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 The historical references, however, allow her to dramatize her rebellion against the oppressive father.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.

Susan Gubar: On "Daddy"

[NB. Prosopopoeia: a rhetorical figure involving the adoption of the voices of the imagined, absent dead.]

. . . surprisingly, no poet has been more scathingly critical of the figure of prosopopoeia than Sylvia Plath. Even as she exploited the trope in the Holocaust context, Plath emphasized her awareness that imaginative identification with the victims could constitute either a life-threatening trap for the poet or a sinister trip for the poet's readers, as "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" demonstrate. In "Daddy," Plath considers what her identification might mean, rather than simply assuming that identification: "I think I may well be a Jew" (emphasis mine). In this, Plath's self-conscious method sustains this distance in a more sustained way than Anne Sexton does in the (probably) influential line from "My Friend, My Friend": "I think it would be better to be a Jew." Plath's line echoes Sexton's, but with a difference: Plath maintains a definitively post-war perspective on her own deployment of the voice of the victims. Similarly, Plath's is a more self-consciously fictive and qualified identification than John Berryman's effort to see himself as an "imaginary Jew." Plath illuminates not merely the psychological scenarios which most critics examine but also offers brilliant insights into a debilitating sexual politics at work in fascist anti-Semitism. From this perspective, "Daddy" reads less like a confessional elegy about Plath's grief and anger at the loss of her father, more like a depiction of Jewish melancholia—the primitive, suicidal grieving Freud associated with loss over a love object perceived as part of the self—and thus a meditation on an attachment to Germany in particular, and to Western civilization in general, that many European Jews found not only inevitable but galling as well.

Although numerous readers have noted that Plath anathematizes Naziism as patriarchalism pure and simple, they have failed to understand how the dependencies of a damaged and damaging femininity shape her analysis of genocide. A "bag full of God," a "Ghastly statue," an "Aryan" blue-eyed "Panzer-man" with a "neat mustache," Daddy deploys all the regalia of the fascist father against those robbed of selfhood, citizenship, and language, for the speaker's stuttering tongue is "stuck in a barb wire snare. / Ich, ich, ich, ich, / I could hardly speak." The daughter confronts a symbolic order in which the relationship between the fragile "ich" and the overpowering national and linguistic authority of Daddy frustrates any autonomous self=definition. That, as Jacqueline Rose points out, the English "you do not do" can be heard as the German "you du not du" (226) heightens awareness of a confluence between the daughter's vulnerable and blurred ego boundaries, her ardent responsiveness to the lethally proximate society that constructed her, and the European Jew's conflicted but nevertheless adoring address. Standing "at the blackboard," the fascist represents the irrational power of rationality, of the arts and the sciences, of culture in the Fatherland. According to Plath, the Jews chuffed off "to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen" suffered the horror of impending extermination along with a crippling consciousness of complicity, if only the collusion of those doomed by a long history of intimacy to love and respect a force dead set against them.

For, through a rhetorical strategy itself implicated in the calculus of colonization, the poem dares to confront the daughter-speaker's induction into revering Daddy and his charismatic power: "Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you" (223). The daughter's subsequent decision to make and marry "a model" of Daddy (224) suggests how difficult it may be for a consciousness captivated by the inimical source which shaped it to escape self-destructive forms of thralldom that refigure bonds saturated with the only pattern of attachment known—lexicons of emotion devised by the dead Daddy. Vampiric, the phantom father and his constructed surrogate, the husband who loves "the rack and the screw," have drained the speaker of her creative talents, her currency, her autonomy. Depleted. the daughter rages against her appalled feelings of radical insufficiency, which bespeak a blurring of boundaries between Jewishness and Germanness that many German-Jews lamented before, during, and after the Shoah. Since this tiny percentage of the German population played a relatively important role in business, finance, journalism, medicine, law, and the arts in the twenties and thirties, many German-Jews felt shocked at the betrayal of a culture to which they had vowed what Saul Friedlander calls "ever-renewed and ever-unrequited love." When Leo Baeck, the famous Berlin Rabbi, sat down to pay his electric bill moments before the SS dragged him off to Theresienstadt, Hyam Maccoby thinks his act exemplified not passivity but instead many Jews' inability to believe that "this Germany; which they loved, felt obligations toward . . . , felt gratitude toward" could have dedicated itself to their annihilation (emphasis mine). The forfeiture of a beloved language and a revered homeland, the loss of a citizenship that had signified and certified professional status and security: such grief reeks of the narcissistic wound Plath's daughterly speaker suffers after she tries to commit suicide, only to find herself instead "pulled . . . out of the sack" and stuck together "with glue."

