Daddy by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath is most known for her tortured soul. Perhaps that is why readers identify with her works of poetry so well, such as ‘Daddy’. She has an uncanny ability to give meaningful words to some of the most inexpressible emotions. She writes in a way that allows the reader to feel her pain. In this poem, ‘Daddy’, she writes about her father after his death. This is not a typical obituary poem, lamenting the loss of the loved one, wishing for his return, and hoping to see him again. Rather, Plath feels a sense of relief at his departure from her life. She explores the reasons behind this feeling in the lines of this poem. 

When speaking about her own work, Plath describes herself (in regards to ‘Daddy’ specifically) as a “girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God”. She adds on to this statement, describing her father as “a Nazi and her mother very possibly part Jewish”. Through the poem, she “has to act out the awful little allegory once before she is free of it.”

Literary historians have determined that neither of these statements about her parents was accurate but were introduced into the narrative in order to enhance its poignancy and stretch the limits of allegory. More information about the contextual history of ‘Daddy’ can be found here.

 

Summary of Daddy 

‘Daddy’ by Sylvia Plath uses emotional, and sometimes, painful metaphors to depict the poet’s own opinion of her father.

The poem begins with the speaker describing her father in several different, striking ways. He is at once, a “black shoe” she was trapped within, a vampire, a fascist and a Nazi. While alive, and since his death, she has been trapped by his life. He holds her back and contains her in a way she’s trying to contend with. She has to “kill” her father in order to get away from him.

Sylvia Plath’s poem, Daddy, can be read in full here.

 

Poetic Techniques in Daddy 

Plath makes use of a number of poetic techniques in ‘Daddy’ these include enjambment, metaphor, simile and juxtaposition. The former, juxtaposition, is used when two contrasting objects or ideas are placed in conversation with one another in order to emphasize that contrast. A poet usually does this in order to speak on a larger theme of their text or make an important point about the differences between these two things. in this poem, there is a consistent juxtaposition between innocence or youthful emotions, and pain. 

Metaphors and similes appear throughout the text in order to convey the speaker’s emotional opinions about her father. He is compared to a Nazi, a sadist and a vampire, as well as a few other people and objects.

Another important technique that is commonly used in poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point.  It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are instances in almost every stanza, but a reader can look to the beginning of stanzas three and four for poignant examples of this technique.

 

Themes in Daddy

In regards to the most important themes in ‘Daddy’, one should consider the conversation Plath has in the text about the oppressive nature of her father/daughter relationship. The theme of freedom from oppression, or from captivity is prevalent throughout this text, and others Plath wrote. Despite her father’s death, she was obviously still held rapt by his life and how he lived.

That being said, life and death should also be considered important themes within Plath’s ‘Daddy’. Without her father living as he did, and dying when he did while Plath was quite young, this poem would not exist as it does.

Daddy by Sylvia Plath Summary

 

Daddy Poem by Sylvia Plath Analysis

Stanza 1

You do not do, you do not do

(…)

Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

In this first stanza of Daddy, the speaker reveals that the subject of whom she speaks is no longer there. This is why she says and repeats, “You do not do”.  The following line is rather surprising, as it does not express loss or sadness. On the contrary, it begins to reveal the nature of this particular father-daughter relationship. The speaker compares her father to a “black shoe”. It seems like a strange comparison until the third line reveals that the speaker herself has felt “like a foot” that has been forced to live thirty years in that shoe. The foot is “poor and white” because, for thirty years, it has been suffocated by the shoe and never allowed to see the light of day.

The last line in this stanza reveals that the speaker felt not only suffocated by her father, but fearful of him as well. In fact, she expresses that her fear of him was so intense, that she was afraid to even breathe or sneeze.

 

Stanza 2

Daddy, I have had to kill you.

(…)

Big as a Frisco seal

In the second stanza of Daddy, the speaker reveals her own personal desire to kill her father. The first line states, “I have had to kill you”. The next line goes on to explain that the speaker actually did not have time to kill her father, because he died before she could manage to do it. She does not make this confession regretfully or sorrowfully. Rather, she calls him “a bag full of God” which suggests that her view of her father as well as her view of God was one of fear and trepidation. She describes him as a “ghastly statue with one gray toe big as a Frisco seal”.

Her description of her father as a statue suggests that she saw no capacity for feeling in him. A “Frisco seal” refers to one of the sea lions that can be seen in San Francisco. When she describes that one of his toes is as big as a seal, it reveals to the reader just how enormous and overbearing her father seemed to her. He was hardened, without feelings, and now that he is dead, she thinks he looks like an enormous, ominous statue.

 

Stanza 3

And a head in the freakish Atlantic

(…)

Ach, du.

