This poem explores the other side of the father-daughter relationship. It is one of Plath’s emotionally charged poetic excursions that embody bitter memories of one’s father. It is expressed through the eyes of a young girl, the persona, who tries to grapple with the disturbing memories of her late father.
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From the onset, it is clear that there is no love lost between the father and the daughter. The persona launches a scathing post-humus tirade at the haunting memory of her late father. This is attributed to the fact that the father had subjected his daughter to an oppressive environment in which the latter was rendered hapless and hopeless.
According to the poem, the persona suffered “for thirty years, poor and white” (Plath, stanza 1. 4) and “hardly daring to breathe” (Plath, stanza 1.5). This is an illustration of an unbearably harsh and subjugative condition that the daughter endured in the hands of her father.
The increasingly disturbing and mind-boggling memory makes the daughter’s intense feelings spiral out of control. Hence, the demonized father is handed the second death: “Daddy, I have had to kill you” (Plath, stanza 2.1). The daughter makes a desperate attempt to purge herself of the spirit of her father. This also underscores the crippling disappointment and frustration that she encounters at the death of her father.
The disillusionment on the part of the persona is begotten by the fact that she had initially iconized her father. She had held him in very high esteem and had put him in a position of reverence: “… a bag full of God” (Plath , stanza 2.3). It was, therefore, painfully discomfiting that the person she worshipped turned against her, and to make matters worse, died. The hither-to angelic father suddenly transformed into a “ghastly statue” in stanza 2, line 4, a personification of evil.
It appears that the daughter has faint recollection of her late father. This then translates to the feeling that the persona actually had limited contact with her father. The explanation is offered by the assertion that the male parent was always out fighting in the Nazi war in Germany. Due to this, he became an absentee father. He was virtually kept away from his distressed daughter by a series of wars. The memory of a painfully inaccessible father torments the persona.
It is clear that she was trapped in an unfulfilling relationship with her father: “I never could talk to you” (Plath, stanza 5.4). Even in the presence of her father, the persona experiences untold inhibitions from her father. She cannot communicate freely with her father because “the tongue stuck in my jaw” (Plath, stanza 5.5). This clearly illustrates the alienation between father and daughter. The daughter longs to be with her father, but gory visions stand between them.
The estrangement between father and daughter is personified by the reference to the German – Jew relationship during the Nazi domination. During the Nazi operation, millions of Jews were murdered by means more horrendous than mankind had ever imagined. The daughter sees a brutal Nazi in her father, but considers herself a Jew.
Since her sympathies go to the Jews, she finds it difficult to reconcile to the fact that her father has a hand in the atrocities meted out on the hapless Jews. She is, therefore, unable to connect with her father as much as she would have desired. She avers: I have always been scared of you (Plath, stanza 9.1). This is no doubt a brutal depiction of a father figure.
The memory of the persona’s father is one that wallows in cruelty. He is presented as a devil that can’t stop haunting the daughter. The poem describes him as being “no less a devil” (Plath, stanza 11.4). However, in spite of all the horrifying attributes associated with her father, the persona is devastated at his death.
So devastated is she that she tries to take her own life in a futile attempt to join him in death: “At twenty I tried to die” (Plath, stanza 12.3). She cannot now escape the reality that is her father’s loss and, consequently, has to find ways of coping with the problem.
She finds temporary reprieve through marriage. The persona walks into marriage with a man who possesses her father’s attributes: “I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look” (Plath, stanza 13.3). The persona hopes to put the spirit of her dead father to rest. Nevertheless, the memory stubbornly refuses to be exorcized and the poem ends in an expected outburst: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (Plath, stanza 16.5). The persona remains unfulfilled, even through marriage and this arouses anger and frustration in her.
The person then strives to kill the image of her father. The father has been transformed into a vampire who, for some time, has been subjecting her to psychological torture. To illustrate her attempt to exorcise her father’s spirit once and for all, she says:
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If I have killed one man, I have killed two…
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year (Plath,stanza 15.1-3)
Essentially, the poem Daddy bears a forceful, but simple effect when read closely. The gradual release of suppressed emotion is felt throughout the poem. It builds to a crescendo at the end of the poem where the persona finally breaks free: “… you bastard, I’m through” (Plath, stanza 16.5).The jinx embodied in the fixation with her father is finally broken down in an intense outburst.
Memory in the poem Daddy brings to the fore the Freudian school of thought, which states that at some point in childhood development, a child is in love with their parent. When the father dies, the persona is so distraught that she attempts to follow him through suicide.
When this fails, she replaces the dead father with a man she believes bears the father’s characteristics. This is accomplished through marriage. The persona gets married not for love, but rather to get a replacement for her dead father. In her mind, marrying someone with characteristics similar to her father would erase the memories that kept on haunting her.
The oppressive patriarchal society in which the persona lives is highlighted for good measure. The persona suffers under the rule of patriarchy for thirty years. This is a typification of many societies that are inherently tilted on gender grounds.
Many women have fallen victims of gender subjugation, which often rears its ugly head through domestic violence and sometimes rape. The plight of women a male chauvinistic society is expressed in this poem in the persona’s words when she describes her father as a brute hearted man wearing boot in his face yet women still adore him.
Women have no option but to put up with cruel men, who occasion untold suffering to the womenfolk. Whereas a few women speak out, many suffer in silence. A part from the father, the persona has suffered in the hands of another man, her husband. She expresses her second suffering through words that clearly describes her husband as a brutal heartless man who added to her prior suffering by breaking her heart.
Memory has also been used in the poem to enhance the plot. The poem is built around the memory of the persona’s father. The persona attempts to piece together scattered fragments of her father’s image in an attempt to mummify him. Through memory, the poet attempts to lend justification for the outrageous portrayal of the father figure as violent, brutish and insensitive.