As the Mother Goose rhymes on "you," "du," "Jew," "glue," "screw," "gobbledygoo," "shoe" accumulate, the poem goose steps toward the concluding "I'm finally through" that proclaims a victory over the spectral afterlife of the fascist, but only at the cost of the daughter's own life. At the very moment Plath declares she is "through" with her father, the final line intimates that she herself is also and thereby "through." No longer supported by the fragile hyphen between German and Jew, the outraged daughter knows her "gipsy ancestress" and her "Taroc pack" only confirm her status as a pariah, even decades after the catastrophic engagement with Daddy. Plath's scandalizing feminization of Europe's Jews suggests just how appalling, how shameful would seem, would be, the emasculation of often intensely patriarchal communities. Just as Plath's speaker asks herself who she can possibly be without Daddy, European Jewish men and women might well have asked themselves who they could possibly be after the Shoah definitively estranged them from their fathers' lands, their mother tongue, their neighbors' customs, their compatriots' heritage or so the ghastly number of post-war suicides of survivors-who-did-not-survive intimates. Without in any way conflating the different motives and circumstances of Walter Benjamin, Paul Celan, Primo Levi, Peter Szondi, Jean Amery, Bruno Bettelheim, Jerzy Kosinsky, Piotr Rawicz, Tadeusz Boroswki, and Andrzej Munk, this frightful list of suicides attests to the devastating on-goingness of the Shoah.

From "Prosopopoeia and Holocaust Poetry in English: Sylvia Plath and Her Contemporaries." Yale Journal of Criticism (2001)

Kathleen Margaret Lant: On "Daddy"

By the time Plath wrote "Daddy," her faith in the inevitability of this violent sexual dynamic apparently remained firm, but her attitude toward her place in this relationship had changed. Tragically, she still cherished the notion that masculine sexuality was the perfect emblem for power ("Every woman adores a Fascist") and that she was doomed to sexual and social victimization ("I think I may well be a Jew" [223]), but in "Daddy," she appropriates that power for herself or for the female voice in that poem, and she does so in sexual terms. She becomes the rapist who terrifies, who imposes himself upon others, who makes his imprint - both poetic and psychological - upon reality. She no longer hides because she no longer has to. She has shed the femininity which threatened to undermine her The existence of the poem itself, addressed to "Daddy," demonstrates that her silence has been broken, that the father who has rendered her speechless has lost his ability to erase her: "I never could talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw" (223). The act of speaking, thus, is her first appropriation of the father/lover's power.

Both of the men against whom the voice rails in "Daddy" have committed crimes against the speaker's heart: Daddy is the one who "Bit my pretty red heart in two," and the lover who serves as a replacement for Daddy "said he was you / And drank my blood for a year." Thus the female subject's revenge must be structured similarly: she has killed Daddy and his representative ("There's a stake in your fat black heart" [224]) by means of a figurative rape. She thrusts a deadly force through Daddy's evil center, his source of power over her, his heart. And the very fact that she speaks constitutes a violation of Daddy's privilege and power. Plath here reverses the metaphorical expectations and writes a poem that is overwhelmingly powerful but also unsettling since the speaker of the poem does not undermine the system of control which violates her but rather turns the tables, accepting this gendering of violence as inevitable. If she will no longer be victim, she must become victimizer. If she will no longer be raped, she must become the rapist. If she will no longer subject her bared self to violation, she must herself become violator.

From "The big strip tease: female bodies and male power in the poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature 34.4 (Winter 1993)

Roger Platizky: On "Daddy"

Images of victimization in Sylvia Plath's poem "Daddy" - of Nazis, swastikas, barbed wire, fascists, brutes, devils, and vampires - are so frantic, imposing, and vituperative that the poem seems more out of control than it actually is. When read rapidly and angrily, without ample attention paid to its many unexpected pauses, Plath's poem, indeed, seems like a runaway train barreling through one psychic nightmare after the other, until the speaker pulls the emergency cord that irrevocably separates the self from the tormenting other in the very last line: "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through."(1) While the poem's irregular enjambment makes some of the stanzas (for example, 4, 5, 11, and 12) appear to be running off their tracks, the locomotive force of this poem is more often controlled by end-stopped lines that keep it from derailing. Of the poem's 80 lines, 37 are end-stopped, with the only exception being stanza 11, which careens without pause into the next strophe. Unlike the image patterns, which keep multiplying from one form of demonization into another, the 15 stanzas remain stable at five lines apiece. Also suggestive of the poet's control over her material, the stanzas containing the most end-stopped lines (four stops in stanzas 7, 14, and 16) usually allude to concentration camps, torturers, and vampires, while the stanzas with the fewest (one stop in stanza 1; no stops in stanza 11) characteristically show more ambivalence toward victimization. In effect, the speaker takes away some of the power of her alleged tormentors by end-stopping their lines. She also does this by using enjambment to diffuse some of the force of the masculine rhymes that end the majority of her stanzas.