Here, looking at her dead father, the speaker describes the gorgeous scenery of the Atlantic ocean and the beautiful area of “Nauset”.  However, she also uses the word “freakish” to precede her descriptions of the beautiful Atlantic ocean. This reveals that even though her father may have been a beautiful specimen of a human being, she knew personally that there was something awful about him. In the final two lines of this stanza, the speaker reveals that at one point during her father’s sickness, she even prayed that he would recover. The last line of this stanza is the German phrase for “oh, you.”

 

Stanza 4

In the German tongue, in the Polish town

(…)

My Polack friend

In stanza 4 of Daddy , the speaker begins to wonder about her father and his origins. The speaker knows that he came from a Polish town, where German was the main language spoken. She explains that the town he grew up in had endured one war after another. She would never be able to identify which specific town he was from because the name of his hometown was a common name. This stanza ends mid-sentence. The speaker begins to explain that she learned something from her “Polack friend”.

 

Stanza 5

Says there are a dozen or two.

(…)

The tongue stuck in my jaw.

Here, the speaker finishes what she began to explain in the previous stanza by explaining that she learned from a friend that the name of the Polish town her father came from, was a very common name. For this reason, she concludes that she “could never tell where [he] put [his] foot”. It’s clear she will not ever be able to know exactly where his roots are from. She had never asked him because she “could never talk to [him]”.

After this, the speaker then explains that she was afraid to talk to him. She states, “The tongue stuck in my jaw” when explaining the way she felt when she wanted to talk to her father.

 

Stanza 6

It stuck in a barb wire snare.

(…)

And the language obscene

In this stanza, she continues to describe the way she felt around her father. She felt as though her tongue were stuck in barbed wire. “Ich” is the German word for “I”. This reveals that whenever she wanted to speak to her father, she could only stutter and say, “I, I, I.”. She then describes that she thought every German man was her father. This reveals that she does not distinguish him as someone familiar and close to her. Rather, she sees him as she sees any other German man, harsh and obscene.

 

Stanza 7

An engine, an engine

(…)

I think I may well be a Jew.

In Stanza 7 of Daddy, the speaker begins to reveal to the readers that she felt like a Jew under the reign of her German father. This is a very strong comparison, and the speaker knows this and yet does not hesitate to use this simile. The oppression which she has suffered under the reign of her father is soz, something she feels compares to the oppression of the Jews under the Germans in the Holocaust. For this reason, she specifically mentions Auschwitz, among other concentration camps.

She then concludes that she began to talk like a Jew, like one who was oppressed and silenced by German oppressors. Then she concludes that because she feels the oppression that the Jews feel, she identifies with the Jews and therefore considers herself a Jew.

 

Stanza 8

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna

(…)

I may be a bit of a Jew.

In this stanza, the speaker continues to criticize the Germans as she compares the “snows of Tyrol” and the “clear beer of Vienna” to the German’s idea of racial purity. She concludes that they “are not very pure or true”. Then, the speaker considers her ancestry, and the gypsies that were part of her heritage. Gypsies, like Jews, were singled out for execution by the Nazis, and so the speaker identifies not only with Jews but also with gypsies. In fact, she seems to identify with anyone who has ever felt oppressed by the Germans. In the last line of this stanza, the speaker suggests that she is probably part Jewish, and part Gypsy.


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Stanza 9

I have always been scared of you,

(…)

Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——

Here, the speaker finally finds the courage to address her father, now that he is dead. She admits that she has always been afraid of him. She implies that her father had something to do with the airforce, as that is how the word “Luftwaffe” translates to English. “Gobbledygook” however, is simply gibberish. This implies that the speaker feels that her father and his language made no sense to her. In this instance, she felt afraid of him and feared everything about him.

She never was able to understand him, and he was always someone to fear. She was afraid of his “neat mustache” and his “Aryan eye, bright blue”. This description of his eyes implies that he was one of those Germans whom the Nazis believed to be a superior race. He was Aryan, with blue eyes. He was something feirce and terrifying to the speaker, and she associates him closely with the Nazis. A “panzer-mam” was a German tank driver, and so this continues the comparison between her father and a Nazi.

 

Stanza 10

Not God but a swastika

(…)

Brute heart of a brute like you.

In this stanza, the speaker compares her father to God. She clearly sees God as an ominous overbearing being who clouds her world. This is why she describes her father as a giant black swastika that covered the entire sky. The third line of this stanza begins a sarcastic description of women and men like her father. She mockingly says, “every woman adores a Fascist” and then begins to describe the violence of men like her father. She calls uses the word “brute” three times in the last two lines of this stanza. If these lines are were not written in jest, then she clearly believes that women, for some reason or another, tend to fall in love with violent brutes.

 

Stanza 11

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,

(…)

Any less the black man who

In the first line of this stanza, the speaker describes her father as a teacher standing at the blackboard. The author’s father, was, in fact, a professor. This is how the speaker views her father. She can see the cleft in his chin as she imagines him standing there at the blackboard. Then she describes that the cleft that is in his chin, should really be in his foot. This simply means that she views her father as the devil himself.

