
My Polack friend

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.

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

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.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

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
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.

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 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.

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

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.

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.

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.

II. Sound Effects #

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

You can hear Sylvia Plath read Daddy at:

Poets can make words sing by blending meaning and using sound to convey mood in an emotive and suggestive manner. Some poets deliberately use incantation and repetition in an attempt to cast a spell over their readers, allowing them to escape reality and enter the world of dreams, imagination and fantasy. The subtle repetition of vowel sounds (rhyme, assonance) can create a distinctive mood or ambience. The repetition of consonants (alliteration) can also obliquely affect the emotions of the responders. Plath advises others to learn from the assonances and consonances of Emily Dickinson for subtlety beyond mere rhyme using sharp punch words to create the effect of hooftaps.

This is a dramatic monologue; an apostrophe, addressing her dead father.

The poem begins from the perspective of a child, looking for a sing song nursery rhyme. She sees her father as an overpowering figure and she feels vulnerable, insignificant, almost helpless. As the poem progresses, she adopts a more mature voice.

The initial mood is one of fear, “Barely daring to breathe or Achoo” but soon turns defiant, into an angry, vengeful declaration of war, with short jabbing lines to create an accusatory, combative almost pugilistic tone and mood; “Daddy I have had to kill you, You died before I had time——”. This effect is created by the many short monosyllabic words and the repetition of “you” (19) and words that rhyme with it: do,(6), shoe (1) “Achoo”, blue, du (German for you), two,(2), Jew (5), true, gobbledegoo, through,(4) who, glue, screw, knew….

While rhyming is a distinctive childish device of the nursery rhyme, it can create anticipation induce a spell or have an incantatory effect on the responder.

III . Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns #

The causes and remedies for our demons is explored here. It is clear the persona is disturbed and has suffered for the past 30 years (in reality 22) from grieving over the loss of her father when she was 10 (actually 8). Profoundly traumatic events can become deeply seated in our psyche and haunt us for a long time. It is only in the last fifty years that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has become gradually recognised as a life altering phenomenon. While simplistic advice to “draw a line”, “get over it’ and “move on” appeal to some it is not often possible. A recurrent theme in Plath is how the therapeutic writing of poetry helps her deal with past issues by venting her anger and releasing the pain.

Recurring images of lack of communication litter the poem. The isolating containment in the “black shoe”, “the tongue stuck in my jaw”, barb wire snare, black telephone’s off at the root,…… He died before she had time to get to know him as a father and now tries to connect with him through Tarot cards.

Every woman adores a Fascist

Could be a referfence to the many women who were attracted to Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, and today Trump. Magda Goebbels (1901-1945) is the most contradictory and the most intriguing among them. What made a beautiful and intelligent woman go from being deeply in love with the ardent Zionist leader Victor Chaim Arlosoroff to marrying Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda and a ferocious anti-Semite? She was the ‘First Lady’ of the Reich, owing to Hitler’s lifelong attachment to her. How could the devoted mother of six, the poster-child of family values during the Third Reich, turn into Medea and poison her six children?

The fact that Plath can end the poem confidently with a direct speech

“Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”(80)

could be evidence that she has broken out of her captivity and is finally free, though later events cast doubt on this conclusion. Conversely, she is finished with the poem, with him? or with life - ultimately is she ready for death?


*Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic. Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc

Plath uses a combination of a reflective narrative and a pondering, expressive meditation of her feelings in this poem to explore the deepest, intimate experience of her past to understand what shaped her as a human being to become the “self” she was.

Metaphor plays a major role in this poem

Shoes and feet are a recurrent image in this poem; they take on different nuances of meaning. She compares herself to a foot that “lives” in a shoe, the shoe is her father.

This metaphor evokes various helpful associations: Commonly, a shoe protects the foot and keeps it warm, in this poem however, the shoe is a trap, smothering the foot. The adjective “black” suggests the idea of death, and since the shoe is fitting tightly around the foot, one might think of a corpse confined in a coffin. Plath feels at the same time protected and smothered by her father. Later, the black shoe emerges as a military “boot” (line 49) when the father is called a Nazi.

Boots are also symbols of oppression – “these boots are gonna walk all over you” (Nancy Sinatra) as treading or trampling on sacred memories. Both her father and her husband are accused of “the boot in the face” and “the crunch of my man’s boot” (Ode for Ted)

The sustained appropriated Nazi imagery is a bit over the top as it is a bit farfetched. It is based on her father’s Polish connection and her mother’s Austrian ancestry though her father died in 1940. Her father has been mythologised in an historical sense.

