A.R. Jones: On "Daddy"

The rhythm of a poem such as 'Daddy' has its basis in nursery rhyme, and in this respect may be compared with the rhythms used by the witches in Macbeth--or, more recently, by T. S. Eliot in Sweeney Agonistes--a dramatic fragment surprisingly close to Sylvia Plath's poem in feeling and theme. The rhythmic patterns are extremely simple, almost incantatory, repeated and giving a very steady return. The first line, for example, 'You do not do, you do not do', with its echoes of the witches winding up their sinister spell, 'I'll do, I'll do, and I'll do' or T. S. Eliot's repetition of 'How do you do. How do you do' denies the affirmation of the marriage service which is later introduced into the poem, 'And I said I do, I do', and suggests a charm against some brooding but largely undefined curse. As in nursery ryhme, the force, almost compulsive, of the rhythmical pattern of the poem gives a sense of certainty, psychologically a sense of security, to a world of otherwise remarkably haphazard and threatening events. The dilemma of the old woman who lived in the shoe, of Dr. Foster, or of Miss Muffet terrified by the spider, is largely contained and appears acceptable and almost reassuring in the comforts of an incantatory rhythmical pattern, for order is imposed, often, indeed, superimposed, on an otherwise fortuitous and even terrifying reality. Also the subject of the nursery rhyme tends to accept his situation with something like a matter-of-fact stoicism; often he seems to co-operate with the events that beset him.

The effectiveness of 'Daddy' can largely be accounted for by Sylvia Plath's success in associating the world of the poem with this structure of the nursery rhyme world, a world of carefully contained terror in which rhythm and tone are precariously weighed against content to produce a hardly achieved balance of tensions.

Sylvia Plath's persona exemplifies, she has said, the Electra complex and is involved in the classical psychological dilemma of hatred for her mother, with whom she identifies herself, and love for her German father whom she rejects as tyrannous, brutal and life-denying. The animus that sustains her is both directed towards the father and driven in on herself as if, in the wish to prove her love for those who persecute her, she must outdo them in persecuting herself. The area of experience on which the poem depends for its images is rawly personal, even esoteric, and yet she manages to elevate private facts into public myth, and the sheer intensity of her vision lends it a kind of objectivity. The detachment she achieves in this sudden, terrifying insight into a private world of suffering and humiliation far from dragging the reader into a vortex of suffering and humiliation releases him into a sense of objectivity and fierce emotions. The central insight is that of the persona, her awareness of her own schizophrenia, of herself as a victim, a centre of pain and persecution; but there is also awareness of a love/hate relation with those responsible for persecuting her. It is this insight into her schizophrenic situation that gives the poem its terrifying but balanced polarity; the two forces, persecutor and victim, are brought together because the persona cannot completely renounce the brutality which is embodied in the father/lover image without also renouncing the love she feels for the father/lover figure. The love/hate she feels is the very centre of her emotional life without which she can have neither emotion nor life. In this sense she can be said to cooperate with those that persecute her and, indeed, to connive at her own suffering. As in nursery rhyme, the heroine loves her familiar terrors.

The main area of conflict in the poem is not that covered by the relation of persecutors and persecuted but is within the psyche of the persecuted herself. It is between the persona as suffering victim as detached, discriminating will. In this poem the takes the diseased psyche takes the place of sensibility and the problem is to establish the relations between subconscious psyche and conscious will. Torn between love and violence, the persona moves towards self-knowledge, the awareness that she love the violence or, at least, towards the recognition that the principles of love and violence are so intimately associated one with the other that the love can only express itself in terms of the violence. By accepting the need for love, she exposes herself to the pain and humiliation of a brutal persecution. The traditional associations of love with tenderness, respect, beauty, and so on, have been utterly destroyed; love is now associated with brutality, contempt and sadistic ugliness. Love does not bring happiness but only torture, 'the rack and the screw'. Moreover, far from admiring the traditional qualities of a lover, the poem insists that:

Every woman adores a Fascist,

The boot in the face, the brute

Brute heart of a brute like you.

