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A commentary of “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath

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“Daddy”, one of Plaths most famous and detailed autobiographical poems, was written in the last years of her life and is saturated with suppressed anger and dark imagery. The sixteen stanza poem, through Plaths use of ambiguous symbolism, arguably is bitterly addressing Plaths father, who died when she was only eight, and her husband Ted Hughes, who had broken her “pretty red heart in two” (st.12, line 1). The poem is intense with once suppressed emotion, setting an aggressive, desperate, almost psychic tone and is highly concentrated on the theme of death. With Plath’s application of various techniques including diction, imagery, enjambment, contrast, repetition and oxymoron, the poem comes across as shocking with the intensity of feeling and the passionate sadness that highlight the suicidal messages conveyed.

As is pointed out, the context of the poem “Daddy” is that of Plath’s husband’s affair with another woman. Grieved to the point of psychotic anger Plath’s use of imagery throughout the piece accentuates the hopeless despair of the speaker at the conflicting male relationships in Plath’s life: first her father and then husband.

“Any more, black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot…”

The metaphor of ‘black shoe’ possibly used to denote a person, suggests a stifling image. The speaker claims to have lived in that shoe, almost as if unwillingly trapped. While it suggests a sort of protection, the colour imagery of black, which is a recurring motif in the poem, connotes to negativity: death, even decaying. This could further be interpreted to suggest that Plaths own voice is accusing her father of having trapped her by his sudden death; she is almost disclosing her great weakness before him even after his death and again returns to the initial idea of conflict and confusion. It has been argued that Plath in making a feministic stance accusing the male domination in her relationship with her father and unable to break it she is psychologically shaken.

The highly accusative tone is streaked with notes of almost childish fear, fear before the speaker’s imaginary demon which she confronts in her mind. Plath uses diction to underscore a childish memory that the speaker has nourished of in her mind, memory being an important theme in “Daddy”.

“I have always been scared of you,

With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledydoo”

These highly ambiguous two lined can be said to be now addressing the speaker’s husband rather than father, for the emphasis on the ‘you’ can mean a change in the addressee. But more importantly the child-like diction: ‘gobbldydoo’, brings out the undertone of this stanza. The childhoods simple perspective a reflected through the language; the speaker is scared, she again feels dominated by a mysterious ‘you’ and the childhood images of her father mix in with her demonized illusion to re-create this fear, now for the speaker’s husband. The use of German ‘Luftwaffe’ again on a personal level is used by Plath to identify with her father’s past, for he was German, and her partly German husband. A further analysis suggests that the Nazi motif in the poem insinuates the male influence on Plath, a suppressing force she has been unable to fight and fears still.

Further use of diction emphasizes Plath’s helpless tone in contrast to the fiery aggressive one employed in most stanzas:

“And you Aryan eye, bright blue.

Panzer-man, Panzer-man, O You-“

Panzer being a German method of breaking the enemy fronts in World War 2, with an unstoppable movement of tanks can possibly insinuate the speaker’s weakness before the demon in her illusion: her husband and father. Their force is unstoppable and she is not equipped to fight it: there is a tone oh hopelessness and almost decisive statement that the speaker shall be defeated soon. This could suggest both Plath’s suicide and also the accusative message towards the males in her life.

Following the idea of males, the poem can be viewed as divided into two parts: the first 12 stanzas address the speaker’s father, whereas the other ones, her husband. Through use of constant enjambment and repetition Plath emphasizes the intense emotion in the poem: with confused childish language and repetitive imagery the speaker creates an impression of trying to say as much as possible as quickly as she can at the same time attempting to convey the destructive mixture of feeling

“But no less a devil for that, no not

Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.”