Psychological control in this poem of the self over the other, however, is not as readily attained. As a number of critics have indicated, another stylistic pattern that recurs in "Daddy" is the compulsive use of the /oo/ sound that inevitably draws the reader back to the you and do rhymes of the first line. In fact, the ubiquitous a rhyme is repeated more than 60 times. Susan R. Van Dyne considers this "verbal tic" to be a sign "of a disordered psyche and poetic incontinence," an "overdetermined" use of "regressive and repetitive language."(2) Similarly, Steven Gould Axelrod regards the repetition as childlike: "The language of the poem . . . teeters precariously on the edge of a preverbal abyss - represented by the eerie, keening 'oo' sound with which a majority of the verses end."(3) A. Alvarez considers the style of Plath's poem to be "a form of manic defense" (qtd. in Lane 66); and, indeed, if the poem were read without emphasizing the end-stopped lines, this might be the case. Another plausible explanation for the repetition-compulsion of the /oo/ sound can be adapted from a pattern that Peter Sacks locates in English elegies.

According to Sacks, mourning poems (such as "Daddy") frequently repeat sound or stanzaic patterns (for example, In Memoriam) in symbolic replication of Freud's theory about the child's "fort-da" game in which a child, anxiously separated from a parent, compulsively pushes and pulls a spool forward and backward in an unconscious, ritualized attempt to master the anxiety that is produced by the parent's unreliable presence.(4) Similarly in "Daddy," the compulsively repeated /oo/ sound may defensively perform a like function. Although the plosive force of Plath's invectives against the father (and her husband) emphasize the speaker's strong desire to be psychologically free of the introjected "daddy," the echoing /oo/ sounds that permeate the poem imply her paradoxical need still to "get back, back, back to you" (line 59) - a sign of an incomplete, though desired, end to mourning.

A final stylistic way in which the speaker attempts to extricate herself from her father's psychological hold on her without completely annihilating the part of him she still loves and misses is by creating a delicate balance between pronouns that separate his identity from hers. Although the poem appears to give all agency to the mythically powerful patriarch, the primary pronouns associated with him (exclusive of the imagery) are "you" and "your," which occur 28 times in the poem in comparison to the speaker's self-referential "I," "my," and "me" that occur a total of 34 times. While the frequency of pronouns can hardly be said to neutralize the demonic imagery associated with patriarchy in the verse, the repeated "I" pronouns still signify a heroic attempt at psychic reintegration - of being glued back together - without others controlling the shape that identity takes. Moreover, in the last stanzas of the poem (14-16), the speaker, atypically, uses the contractions "I'm" and "I've" four times, suggesting a verbal effort to fuse the "I am" and the "I have" in resistance to the father's formerly controlling "you were" and "you did." Finally, in the last line of the poem, when the speaker calls her father a "bastard," she is not only cursing him, but trying to make his hold on her history, personality, identity, and destiny illegitimate. Ending, however, with the /oo/ sound in "through," the poem simultaneously proclaims and resists closure - a partial psychological victory, at best, of the self over the other.

Judging from the biographical history of this poem, Plath's victory could only be a pyrrhic one. She wrote "Daddy" on 12 October 1962, four months before her suicide, fifteen days before her thirtieth birthday, on the twentieth anniversary of her father's leg amputation (alluded to in the poem, lines 9-10) and on the day she learned that Ted Hughes, the alleged "vampire" who drank her blood for seven years (73-74), had agreed to a divorce.(5) The year 1961-62 was also the time of the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann, to which the concentration camp imagery in Plath's poem may allude (Lane 219).(6) Thus, personal as well as historical victimization and attempted vindication are dramatized in Plath's poem. But just as the execution of Eichmann as a war criminal could bring only partial justice to the Jews who were exterminated in the death camps, and just as the stake in the vampire's "fat black heart" (56) would only prevent the undead from causing further misery, the speaker in Plath's "Daddy," her memories of alleged victimization echoing in every broken and repeated nursery-sounding rhyme, can achieve only a partial victory over the "man who / Bit my pretty red heart in two" (55-56).


1. Sylvia Plath, "Daddy," The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: Harper, 1981) 222-224. Further quotations are from this collection.

2. Susan R. Van Dyne, Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's Ariel Poems (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina E 1993) 48-49. See also Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992) 226.

3. Steven Gould Axelrod, Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins E 1990) 56.

4. Peter M. Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore: John Hopkins E 1985) 23.

5. Linda Wagner-Martin, Sylvia Plath: A Biography (New York: Simon, 1987) 28, 243; Axelrod, 52.

6. Lane makes a persuasive case that Plath "could not have missed the . . .sensational capture of Eichmann." At least three books on the subject were published in Britain, and the award-winning film Judgment at Nuremberg was released around the same time.


Lane, Gary, ed. Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins P, 1979).