Furthermore, brutality is not only a necessary part of love but is also a central and inevitable principle of life. In the last stanza of the poem the community itself joins the heroine in a savage, primitive ritual of brutality--

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

The poem avoids self-pity by hardening its tone into one of self-contempt. The persona is divided and judges itself The only escape from such self-knowledge is in death which the poem acknowledges not only as a release but also as a refining and purifying force, a way of cleansing. It is not annihilation of the personality but the freeing of it from the humiliating persecution of love and violence.

The poem is a terrifyingly intimate portrait, but it achieves something much more than the expression of a personal and despairing grief. The poem is committed to the view that this ethos of love/brutality is the dominant historical ethos of the last thirty years. The tortured mind of the heroine reflects the tortured mind of our age. The heroine carefully associates herself and her suffering with historical events. For instance, she identifies herself with the Jews and the atrocities of 'Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen' and her persecutors with Fascism and the cult of violence. The poem is more than a personal statement for by extending itself through historical images it defines the age as schizophrenic, torn between brutality and a love which in the end can only manifest itself, today, in images of violence. This love, tormented and perverse, is essentially life-denying: the only escape is into the purifying freedom of death. This is the hideous paradox, that the only release from a world that denies the values of love and life is in the world of death. The nursery rhyme structure of the poem lends this paradox the force of rnatter-of-fact reasonableness and an air of almost reasonable inevitability. In this we are persuaded almost to co-operate with the destructive principle--indeed, to love the principle as life itself

From "On ‘Daddy’"" in The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium. Ed. Charles Newman. Copyright © 1970 by Charles Newman and the Estate of Sylvia Plath.

Guinevara A. Nance and Judith P. Jones: On "Daddy"

The process of doing away with daddy in the poem represents the persona’s attempts at psychic purgation of the image, "the model" of a father she has constructed. Her methods, however, are more akin to magic than murder, since it is through a combination of exorcism and sympathetic magic that she works to dispossess herself of her own fantasies.

The first twelve stanzas of the poem reveal the extent of the speaker's possession by what, in psychoanalytic terms, is the imago of the father—a childhood version of the father which persists into adulthood. This imago is an amalgamation of real experience and archetypal memories wherein the speaker’s own psychic oppression is represented in the more general symbol of the Nazi oppression of the Jews. For example, the man at the blackboard in the picture of the actual father is transformed symbolically into the "man in black with a Meinkampf look." The connecting link, of course, between each of these associations is the word "black," which also relates to the shoe in which the speaker has lived and the swastika "So black no sky could squeak through." Thus the specific and personal recollections ignite powerful associations with culturally significant symbols. The fact that the girl is herself "a bit of a Jew" and a bit of a German intensifies her emotional paralysis before the imago of an Aryan father with whom she is both connected and at enmity. Commenting on the persona in a BBC interview, Plath herself suggests that the two strains of Nazi and Jew unite in the daughter "and paralyze each other" so the girl is doubly incapacitated to deal with her sense of her father, both by virtue of her mixed ethnicity and her childish perspective. As the persona recalls the father of her early years, she emphasizes and blends the two perspectives of impotence: that of the child before its father and of the Jew before the Nazi. The child's intimidation is clear, for example, in "I never could talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my Jaw"; but the sense of the childhood terror melds into a suggestion of the Jewish persecution and terror with the next line: "It stuck in a barb wire snare."