Through memory, the poet is able to exploit imagery in the poem. Imagery refers to the use of words, phrases or objects that appeal to the five senses of the reader. The title Daddy conjures the image of a caring, sensitive and benevolent individual. However, the entire poem suggests otherwise.
The poem is pregnant with fleeting images of an atrocious individual, a murderer and cruel fellow who also doubles up as a Nazi soldier. The father is referred to as the swastika in stanza 10, line 1. It should be remembered that the swastika was the Nazi emblem which sent chills down the spines of the Jews. As a Nazi man, the father‘s tendency towards extreme forms of violence is emphasized in the following statement from the poem: The boot in the face… (Plath, stanza 10.4).
Thus, the father is used to kicking his way around, dishing out nasty jabs in the faces of his considered adversaries.
Through imagery, the poet seems to be advancing the long-held stereotype that “all men are the same”. This is evident when the speaker recreates her father in another man whom she marries. It is rather ironical that whereas the speaker seems to have hated her father for all the horrible things he represented, she goes ahead to nab a man with similar disposition.
On one hand, the persona hates her father for all his negative attributes while on the other hand, she adores him and would rather marry a man with similar attributes. Probably she concludes that the father’s character is justified.
The memory of the father also describes the dilemma inherent in the personality of the speaker. The persona’s attitude towards the father keeps shifting like quick sand. It is a love-hate relationship that thrusts the persona into the precarious position in which the speaker is gradually forced to make a decision. The persona tried to kill herself at the age of twenty so that she could join her father in death. But at the end of the poem she calls her father a bastard. These two positions clearly illustrate the persona’s dilemma.
It is apparent that the poet attempts to awaken a feminist thinking in the readers’ minds. Reading through the poem, one is likely to be horrified at the suffering that the feminine gender braces itself for as a way of remaining relevant in a male dominated world.
The speaker is brutalized for long and abrasive thirty years, attempts suicide and finally settles down with another male species of the same behavioural dispensation as her father. In the poem Daddy, there is an inevitable blanket condemnation of men in general.
They are portrayed as terrorists who have no feeling for women and have no qualms killing fellow human beings. The speaker’s father, a Nazi soldier, hands out death indiscriminately to Jews. The horrific experience of the Jews is a significant historic occurrence. Millions of Jews met their deaths in the hands of brutal and heartless fellows who herded them in gas chambers.
Memory in the poem Daddy has also been used as a powerful tool for cultivating the underlying theme of suffering. The speaker in the poem seems to be permanently traumatized by her experiences with the man she needed to adore and who betrayed her through death. Consequently, she leads an emotionally disturbed life, one in which she is perpetually trapped and is seeking a long-lasting solution.
The solution, according to the speaker, is a drastic one. The persona first recognizes that there were some good qualities underneath the father’s brutal character, but goes ahead to conclude that since villagers did him then he is nothing but a bustard (Plath, stanza 16.5).
The poet pronounces a death sentence to any man falling short of the glory and is less than human to their loved ones. The mention of villagers suggests that it is a universal responsibility to punish men depicting extreme tendencies towards women. The poet, through the persona, finds release in the death of the vampire (brutish man). Vampires, in most mythologies, are killed by driving a stake through their hearts.
In the poem Daddy memory also defines the development of the speaker in terms of physiological and emotional growth. As a child, she fondly addresses her father as “daddy”. Like every other child, her daddy is the best, infallible and immortal. The poem indicates that she was only ten when the father was laid to rest (Plath, stanza 12.2).
At this stage, the speaker does not know how to handle the situation. But as she grows older, certain emotions begin to take shape in her mind. She is furious at the menacing memory of her father. This “new” memory disturbs her greatly. She then decides to take matters into her own hands and attempts to commit suicide.
The memory helps the reader to realize the physiological growth of the daughter. At twenty, she attempts suicide, but is rescued in time. Afterwards, she is old enough to get married, which she does. She is also old enough to wrestle with the demon of her late father and is able to overcome as illustrated in the last line of the poem.
This is an indication that she finally vanquishes the troubles that have been afflicting her since the death of her father. She is finally able to free herself from the manacles of patriarchy. She realizes that the patriarchal bondage cannot be addressed by replacing one man with another.
It is worth noting that memory in the poem is portrayed as both a bane and a boon. As a bane, it leads many people into emotional breakdowns. In this poem, the memory of her father leads the speaker into attempting to take her own life. Maybe her life would have been better had she blanked out the painful memories of her father.
Secondly, the memory leads her into committing another mistake: she marries a man, not out of love, but his resemblance to her dead father. This is because she is craving for a father figure. This act of commission may just spell a fresh episode male-orchestrated suffering at the hands of another man.
As a boon, memories are known to have a cathartic effect on individuals. In this poem, the painful recollections of the speaker’s late father set the stage for recovery. She is able to vent her feelings and emotions at her missing father; hence, at the end of the poem, she finds release. This would have been impossible without the triggering effect of her father’s memories. At the end of the poem, she can be considered cured from the persistent nightmares of her late father.
In conclusion, Sylvia Plath’s Daddy is an exquisite bundle of poetic artistry as exemplified by the use of memory as the backbone of the poem. Memories in the poem render it almost autobiographical and hence make for good reading.
Moreover, the issues raised in the poem are quite contemporary and, therefore, more research needs to be conducted on more of Plath’s poems. This could just be the much needed remedy that feminists seek in the male-dominated world. It could also be a priceless gem in the recovery of heavily traumatized individuals.
Plath, Sylvia. Daddy. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th Ed. Bayn, Nina, Klinkowitz, Jerome, Krupt Arnold, Leoffelholz, Mary and Wallace, Patricia. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. 1118-1119. Print.