Daddy by Sylvia Plath and the Theories Surrounding the Poem

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Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is considered one of her greatest writings resulting in controversy, especially when revisiting her irrational relationship with her father. “Daddy” tells the tale of Plath’s journey to escape the anguish and desolation from her father.

Sylvia Plath lived a life any lower-class child in the 1930’s would dream of. Born in Boston on October 27, 1932, she would spend most of her early days by the seaside with her mother and father. Her father, Otto Plath, died from complications with diabetes in 1940; Sylvia Plath was ten years old. The death of Plath’s father, along with other distressing events that occurred in her life, inspired her to start writing literature (Poetry Foundation). Plath used writing to evaluate and explain her struggles in life, such as her troubled marriage to Ted Hughes, her toxic relationship with her family, her struggle to find self-acceptance, and her battle with mental illness at a time when psychological research was scarce (Spacey). In a journal entry of Plath’s dated June 20, 1958, Plath said “it is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates it, floods it” (Poetry Foundation). 

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Plath also received shock therapy after her attempted suicide at age twenty and continuous journal entries relating to the tone of the aforementioned excerpt. Plath battled all of this while fighting the oppression women had to deal with during her time. She initiated the writing of “Daddy” after her father’s tragic death, but the poem was not published until the early 1960s. Her writings were definitely labeled confessional, especially when taking into consideration Plath’s references to many events that happened throughout her life, however; most of Plath’s journals written before her suicide were destroyed by her husband, who died from cancer in 1998. Ultimately, Plath inhaled gases from her household oven and passed away after the harsh end of her marriage to Hughes in 1962. She covered the doors leading to other rooms in her home with towels and supplied milk on a tray for her two children before passing away (Spacey). It is assumed that Plath glorified suicide and has a “fascination” with such topics (PoetryFoundation).

Plath writes in “Daddy” that she has lived in the shoe that the man, supposedly her father, has walked in for the past thirty years, insinuating that all Otto Plath did was hurt his daughter emotionally by ‘walking all over her.’ This metaphor ties into Otto’s health problems, as he had a toe that turned grey from gangrene, which ultimately costed him his entire leg due to complications with diabetes. Plath continues by stating that throughout the time of Otto tormenting his only child, Sylvia did everything she could to make this man pleased with her and went as far as wanting to not breathe or sneeze around him. Following, she compares herself to a Jew and her father to a Nazi and compares her killing her father to being separated from a Nazi concentration camp. Plath continues by admitting her justifiable fear with her father by making the comparison of her father being the “Luftwaffe,” another word for the German air force, and “gobbledygoo,” a slang term for one’s feelings of unworthiness for someone’s respect. She makes the claim that she is unworthy of the German man’s respect and calls the German language “obscene.” 

She then states that she tried to join Otto Plath in death at the age of twenty, explaining her electroshock therapy. In addition, Plath discusses her marriage to the image Plath designed of her father and makes a “model” out of the man shortly after telling him that she is “finally through” with him, telling the reader that the image Plath made of this man was not a pleasant one. She adds on by stating that none of the voices Plath heard can reach her considering the metaphorical phone she used was ripped from whatever surface it was against. Lastly, she compares her father to a vampire and notices how she has been drinking his blood for the past seven years after firstly assuming it was only one year. She concludes her poem with calling her father a bastard and stating that she is officially through (Spacey).

Other writers have much to say about the content found in “Daddy” and have taken the time to analyze it to discover its true meaning. Kedar Sharma claims Plath attacks her father in “Daddy” and reasons with the reader as to why Plath’s anger is indefensible by saying that Plath’s pain is simply inexplicable and continues by stating that the poem conveys bitterness against male superiority and domestic violence. Sharma calls the “daddy” referenced in this poem a symbol of the typical male, rather than a specific person and supports this inference by saying that Plath’s references to Hitler and other forms of persecution are Plath referring to the “daddy.” She then calls Sylvia Plath, or whomever the narrator may be, a symbol of love and states that Plath wrote “Daddy” as a therapy for her anger. She notices Plath’s comparison of her father’s mustache and resembles it to Hitler’s clean-cut mustache and follows by pointing out the fact that Plath thought her father to have a black heart, potentially referring to his carelessness and lack of empathy for leaving his daughter. 