Her father’s authoritarianism or maybe merely his power over her, is compared to the tyranny of Hitler and her suffering paralleled to that of the Jews in the holocaust. “A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.” And appropriated references to: “barbed wire snare, my gypsy ancestress,

  • Taroc pack,
  • Luftwaffe (Nazi air force),
  • Aryan eye, bright blue (Hitler’s pure race), *neat moustache,
  • swastika, Meinkampf look (My Struggle – title of Hitler’s autobiography), …
  • Plath also compares her father and surrogate father (Hughes) to a devil and a vampire.

The reference to “Every woman adores a Fascist,” suggests women like strong men but when that doesn’t pan out cry on the shoulders of sensitive men.

“In the barbecue of life, women can choose between chops or snags. They tend to choose the ‘chops’, but when that ends badly, seek refuge with ‘snags’.”

Acronymns - CHOP = chauvinistic hedonistic, opinionated pricks, SNAG = sensitive new age guy.

Magda Goebbels, whose step father was Jewish, married to a rich industrialist associated with the Zionist cause, heard Joseph Goebbels speak, became enchanted with the National Socialist cause and adored Hitler. When the end was inevitable, she murdered her six children with poison, after which Joseph Goebbels shot her and then himself.

Otto Plath is also compared to the devil; “A cleft in your chin instead of your foot/But no less a devil for that”. (53-54). Again there is the reference to the foot, this one being suspicious just like the origins of the father. The cleft in the foot, the devil’s hooves, is compared to the cleft in the father’s chin.

This is developed further with the images of the father and the husband who is like the father being a “vampire” (72)—a bloodsucking zombie who still haunts her long after his death. Likewise, Plath describes how her life was being drained away as the result of a marriage, similar to that of how a vampire drinks the blood of its victims.

Lack of Communication: the tongue stuck in my jaw”, barb wire snare, black telephone’s off at the root,……

Taroc Pack -from Italian Tarot Cards; Sets of cards used in fortune-telling.

This poem is chaotic and open to various interpretations such as Psychological, Feminist and Post-Modernist perspectives.

She may be suffering from an Electra Complex, competing with her mother for her father’s attention. It speaks for all women against an oppressive Paternalistic society.

The post modern aspects include: stream of consciousness, fragmentation, an unreliable narrator, anachronisms or non-linear defiance of time, illogical paradoxes - killing someone already dead.


Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience, Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron.
Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases.

The title “Daddy”, rather than the more formal father, creates a childlike voice, soon shattered by an angry one.

The punchy pugilistic effect of the poem is evoked by short monosyllabic words.

Plath’s diction here is forceful and uncompromising; an accusatory attack on the brutality man is capable of. The direct, blunt and colloquial language such as: “I had to kill you”, and later Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” indicate a break from the decorum and elegance of “respectable” poetry.

As in much of her poetry, Plath combines discipline with freedom; she pares the language down to a minimum and yet chooses to break the taboos of language as well as traditional poetry.

The Nazi parallels are reinforced with the use of many German words:

Ach du. - Oh you!

Ich, ich…. - I, I, - stuttering or self obsessed?

German Romantics, intoxicated by the French Revolution, placed the self at the centre stage of their thinking. A small German town on the river Saale, became home to, “the self.”

The German original: “The Ich", has remained centre stage ever since.

Luftwaffe - air force

Aryan eye, bright blue - Hitler’s pure race

Panzer-man - armoured German divisions

Meinkampf look -My Struggle – title of Hitler’s autobiography

VI. Evaluation: #

Many believe this to be to be Plath’s signature poem, the one that represents her most abject depth of intimate pain and despair. Its dramatic intensity of feeling conveys the power of her love for her fabricated father and her violent attempt to find a break-through release of her pain at his loss. She is not a passive victim, rather a defiant indomitable spirit of resistance; a martyr for a cause?

Feminists find a lot of grist to support their interpretations. It does provide a lot of evidence of her pain and is significant in understanding “the cries from the heart” of Plath’s poetry.

Janet Malcom eulogizes her father in an essay called “Daddy”:

My mind is filled with lovely plotless memories of him. The memories with a plot are, of course, the ones that commit the original sin of autobiography, which gives it its vitality if not its raison d’être. They are the memories of conflict, resentment, blame, self-justification – and it is wrong, unfair, inexcusable to publish them. ‘Who asked you to tarnish my image with your miserable little hurts?’ the dead person might reasonably ask.”

That question seems pointed. Called “Daddy”, the title of the essay echoes the title of Plath’s most famous poem, which portrays her dead father – as well as the father-figure she discovered in her husband Hughes – as brutal, Nazi-like authoritarians. Malcolm seems to be censuring Plath’s self-victimising and savage exposé of others.