The recurring image of black is again mentioned, a repetition of which suggests the dim, destructive confusion in the speakers mind and the devilish image of her husband and of her father that she has envisioned. More so, black suggests one cannot see and this could connote to the speaker’s unclear memory of daddy, as well as the overall ambiguity concerning which man the speaker is actually addressing. The enjambment here speeds up the rhythm, everything is to be said in one breath and it can be connoted to the idea of these words being the speakers actual ‘last breath’. Furthermore, the enjambment creates a constant link between the lines and the stanzas: they seem to flow into each other. This can be interpreted as the speakers making a link between her and the two men she is accusing and is hurt by: there is a connection between them two and perhaps the speaker is confused, which one she is in fact addressing. There is a blend of the two males into one demon-like illusion Plath repetitively refers to.

This demon-like envisagement is contrasted to the image of God, again depicting confusion and conflict which seem to be prevalent in the speaker’s message. Plath employs various contrasting images and words effectively to accentuate the speaker’s blur of emotion.

“Not God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through”

The apparent contrast of God and the ‘black swastika’ can be described to depict the duality of the image of the male the speaker is addressing. On one hand he is her God, someone powerful and dominant, but in a positive way. Yet the black swastika represents an evil, almost devilish trait: it connotes death, pain and power that is negative. Hence the interpretation that the speaker is confused, beat by the power of the male she accuses, is possible one more. However, it can also be suggested that the swastika being the Nazi symbol and both the men addressed had German roots as well as the context being that of war, Plath’s speaker could be straightforwardly accusing her husband for his affair. More so, another motif of the piece being the speaker comparing herself to a Jew, the idea of swastika implies that she is victimized and persecuted like the Jews, except on a personal level, by her husband. This contrast brings out an impression of the addressee as being cruel, almost inhuman and senseless, for it is likely that this is how Plath felt about Hughes after his infidelity.

Perhaps one of the strongest impressions created by ‘Daddy’ is when Plath uses the symbol of a vampire to represent the duality of identity between her father and husband and thus highlight the aggressive tone and theme of death.

“If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two –

The vampire who said he was you

And drank my blood for a year…”

The vampire can be identified as a dead human, hence the father, or a living moster, hence the husband. The vampire drinking the speaker’s blood again is accusative for weakening her, stripping her of all power. It is suggestive that the husband took the place of ‘daddy’ in the speaker’s life, filled the void of his absence, but used her and as suggested by ‘who said he was you’, he deceived the speaker. At this stage in the 15th stanza Plath seems to be uniting both men into one symbol of a vampire, accusing them simultaneously for her weakness and despair.

The very last stanza is a decisive one, the speaker makes up her mind to suicide, blaming daddy and her husband. There is a taste of vengeance in the diction and desperate anger in conveyed through the imagery.

“There’s a stake in you fat black heart

And the villagers never like you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you.

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

The metaphor of ‘fat black heart’ implies a decaying, insensitive trait: the speaker accuses the addressee for not providing her with love, hence leaving her hollow and lonely. The revenge in her tone is shown through the reference to the villagers, and the ‘knew’ emphasizes how possibly blind and foolish the speaker was not to realize that the man had a ‘black heart’. The final contrast of daddy and ‘bastard’ as the speakers final conclusion, she is now exhausted and giving up. This contrast again brings to light the destructive conflict in the speakers mind, that of loving and hating her addressee simultaneously.

Therefore, ‘Daddy’ is perceptibly a highly emotional poem, full of suppresses anger and intense despair. The speaker, arguably Plath herself, addresses two men in her life that broke her heart and expresses the accumulating anger and pain that are confused in her mind. The theme of memory is brought up in the child-like language, the vague images of the speaker’s father. She then goes on through use of imagery to connote her situation to persecution of the Jews, which appears relevant when we find out about her fathers German roots. Through repletion of black Plath accentuates the darkest emotions inside her and a hollow feeling which then links to inevitable death. The contrasts made imply a the confusion in the speaker’s mind; the inability to deal with the pain and anger on her own and hence the ‘I’m through’ points to a giving up, a suicidal intention. The poem arguably points to a problem of male domination in Plath’s life, her father’s image and her husband’s real self, leaving her in conflict with an illusion.

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