After Sharma’s summarization of “Daddy,” she elaborates on the reasoning as to why Plath’s anger is unjustifiable. She starts off by claiming that Plath’s poem is simply an unrealistic interpretation of someone’s life and is a dramatization of how she really felt about her father. Sharma thinks Plath’s suffering from neurosis is a significant factor as to why Plath’s interpretations are inaccurate and follows by claiming that “Daddy” needs to be analyzed from the perspective of psychoanalysis. Essentially, Sharma is suggesting that Plath wrote “Daddy” out of anger and wanted to poetically vent. Sharma believe the poem is a protest against the likes of her father, Hitler, inhumanity, and tyranny and also thinks “Daddy” is about the persecution and harassment found in modern war. Kedar Sharma concludes her critique by claiming the poem is only somewhat autobiographical and states that the reader will attempt justifying Plath’s anger by picturing Hitler’s inhumanity (Sharma).

Paul Breslin considers “Daddy” to have excessive amounts of details and sound confusing, while realizing Plath’s depressive undertones. He claims that the poem overshares and believes that because of this, Plath takes the meaning of privately shared allusions and stories for granted. Breslin thinks Otto Plath’s “grey toe,” in reference to gangrene, removes the private symbolism found in “Daddy” because it is mentioned in other poems, according to Breslin. He thinks the ages of ten, twenty, thirty, and so on, hold a bad omen predicting something bad happening, which would also be considered private symbolism. Breslin claims that Otto Plath’s association with Nazism is justified when considering Otto’s upbringing in the early 1900s, along with the Plath family being composed of German-Americans, and Otto Plath dying in the 1940s. The family’s fascination with European events would show the likelihood in Sylvia Plath’s interpretation of Adolf Hitler being a ghost of her father, according to Breslin. He then claims that “Daddy” has a powerful form of diction when read aloud, but loses its meaning when posing the question of what attitude Plath is expecting the reader to have about the speaker after reading. He also considers her diction on words such as “achoo” and “pretty red heart” to have childish meanings, and also thinks Plath’s poem should sound more mature, and thinks the first step of that would be changing the name from “Daddy” to “Father” (Breslin).

Katie Roiphe claims that Plath’s “Daddy” is assumingly written about her mother when it is mainly considered to be the opposite. She presents this theory by stating that Otto Plath could not have been liable for Sylvia Plath’s emotional distress due to his death at age fifty-five, but Plath and her mother, Aurelia Plath, have had issues claimed to be “lifelong.” Afterwards, she provides insight on Plath’s character in The Bell Jar where she supposedly states that she hated her mother to her doctor, to where the doctor replied by understanding her. Outside of The Bell Jar, Plath supposedly also asked her real doctor if she could still hate her father, where her doctor granted her permission to do so. Roiphe then provides excerpts from Plath’s journals, where she wrote that her medications permitted Plath to hate Aurelia, how her reasons for suicide were vicious impulses of murder from her mother to herself, and how she cannot change the lack of love her mother has for her. Roiphe then provides information on a short story Plath wrote in 1955, entitled “Tongues of Stone.” This short story was supposedly centered around a girl who wanted to kill her mother. Following, Roiphe then says the vampire that killed her father in “Daddy” is seen in “Aurelia,” where Plath wrote that her mother is a walking vampire. Roiphe then assumes that Plath did not entitle her poem “Mommy” simply because it would be easier for her to write if she disguised the subject of the poem as her father, when in all actuality, it was really written about her mother.

Plath’s influence goes beyond “Daddy” and The Bell Jar, as most of her poems have a strong underlying message of self-acceptance and situations always getting better, despite her sad portrayal of events. Her never-ending impact on society has paved the way for other confessional poets, and she will always be remembered for her contribution to the world of literature.      

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