The devil is often characterized as an animal with cleft feet, and the speaker believes he wears his cleft in his chin rather than in his feet. Her description of her father as a “black man” does not refer to his skin color but rather to the darkness of his soul.  This stanza ends with the word “who” because the author breaks the stanza mid-sentence.

 

Stanza 12

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

(…)

I thought even the bones would do.

With the first line of this stanza, the speaker finishes her sentence and reveals that her father has broken her heart. She says that he has “bit [her] pretty red heart in two”. The rest of this stanza reveals a deeper understanding of the speaker’s relationship with her father. Even though he was a cruel, overbearing brute, at one point in her life, she loved him dearly. It is possible that as a child, she was able to love him despite his cruelty. As an adult, however, she cannot see past his vices.

This stanza reveals that the speaker was only ten years old when her father died, and that she mourned for him until she was twenty. She even tried to end her life in order to see him again. She thought that even if she was never to see him again in an after-life, to simply have her bones buried by his bones would be enough of a comfort to her.

 

Stanza 13

But they pulled me out of the sack,

(…)

A man in black with a Meinkampf look

In this stanza, the speaker reveals that she was not able to commit suicide, even though she tried. She reveals that she was found and “pulled…out of the sack” and stuck back together “with glue”. At this point, the speaker experienced a revelation. She realized that she must re-create her father. She decided to find and love a man who reminded her of her father. Freud’s theory on the Oedipus complex seems to come into play here. The theory that girls fall in love with their fathers as children, and boys with their mothers, also suggests that these boys and girls grow up to find husbands and wives that resemble their fathers and mother.  

The speaker has already suggested that women love a brutal man, and perhaps she is now confessing that she was once such a woman. This is why the speaker says that she finds a “model” of her father who is “a man in black with a Meinkampf look”. While “Meinkampf” means “my struggle”, the last line of this stanza most likely means that the man she found to marry looked like her father and like Hitler.

 

Stanza 14

And a love of the rack and the screw.

(…)

The voices just can’t worm through.

In this stanza, the speaker reveals that the man she married enjoyed to torture. This is why she describes him as having “a love of the rack and the screw”. She confesses that she married him when she says, “And I said I do, I do.” Then she tells her father that she is through. This means that having re-created her father by marrying a harsh German man, she no longer needed to mourn her father’s death. She then describes her relationship with her father as a phone call. Now she has hung up, and the call is forever ended.

 

Stanza 15

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——
(…)
Daddy, you can lie back now.

In this stanza of Daddy, the speaker reminds the readers that she has already claimed to have killed her father. She revealed that he actually died before she could get to him, but she still claims the responsibility for his death. Now she says that if she has killed one man, she’s killed two. This is most likely in reference to her husband. She refers to her husband as a vampire, one who was supposed to be just like her father. As it turned out, he was not just like her father. In fact, he drained the life from her. This is why she refers to him as a vampire who drank her blood.

It is not clear why she first says that he drank her blood for “a year”. However, the speaker then changes her mind and says, “seven years, if you want to know.” When the speaker says, “daddy, you can lie back now” she is telling him that the part of him that has lived on within her can die now, too.

 

Stanza 16

There’s a stake in your fat black heart

(…)

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

In this stanza, the speaker reveals that her father, though dead, has somehow lived on, like a vampire, to torture her. It is claimed that she must kill her father the way that a vampire must be killed, with a stake to the heart. She then goes on to explain to her father that “the villagers never liked you”. She explains that they dance and stomp on his grave. The speaker says that the villagers “always knew it was [him]”. This suggests that the people around them always suspected that there was something different and mysterious about her father.

With the final line, the speaker tells her father that she is through with him. While he has been dead for years, it is clear that her memory of him has caused her great grief and struggle. The speaker was unable to move on without acknowledging that her father was, in fact, a brute. Once she was able to come to terms with what he truly was, she was able to let him stop torturing her from the grave.

 

Conclusion to Daddy

Sylvia Plath (read her biography here) begins Daddy with her present understanding of her father and the kind of man that he was. She then offers readers some background explanation of her relationship with her father. As Daddy progresses, the readers begins to realize that the speaker has not always hated her father. She has not always seen him as a brute, although she makes it clear that he always has been oppressive. As a child, the speaker did not know anything apart from her father’s mentality, and so she prays for his recovery and then mourns his death. She even wishes to join him in death.

She then tries to re-create him by marrying a man like him. It isn’t until years after her father’s death that she becomes aware of the true brutal nature of her relationship. Though he has been dead in flesh for years, she finally decides to let go of his memory and free herself from his oppression forever.

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  • Avatar Arathy says:

    why no mention of “electra complex”? Poem has a dichotomous sense of emotions, it is not one dimensional, this changes the meaning of the poem

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I’m not sure that Plath is sexualising her father. Although there are hints to that effect by the fact that she married a man that the poem suggests is just like him.

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