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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.  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.

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hHjctqSBwM&feature=related

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.  

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.

The fact that she 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.


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.

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.


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?

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.

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