Saturday, 9 March 2013

Daddy - A Brief Interpretation of Plath's Poem

Daddy was written in 1962, just months before Plath took her own life. It was published posthumously in the collection Ariel, and is perhaps one of her most celebrated pieces. At first glance, I hadn’t a clue about what was going on. Here is the poem:

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.

I know what you’re thinking – what on earth is this about? How is this anything to do with her dad? And I didn’t know Sylvia Plath was Jewish? And whom did she kill? Well, these are the questions I hope to answer for you…
Before I start to talk about the poem, here are some things you should know:

1. Plath was going through deep depression when she wrote this, following her separation from Ted Hughes, whom she was with for seven years.
2. Ted often wore black.
3. Her father was German, and he died when Plath was at a very young age.

Plath is talking about her father throughout the poem, and she compares him to a number of things – Hitler, the Devil, a vampire and a statue looming over her (amongst others). The first main simile she uses to describe him is a statue that obscures the sky from her view, and in other words makes her world dark, with no light or hope. She writes: “Ghastly statue with one gray toe, Big as a Frisco seal.” She says that his toe is as big as a Frisco seal, which some believe suggests that one of his feet reaches all the way to San Francisco (others believe the reference was because of his gout), whereas in the next line she writes that he has a ‘head in the freakish Atlantic’. What she is saying is that the ‘ghastly statue’ of her father stretches across the entirety of the USA (where she was born) and that his whole body or persona puts her life into a shadow.
She also compares him to Hitler, and often calls herself a Jew to suggest that she was a victim of her father. But why does she liken him to Hitler? I suppose she uses the simile because Hitler is the most brutal German of all history (almost modern times for her) and she views her father as a brutal German. The fact that she didn’t ever get to know him implies a vagueness and obscurity of how she really views her father, and to emphasize this Plath writes: “I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.” What she means by gobbledygoo (strangely missing a k) is that she couldn’t understand his German, suggesting she never really knew him. Once this Nazi comparison has been made, she returns to the idea of her father casting a shadow and blocking out the sky when she writes: “Not God but a swastika, So black no sky could squeak through.”

She then associates him with the devil – possibly the worst thing one can call a person – when she writes: “A cleft in your chin instead of your foot…” I know this is not the most obvious simile, but the devil (Lucifer) was often pictured with a cleft in one of his feet, or indeed both. She refers to him as the devil when she is explaining how she pictures him, and says that he is ‘no less a devil’ for having a cleft in his chin, rather than his foot.

So why is she directing all these harsh comparisons at her father? What causes Plath to hate him so? Many people believe it is because she believed him to have ‘abandoned her’ when he died, and she is irate at him for not being there. This belief is highlighted when she writes: “I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.” ‘Ach du’ here, meaning ‘Oh you’ in German; this quote from the third stanza perhaps suggests that Plath has mixed feelings about her father – she loves him and wants him to be here for her, but she is angry because he is not. George Carman famously said that mixed feelings suggested ‘confusion of the soul’ and this expression aptly describes what Plath seems to be experiencing in relation to her father.

It is also a theory – surprisingly – that Daddy is not actually about her daddy, but about her mother. This was suggested when the lines “Every woman adores a Fascist, The boot in the face, the brute, Brute heart of a brute like you” caused some speculation as to why she was referring to her father (as it is believed) as such a vehement character, when in the time Plath knew him, he would have been ill and really quite a pathetic man – her mother would have been the real domineering force in her life. To add to this belief, Plath often referred to her mother as a vampire in her journal – another comparison, supposedly, made about her father in Daddy. To make herself seem more childlike, Plath employs onomatopoeia and childish words such as ‘chuffing’ and ‘gobbledygoo’ making her father seem yet the more sinister, and implying she is even more of a victim in her young age.

A more popular theory about the poem is that, not only is it about her father, but that it is also about her seven-year husband Ted Hughes, whom she separated from in 1962, due to the discovery of Ted’s affair. Ted, as I mentioned earlier, was known for often wearing all black, and it is clear that she is making reference to him when she writes: “But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who Bit my pretty red heart in two.” Surprisingly, Plath is now comparing her father to her husband, implying that they are both devils. Many people have found this a very hard concept to receive, but I think Plath confirmed the belief when she told the press that Daddy was about “a girl with an Electra Complex…” (said in a BBC interview). The Electra complex is ‘a child’s psychosexual competition with her mother for possession of her father’. It is similar to the Greek story of Oedipus – the man who was expelled from his home because his parents were told he would kill his father and sleep with his mother, and eventually he fulfilled the prophesy.

