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Sylvia Plath's "Daddy"

Updated on October 8, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Sylvia Plath



In Sylvia Plath's poem, "Daddy," the speaker denigrates the addressee to the point of insisting that he died before she could kill him.

The poem, "Daddy," features sixteen five-line stanzas. It has only one rime that appears somewhat scatter-shot throughout the piece, for example, the first line goes, "You do not do, you do not do," and lines two and five rime with line one.

In the second stanza, there is only one riming line. In stanza three, lines two, four, and five contain the rime with "do." The poem proceeds this way throughout all sixteen stanzas.

First Stanza: "You do not do, you do not do"
The speaker begins by taunting the target of her displeasure: "You do not do, you do not do / Any more, black shoe / In which I have lived like a foot / For thirty years." In the second line, the speaker is name-calling someone "black shoe," and as she continues, she claims she had lived in that shoe for thirty years.

The disgruntled speaker shows her dissatisfaction by asserting that she was poor and white and could hardly breathe, and she even feared to sneeze.

Second Stanza: "Daddy, I have had to kill you
In the second stanza, the speaker is out of control with hatred and disgust at the character she refers to as "Daddy." She flings herself into a fit of rage that this character, "black shoe," would have the gall to die before she had a chance to kill him, but now, she is getting her revenge with a vengeance. Again, she reverts to name-calling, as she exclaims, "Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, / Ghastly statue with one gray toe."

Third Stanza : "And a head in the freakish Atlantic "
In this stanza, the speaker continues with description that denigrates the addressee, until she asserts that she used to pray that he would return to her.

It is at this point that the reader becomes aware that the speaker apparently does not harbor total hatred for her deceased Daddy, and at least earlier in her life, she actually wished he were still in her life.

Fourth through Eighth Stanzas : "In the German tongue, in the Polish town"
In these stanzas, the speaker once again loses herself in delirium, metaphorically likening the Daddy to a Nazi and herself to a Jew in death camps such as Dachau and Auschwitz. She rails against Daddy: "I never could talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw." Her tongue stuck in a barb wire snare. She spits out her bitter comparison: "I began to talk like a Jew. / I think I may well be a Jew."

It is unclear whether the speaker means that she could not clearly communicate with him before he died or that she is simply angry that he died, and thus she could not talk to him because he had died. Confused adolescent daughters/sons often believe they are smothered by parental rules, but this daughter's father, as readers will understand, has committed only the sin of dying, which was, of course, out of his control.

It becomes apparent that this Nazi association exists only in the mind of the tormented speaker. It does not credibly dramatize any lived experience, because the speaker has not experienced the drama of living under the Nazi regime, which she is attempting to portray.

Such utter fantasized concoction demonstrates a psychological imbalance in the speaker's mind; of course, she cannot be a teenager or in her adolescent years: she must be at least thirty years old, by her own admission in the opening lines, "I have lived like a foot / For thirty years."

Ninth through Sixteenth Stanzas: "I have always been scared of you"
These stanzas are peppered with lines such as, "I may be a bit of a Jew, I have always been scared of you, / Every woman adores a Fascist, Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You / Not God but a swastika." All of these lines function in service of rendering the Daddy as an despicable dictator.

By the last stanza, the speaker has become totally mad, as she spits out: "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."

Final Comment
The poem creates a drama in which a woman can be viewed throwing an adolescent temper tantrum in order to bully a man, her father, who died before she could kill him. About her poem, Sylvia Plath has remarked:

The poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part-Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyse each other—she has to act out the awful little allegory before she is free of it. (From Sylvia Plath by Linda Wagner-Martin, page 196)

Sylvia Plath sculpted her material with the hand of a master. The poem delves into the deep waters of the out-of-control anger that drowns the speaker's psyche in a whirlpool of volatile emotion.

Sylvia Plath reading "Daddy"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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