Fuhrers and Fathers
In her poem, “Daddy,” Sylvia Plath uses violent, unnerving, and controversial imagery to illustrate her tumultuous relationship with her father both before and after his death in 1940. Her work, and this poem in particular, is often distinguished due to the juxtaposition of disturbing metaphor with bouncy alliteration and child-like rhyme scheme. This and other contradictions found within the work depict the speaker’s lack of control and understanding about her relationships with men. Despite the undeniable feminist undertones of the piece, Plath lacks in tangible assertions about equality of the sexes; instead, “Daddy” acts more as a commentary on her struggles with patriarchy and emotional abuse. This idea is supported through the metaphor she creates of herself as a Holocaust victim and her father a Nazi soldier. The way Plath symbolizes Nazism in relation to her father transitions throughout the poem, from subtlety to blatancy, and eventually encompasses her relationships with both her father and her husband, Ted Hughes. While many critics discuss her World War II metaphors and allusions in regards to her personal relationships, this essay will discuss the way in which Nazi imagery in “Daddy” asserts that patriarchy is a form fascism in society as a whole.
In “Daddy,” I argue that Plath uses inductive reasoning to generate a discussion about the patriarchal world that destroyed her. Though harsh, the symbolism found in her Holocaust metaphors is honest, which seems to be more important to her than being politically correct. Her use of these violent metaphors in “Daddy” can be applied to any power trip: whether it be a Fuhrer, a father, or a husband’s attempt to dominate, the process is brutal and its effects are damaging and long lasting. Plath’s experiences with men inspire her to write candidly about the pain and disempowerment she felt as the victim in a patriarchal society.
The poem introduces our speaker and “Daddy” with a series of contrasts: “black” and “white,” big and small, powerful and fearsome (Plath, 2, 4). However, the contradictions are not just on the surface of the language. Each stanza deals with Plath’s internal contradiction – the desire to hold on versus the desire to let go. Thirty years after her father’s death, she has much to say about it, but communicating is difficult and uncomfortable. While the poem introduces “Daddy” as fearsome, cold, and dominating, in a moment of vulnerability the speaker says, “I used to pray to recover you” (Plath, 14). Despite the dissonance between speaker and father, she wants to reach him, understand him, and know him. The act of praying gives the audience insight in our speaker’s inability to communicate with both her father and also with God, another father-like figure. The only description Plath offers us of her father are distant and fuzzy; the only detail is his German descent, but still does not know exactly where he came from. Perhaps the lack of information is what drives her fixation; she does not understand how a dead man she knows so little about can have so much control over her.
In the sixth stanza, “Ich, ich, ich, ich” carries a wealth of meanings: it is another reinforcement of her father’s German heritage, but it is also a stuttering, which could be caused by the speaker’s fear of speaking in front of her father (Plath, 27). However, paired with the following stanza, it seems Plath intended the line to serve as onomatopoeia. If said out loud, the repeated German word resembles the sound of a train. This transitions into her first Holocaust reference: “An engine, an engine / Chuffing me off like a Jew” (Plath, 31-32). Her father’s words, represented by the German, are her captors. The train serves as a metaphor for how she feels as her father’s victim. She then says, “I began to talk like a Jew. / I think I may well be a Jew” as she compares the oppression of her father to that of the Holocaust concentration camps (Plath, 34-35). The speaker is so strongly opposed to her father’s language and oppression, she begins to “talk like a Jew” – a denial of the German language and, by default, her father.
Although it has been subtly implied in the previous stanzas, the speaker begins to address her father’s Nazism more directly. Again, she discusses her fear “of you, / With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo;” her fear indeed has layers. She seems to assert directly his involvement with the Nazis by associating him with the Luftwaffe, the German air force. Following her claim with “gobbledygoo” can be seem as a mockery of what the German language sounds like to foreign ears. It seems clear by now that hearing her father speak German had a terrifying affect on her that she struggles to make sense of even this long after his death. For the first time, Plath offers us a physical description of “Daddy.” She says, “your neat mustache, / And your Aryan eye, bright blue” referring not only to the “perfect race” the Nazis were trying to create, but in the “neat mustache” also conjuring the image of Hitler (Plath, 42-44). The speaker’s father is now like the German image of terrible perfection – with Hitler’s mustache and idealized bright blue eyes. In contrast to “Ach, du” which followed the prayer to bring him back, this stanza ends with the English translation, “O You –” as a reaction to his cruelty.