Plath is expressing her anger at what she believes is her abandonment. Her father abandoned her when he died, and so to get over him, she married Ted to replace him: “The vampire who said he was you…” She is referring to Ted as a vampire here, and she goes onto say that he ‘drank her blood for seven years’. Here she is suggesting that both Ted and her father drank her blood and used her, and then abandoned her to be alone. What she means by saying that they drunk her blood is that they drained the life out of her by haunting her very existence.

The final two stanzas are a total rejection of them both. She explains that she doesn’t care anymore, and that she has killed them (not physically, but mentally): “Daddy, you can lie back now. There's a stake in your fat black heart…” She explains that they must now leave her alone, as her ‘telephone is off at the root’, thus they can no longer haunt her. This poem shows Plath’s struggle to mentally ‘kill’ both Ted and her father, and to expel them from her constant flow of thought and to get rid of the shadow that her father draws over her life. In the end, she gets her revenge on the two of them for their abandonment of her.

This is only a brief summary, and I have selected what I believe to be the most poignant and interesting points in the poem to talk about.

Listen to Daddy read by the writer herself! Here’s the link:


  1. Dear Thomas,

    A good interpreting you have there. Sylvia Plath is most certainly a good poet, her poems, I have found, can be quite disturbing as is emotionally heavy, so to speak. I have discussed this poem with a few others before and I thought I'd bring up some points that I think you missed (not you to blame, as you mentioned that this is a brief summary) that might be of interest to you. First off,

    "At twenty I tried to die
    And get back, back, back to you.
    I thought even the bones would do."

    Was a reference to her attempted suicide when she was 20 year and 10 months old by overdose on her mother's sleeping pills. She was really depressed (receiving multiple form of physco-therapy) by then and was notably suicidal. The line "I thought even the bones would do" was interpreted as the notion that she had in her mind that even though if she had killed herself by an overdose (which evidently failed), her bones would be able to "wreck" revenge upon her father.

    "I made a model of you,
    A man in black with a Meinkampf look"

    I interpret that as to be reference to Ted Huges, her previous husband being a model of her father's "Meinkampf" German looks. Note that Mein Kampf is German for My Struggle, which is also the title of a book by Adolf Hitler, which may be a reference to both the German descent of her father, the resemblance of Huges to a German and her internal struggle. You did point out that "a man in black" would be Huges, and this is what I interpret it to be, I am sure you would agree if you read the following stanza.

    "And a love of the rack and the screw.
    And I said I do, I do."

    She mentions that this "man in black" has a "love of the rack and the screw" that is similar to her father. The "rack and the screw" mentioned is interpreted as a reference to a torture device know as The Rack ( Forgive me for the use of Wikipedia), a reference to her supposed torture by both her father and Huges.

    Plath follows on with "and I said I do, I do" with reference to her marriage to Huges. Plath mentions that she has "made a model" of her father, a "man in black" that has a resemblance to Germans and loves torture as her father did, to which she said "I do, I do" to the "man in black", which is Huges.

    "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."

    Here, Plath mentions that if she has "killed one man", she has "killed two" is reference (as you said), to her mental dismissal of her father (one man) and Huges ("I've killed two"). She once again makes reference to Huges as "the vampire who said he was you", implying that Huges 
    posed as a replacement for her father in her life, both in that Huges looked like a German (as did her father) and that he mentally tortured her (the mention of "love of the rack and the screw" and "vampire"). As you mentioned, the "seven years" she was referring to is the seven year of marriage of Plath to Huges.

    I think that this poem is titled Daddy as it makes reference to her father, but I think that it also makes reference to Ted Huges as being similar to her father in many senses and the comparison that she makes of Huges with her father, hence why the title.

    I hope that my comment would be up for discussion as to your views and whether and how it contrasts with your view of her poem.