What Plath accomplishes by the more or less chronological sequencing of these recollections of childhood, and on through the twenty year old's attempted suicide to the point at thirty when the woman tries to extricate herself from her image of daddy, is a dramatization of the process of psychic purgation in the speaker. The persona's systematic recollection of all the mental projections of her father amounts to an attempt at dispossession through direct confrontation with a demon produced in her imagination. Both psychoanalysis and the religious rite of exorcism have regarded this process of confrontation with the "trauma" or the "demon" as potentially curative; and from whichever perspective Plath viewed the process, she has her persona confront—in a way almost relive—her childhood terror of a father whose actual existence is as indistinct as the towns with which the girl tries to associate him. Plath also accentuates linguistically the speaker's reliving of her childhood. Using the heavy cadences of nursery rhyme and baby words such as "Chuffing," "Achoo," and "gobbledygoo," she employs a technical device similar to Joyce's in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the child's simple perspective is reflected through language. Like Joyce, Plath wants to recreate with immediacy the child's view. But whereas Joyce evolves his Stephen Dedalus from the "baby tuckoo" and the "moocow" stage into maturity, she has her speaker psychically regress to her childhood fantasies, where every German is potentially her father and the German language seems to be an engine "chuffing" her off to Dachau. Because the persona's past is pathologically connected to her present, this regression requires minimal distance for the adult woman who has been unable to relinquish the childish perspective.


As the language of the poem begins to exclude baby talk and to develop more exclusively the vocabulary of venom, it signals a change in the persona's method of dealing with this image of the father. She moves from confrontation with her childhood projections to an abjuration of the total psychic picture of the father in an attempt at exorcism. Sounding more like Clytemnestra than a little girl playing Electra, she renounces the deity turned demon with a vengeance in the declaration, "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through." The virulence of this and the statements immediately preceding it indicates a ritualistic attempt to transform the little girl's love into the adult's hatred and thereby kill the image which has preyed upon her.

The turning point in the poem and in the speaker's efforts to purge herself of the psychological significance of the father image occurs in the following stanza:

But they pulled me out of the sack, 

And they stuck me together with glue. 

And then I knew what to do. 

I made a model of you.


The statement, "I made a model of you," suggests several levels of meaning. On the most obvious level, the speaker implies that she made of her father a prototype of all men; and this is borne out in the merging of the father with the man to whom she says "I do, I do." Her image of the "man in black with a Meinkampf look" is superimposed upon the husband so that instead of having one unreality to destroy, she has two—the prototypic father and the husband who is fashioned in his likeness. The poem "Stings" establishes a similar relationship between the dead-imaginary father and the living but spectral husband:

A third person is watching.

  He has nothing to do with the bee-seller or me. 

Now he is gone


in eight great bounds, a great scapegoat.

A more complicated implication of the speaker's action in making a model of the father, but one which is also consonant with the allusions to folklore in the later references to vampirism, concerns the persona's use of magic to rid herself of the mental impressions associated with her father. The making of a model, image, or effigy suggests symbolically a reaction not so much to the real father but to the imago, or projection of his image in the mind of the persona. She employs what Fraser in The Golden Boughrefers to as "sympathetic magic"—a generic term for various forms of magic which are based on the premise that a correspondence exists between animate and inanimate objects. One form, homeopathic magic, is predicated on the belief that any representation may affect what it depicts. For example, a picture of a person, a voodoo doll, or any other sort of portrayal can, when acted upon, influence its prototype. In "Daddy," it is the model of the father that the persona destroys; and the solution suggested in the making of the model seems to occur as a consequence of its association with the speaker's own reconstruction after her attempted suicide, when she is "stuck . . . together with glue. " Her remodeling, described in a way that recalls the assembling of a collage, seems to be the associative stimulus for the idea of constructing the model through which to effect her dispossession. It is this model, a fabricated representation of a distorted vision of the father—a patchwork mental impression of him—that she seeks to destroy.


The tension between rebirth and annihilation pervades the Ariel poems and seems to be a consequence of unreconciled relationships. Plath recognizes her Nazis and vampires to be mental images of her own creation, but she persists in relating to them as if they were real. Here, as in the other poems, when she lets go of the image, there is nothing left and she is finished, "through."

Paradoxically, the problem with the exorcism in "Daddy" is not that it fails to work, but that it does work.


She roots out the old fixations, but without them she is psychically empty, effaced—as many of the late poems suggest.