Jon Rosenblatt: On "Daddy"
"Daddy" is, of course, Plath's most extended treatment of the father symbol, though it is by no means her best poem. The rapid, often wild succession of elements relating to the father are not entirely integrated into the poem. It opens with a reference to the father's black shoe, in which the daughter has "lived like a foot," suggesting her submissiveness and entrapment. The poem then moves to a derisive commentary on the idealized image of the father ("Marble heavy, a bag full of God") and summarizes his background: his life in a German-speaking part of Poland that was "Scraped flat by the roller / Of wars" (A, p. 49). The daughter admits here, for the first time in the poetry, that she was afraid of him. Yet all these references are merely introductory remarks to prepare the reader for the fantastic "allegory" that is to come. As Plath describes it in her note: "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 paralyze each other—she has to act out the awful little allegory once before she is free of it."
Plath's real father was not a Nazi, and her mother was not Jewish. The historical references, however, allow her to dramatize her rebellion against the oppressive father. The entire poem may seem to have stretched the permissible limits of analogy. This piece of "light verse," as Plath called it, constantly shifts between grotesque, childish flights and allusions and deadly serious rage toward the father-Nazi. On one hand, Plath characterizes her situation in terms of nursery rhymes, recalling the tale of the old lady in the shoe; and on the other, of Jews being taken off to "Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen" (p. 50). The father is a "Panzer-man," but he is also called "gobbledy-goo." German and English intermix grotesquely:
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich.
There is a line as startling and compact as this: "Every woman adores a Fascist"; but there is also the fatuousness of the lines following; "The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you" (p. 50). And the end of the poem drops the carefully established Nazi allegory for a piece of vampire lore. Plath imagines that a vampire-husband has impersonated the dead Nazi-father for seven years of marriage, drinking the wife's blood, until she has finally put a stake through his heart (the traditional method of destroying the vampire).
"Daddy" is obviously an attempt to do away altogether with the idealized father; but it also makes clear how difficult a task that is. Daddy keeps returning in the poem in different guises: statue, shoe, Nazi, teacher, devil, and vampire. If the starting point of Plath's idealization of the father was the heroic white patriarch of "Lament," the end point is the black vampire of "Daddy." The father has been reenvisioned in terms of his sexual dominance, cruelty, and authoritarianism. Ironically, the father, who was mourned in the earlier poems as the innocent victim of deathly external forces, has himself been transformed into the agent of death. It is as if the underside of Plath's feelings toward the father had surfaced, abolishing the entire "epic" that she described in "Electra on Azalea Path" and replacing it with a new cast of characters and a new plot. The story is no longer the daughter's attempt to reunite with and to marry the dead father; it is now the daughter's wish to overthrow his dominance over her imagination and to "kill" him and the man who takes his place—the vampire in "Daddy," the Nazi in "Lady Lazarus," or the husband in "Purdah." Rebellion and anger supplant the grief and depression of the earlier poems.
From Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation. Copyright © 1979 by University of North Carolina Press.