Sylvia Plath “Daddy”

22 Apr

U1889231Daddy is Plath’s most famous and most difficult work.  The big question is, how autobiographical is it?  Well, it’s the big question for some people–Sylvia Plath is an anomaly in poetry, for she has a big following and since her tragic death she’s become a symbol–bigger than anything that she’s written.

The thing is, I think sometimes when a person becomes a symbol, we are in danger of losing the person completely.  Plath comes up to the level of doomed rock stars, I’m thinking of people like Cobain and Jim Morrison, where there’s a story attached to them and everything gets seen through the lens of that story.  The story is that Sylvia Plath was a talented, intelligent writer who was stifled by living in an era that didn’t have a place like that for women.  The problem I see here is that it vastly simplified, not that the story doesn’t have its merits, but there were times she was able to get beyond these limitations, and her poetry really does deserve a better reading than notes to play pop psychology with.

One thing that Plath states in Daddy is that every woman needs to essentially kill their father before becoming their own person.  I was going to explain how the fifties and the sixties were much more patriarchal and that the father equaled a connection to the world, and training women to need men to protect them–but you know what, I’m not sure that it has gone away completely   I mean look at things like Twilight–the fantasy is having a magical person worth sacrificing yourself to–there’s clearly this protector image still at work when love comes to play.

In this poem she compares the father daughter relationship to the holocaust, where the father would be a nazi-like figure, and the daughter would be the holocaust victim, and the greatest thing about this poem is coming from a place of victimhood to a place of survival (and rage) by the end.  The lines are so strong–“Every woman adores a Fascist/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you,”  “There’s a stake in your fat black heart,”  and “Daddy, I have had to kill you./You died before I had time–”

In this poem, Sylvia starts from a portrait of a father who liked to torture, to saying she had to make a copy and marry him, then kill him, to finally get over it all.  Also, because he died before she was an adult, she never had a chance to “kill” her father, he’s still there, as an invisible influence in her head.  That is what the speaker is talking to, it’s not a real person, it’s an invisible influence that broke her once, and once she was put back together, humpty dumpty like she only knew how to find a person who fit that voice, another vampire.

We all know seemingly smart people who live this pattern, the ones who are abused, get free from the abuse, and become abused again.  It’s a familiar song, it’s what they know how to do–live a life in these strict roles, and in a way this poem is fighting against this, is talking to this internal voice that brings her to these familiar places.   Saying she’s through.

I have to say the poem is more than a little unnerving–it’s so difficult to remove it from Plath’s own life, and just the images of torture mixed with childish humor create a stress that is vivid.  I want it to be an exorcising poem, and I know the writer did too, but it shows such a trap in it, one that is difficult to get out of–those internalized personas that control things from behind the curtain.   How do you get rid of them?  Does Daddy ever leave in the end?

2 Responses to “Sylvia Plath “Daddy””

  1. indytony May 25, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    This is certainly an extremely powerful poem. I appreciate your careful critique, particularly in stopping short of psychoanalyzing Plath for her poetic work.

    I was drawn here by a tag search of “Sylvia Plath”. I am currently reading her journals and have started a dialogue about her life and work on my blog. My first post is here –

    I hope you might join the conversation.

    Keep up the good writing.

    • pewterbreath May 27, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

      Thank you so much! I’ll be sure to keep an eye on your posts. I’m always excited about anything delving into poetry

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