Now that the speaker has returned to her sigh of “O You” from earlier in the poem, she also returns to the concept that her father seemed like God to her. Now he appears to her to be “Not God but a swastika.” He is so black that he blocks the entire sky (Plath, 46). This leads in to one of the most widely controversial and widely discussed lines from the poem: “Every woman adores a Fascist,” which is the first time Plath makes a claim concerning women outside of herself. The question arises: did she choose to be oppressed? This stanza seems to me to be the first glimpse of a new male. It could possibly be inferred that Plath is referring to her tumultuous marriage to Ted Hughes; she could not choose your father, but she did choose her husband. Although the tone here is sarcastic, she is self-deprecating. By saying “every woman,” however, it she appears to be making a broad statement about women as a whole. Perhaps her voice is shifting from simply a victim to something more complicated. Just as she contradicted herself in the beginning of the poem, this line seems to be questioning whether she, and women in general, want to be dominated. This idea can even be reinforced by the title of the poem. “Daddy” is an affectionate term compared to “father” or even “dad.” Calling the poem “Daddy” insinuates the speaker still cares for her father despite her claims throughout the work. The speaker’s relationship with men is both terrifying and dependent and can be interpreted as a metaphor, questioning society’s demand for structure and traditionalism.
Plath again directs the attention back to the speaker when she refers to her “pretty red heart” being broken in two (Plath, 56). These two lines continue the contrast of the father to the speaker. The father is huge, evil, and black, while the speaker, like her heart, is pretty, red, and victimized. Although her father, who she refers to as the devil in stanza eleven, is the “black man” who broke her heart, she admits, “At twenty I tried to die” (Plath, 55, 58). Referring to her suicide attempt while in college, she claims she was trying to “get back, back, back to you. / I thought even the bones would do” (Plath, 59-60). This line contains another contradiction and demonstrates once again how troubled the speaker is by her relationship with her dead father. Despite everything he has done, she has an extremely self-deprecating obsession with her loss. When her suicide failed and the doctor’s “stuck me together with glue,” she was physically healed, but mentally still very troubled (Plath, 62). Sarcastically, the speaker discusses her solution: She “made a model” of her father (Plath, 64). This is where Plath begins to discuss her difficult and painful marriage with Ted Hughes. She says, “I knew what I had to do. / I made a model out of you, / A man in black with a Meinkampf look” (Plath, 63-65). The speaker seems to be mocking her choice in husband. Just as discussed when she said, “Every woman adores a Fascist,” she observes how she, in a way, allowed the trouble back in her life when she married Hughes.
Now that she has the model of her father, she does not need her actual father anymore when she says, “So daddy, I’m finally through” (Plath, 68). The irony here is, “Daddy” has been dead for thirty years, and the speaker is just now letting the obsession with him go. In the fifteenth stanza, she connects her father and husband again: “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” (Plath, 73-74). Because the only two men mentioned in the poem are the speaker’s father and the “model” of her father, it seems to make sense that those are the two men she has “killed.” She calls her husband “The vampire who said he was you,” insinuating a kind of betrayal, possibly a reference to Ted Hughes’ infidelity. The image of her husband as a “vampire” is dark, but also the first time he is depicted as an image separate from “Daddy.” This relationship is different, becasue the image of a vampire illustrates how he had been sucking the life out of her for seven years. She returns all her attention back to her father when she tells him to “lie back” (Plath, 75). She says, “There’s a stake in your fat black heart” (Plath, 76): His heart, here, fits with the previous descriptions of him as black or evil. This image is an important contrast to the one of her heart, shown as “pretty and red” (Plath, 56). Before line 80, the speaker has used the word “Daddy” only four times, not counting the title. By repeating “Daddy” she seems to be working herself up for her finale. The speaker has tried out every way possible to criticize her father–calling him a Nazi, Hitler, the devil, and a vampire–but in the end, she uses the one word that denies him authority and ultimately patriarchy, saying “Daddy daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (Plath, 80).
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