In the absence of a father - a brief journey through the mind of Sylvia Plath

The following TRIGGER WARNINGS apply to this series: mentions of abuse, physical trauma, emotional trauma, father figure obsession, suicide, WWII references including the use of the word “Nazi”, historical mental health treatments, and their effects.


This is a literary analysis that we completed in one of our college courses. Sylvia Plath is a poet we related to and looked up to. The intention of this blog is to shed light on how art and literature have shown how mental health has impacted lives for centuries. This is our opinion on Plath's thought-provoking poem, Daddy.



Sylvia Plath’s short but meaningful life began in 1932. At the age of thirty, Plath committed suicide. For the first time ever, Plath was awarded the Pulitzer Prize post-mortem for her poetic works. Life was not easy for a young Sylvia with the death of her father, Otto Plath, occurring before her tenth birthday. Plath was married to fellow poet, Ted Hughes, and birthed two children. It is believed that the death of Sylvia’s father significantly impacted her marriage and relationship with her children. Sylvia received mental health treatment including electroshock therapy after multiple suicide attempts.


Otto Plath was a Professor, known to be a strict father. Plath alleged that her father was a Nazi sympathizer which was later supported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2012. Sylvia Plath’s turbulent life is archived in the vault of her literary works.


A poem of note is “Daddy”, written four months before her death. Through an analysis of this piece, you’ll find “Daddy” is full of expressions of blame, anger, and obsessive thoughts about Sylvia’s father. Through the use of literary devices, Plath takes the reader on a journey through her mind. It is evident that resentment toward her father impacted her mental stability.


Literary elements are the foundation for authors to engulf the reader in their world. “Daddy” is not in a traditional metered format. Instead, this free verse poem utilizes repetition, rhyme, metaphorical imagery, symbolism, and allusion to express internal emotional conflict. The opening verse begins with a metaphorical black shoe. Plath states “You do not do, you do not do/anymore, black shoe/In which I have lived like a foot/For thirty years, poor and white, /Barely daring to breathe or Achoo”(lines 1-5). The black shoe is reminiscent of the constant thoughts ruminating of Plath’s past which comes to a climax at the age of thirty. The metaphor sets the tone of the poem for the reader. It enables the audience to predict the trajectory of the work. The poem is heartfelt and emotionally driven by Plath’s feelings for her father.


According to Chia Yun Wu & Lee Tony Szu-Hsien (2020) in Impact of Parent-child Relationship and Sex on Trajectories of Children Internalizing Symptoms “Parents are considered to have a far-reaching impact on children in areas such as mental health, social adjustment, academic performance, and even future career choices and success”(167). Otto Plath died, leaving Sylvia abandoned and to bear the loss alone. The impact of losing a parental figure marred her childhood with pain and emptiness. Plath wrote "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”(lines 6-10). Plath successfully used metaphors throughout the poem to intensely express pain and internalized anger.


Skipping forward, Plath begins to use allusion to speak to the reader. Allusion uses personal experiences or history to express a point. Plath alleged that her father supported Nazi viewpoints. Also, it is known that Otto was a harsh, strict man. In lines 12-41, Plath uses allusion and metaphor to illustrate the mannerisms and ideals of her father. For example, Plath states “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—— (lines 37- 41). The term panzer is a reference to tanks used in WWII. Plath is asserting that her father was strict as a metaphorical tank. Also, the mention of the Aryan eye alludes to pro-Nazi ideals. Literary devices, namely repetition, and rhyme are present in the verse.


Humaira Asiam (2015) in The Animus in Slyvia Plath’s Poem Daddy explains that Plath “gives vent to her animus possessed feelings regarding the love of her father, as a sort of revenge against him” (215). Plath had a deep love for her father that consumed her heart and occupied her mind intensely. This is evident through the use of allusion once more when Plath says “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” (lines 52-56). Plath uses literal imagery of her attempted suicide to illustrate her love for her father. The loss was intense, and her mind occupied that death was the price of being near her father once more.


Repetition and rhyming are implemented in the next verse as it reads “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” (lines 62-65). This section of the poem serves as a transition to figurative language using supernatural metaphors. Plath details metaphorical vampiric actions used to symbolism her father's absence draining her mental stability. “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” (lines 66-71). The closing verse of “Daddy” employs repetition and symbolism to end this journey of mental anguish: “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” (lines 72-76).


It is interesting to note that Plath’s poetic works often included romanticism. Justyna Wierzchowska (2018) in Love, Attachment, and Effacement: Romantic Dimensions in Sylvia Plath’s Children Poems observed that “the poetics of maternal ambivalence that is present in the poems welcome a reading of maternal love along the lines of deficiency and vulnerability” (30). The reason for this deficit of love seen in Plath’s other works is detailed in “Daddy”. The internalized pain due to the beliefs and death of her father led to her mental instability. In the absence of a father, Sylvia down-spiraled into a depressive state that led to self-harm and suicidal ideation. The poems penned by Plath are evidence of the damage done to her psyche. The perceived negative paternal ideals and the loss of fatherly influence were clearly contributors to her mental instability.


References

Aslam, Humaira. “The Animus in Sylvia Plath’s Poem: Daddy.” Putaj Humanities & Social Sciences, vol. 22, no. 1, Jan. 2015, pp. 215–218. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?


direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=a9h&AN=137259507&site=eds-live&scope=site.

"Newly Released FBI Files Corroborate Sylvia… | Poetry Foundation". Poetry Foundation, 2020, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2012/08/newly-released-fbi-files-corroborate-sylvia-plaths-characterization-of-her-father-as-pro-nazi.


Plath, Sylvia (1965) “Daddy” Harper Perennial Modern Classics

"Sylvia Plath | Biography, Books And Facts". Famousauthors.Org, 2020, https://www.famousauthors.org/sylvia-plath.


WIERZCHOWSKA, JUSTYNA. “Love, Attachment and Effacement: Romantic Dimensions in Sylvia Plath’s Children Poems.” International Journal of English Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, July 2018, pp. 19–33. EBSCOhost, doi:10.6018/ijes/2018/2/316831.


Wu, Chia Yun, and Tony Szu-Hsien Lee. “Impact of Parent–child Relationship and Sex on Trajectories of Children Internalizing Symptoms.” Journal of Affective Disorders, vol. 260, Jan. 2020, pp. 167–173. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.jad.2019.09.016.


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