From The Explicator 55.2 (Winter 1997)

Renée R. Curry: On "Daddy"

Plath's interest in Germany and its relationship to exterminating and far-reaching power, particularly its consanguinity with nazism, emanates most forcefully in "Daddy." The vast majority of scholars who study Plath's poetry examine this poem and discuss the poem's (mis)use of Holocaust imagery as well as the black descriptors that permeate the work. Although Plath situates issues of racial dominance and Otherness at the forefront of this poem's literary tropes, scholars to date do not read this poem as evidence of Plath's white authorial position.

Annas reads "Daddy" as a poem whose landscape constructs social and political boundaries partially signified by blackness (A Disturbance 140). In addition, Annas claims that the purpose of "Daddy" is to exorcise "the various avatars of the other" (A Disturbance 143). Broe, however, finds Plath again locating an interchangeability among self and Other especially in the roles of victim and victimizer (175). Guinevara A. Nance and Judith P. Jones argue that the word "black"provides the significant spark in the poem that "ignite[s] powerful associations among culturally significant symbols" (125). Axelrod finds the father-as-black-shoe representative of a force "capable of stamping on his victim" (53). Furthermore, Axelrod suggests that Plath ironically designs her "aboriginal speaker" as only capable of "black-and-white thinking" (56). Clearly, the poem invites racially marked readings concerned with issues of Otherness; however, the scholarship does not effectively address the white authorship and imagination that creates this Otherness in the poem.

Axelrod ventures close to marking the poet's whiteness when he addresses Plath's interest in things German. He describes the emotional year that Plath experienced previous to writing "Daddy," and then he summarizes her psychological state:

She was again contemplating things German: a trip to the Austrian AIps, a renewed effort to learn the language. If "German" was Randall Jarrell's "favorite country," it was not hers, yet it returned to her discourse like clock work at times of psychic distress. Clearly Plath was attempting to find and to evoke in her art what she could not find or communicate in her life. (52)

Dyer explains that Germany, along with the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians, evokes the "apex of whiteness" to the white imagination (19). What Plath desires at moments of psychic stress is a return to the purity she associates with whiteness as well as a return to her particular ancestral background which she claimed as German and Austrian (Rose, The Haunting 225). Yet any such return to or contemplation of things German, especially after World War II, ignited images of nazism for Plath and influenced an imaginative conflation of purity, personal ancestry, and the Holocaust. The language of "Daddy" reflects this conflation.

Jacqueline Rose insinuates that Plath's connection between her own father and nazism in "Daddy" is not the profound and ghastly stretch that other critics have claimed. Rose prompts us to entertain the idea that nazism relied heavily on the dominance of the symbolic father: "For doesn't Nazism itself also turn on the image of the father, a father enshrined in the place of the symbolic, all-powerful to the extent that he is so utterly out of reach?" (232). Clearly, Plath answers "yes" to this question by writing "Daddy." The poem opens with a metaphoric complaint issued by a "poor and white" foot that her "black shoe" will no longer do. The "black shoe," associated with Daddy, and associated with nazism, has become too constricting. In wanting to separate from her father and regain her purity—her white foot—she must blacken the father and remove herself from his taint. She must become Jew to his Nazi:

An engine, an engine 

Chudding me off like a Jew. 

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. 

I began to talk like a Jew. 

I think I may well be a Jew.

By taking on the markings of a Jew in the poem, she highlights the heart of whiteness debates: who exactly can claim to be white? In the context of the poem, Plath attempts to separate from her father, whose power she associates with blackness and nazism. As her father's victim, she takes on the role of persecuted Jew. Dyer explains that the Jews' relationship to whiteness has not been at all fixed in time. During World War II, the Jews, as compared to Aryans, were definitively not-white. However, like the Irish and the Mexicans, the Jews have been both included and excluded from whiteness throughout time. In particular, their special whiteness has been used as a "'buffer' between the white and the black or indigenous" (Dyer 19). The Jew that Plath becomes in "Daddy" is a "buffer" Jew in the sense that it permits her multiple associations with and protections from whiteness. As a Jewish victim of Nazis, she is non-Aryan. As a Jewish victim of Otto Plath, whom she describes as black in the poem, she is white. As a white woman claiming identification with Jews, she proclaims separation from the domineering whiteness of nazism. In "Daddy," Plath particularizes and multiplies her whiteness in relationship to and variance from the negative forces threatening her. Occupation of a Jewish persona permits her just such vacillation.

Rose argues that these vacillations provide Plath opportunities to experiment with varying psychic positions:

Plath . . . moves from one position to the other, implicating them in each other, forcing the reader to enter into something which she or he is often willing to consider only on condition of seeing it as something in which, psychically no less than historically, she or he plays absolutely no part. (The Haunting 236)

In Rose's reading, Plath exhibits a willingness to sacrifice her own claim to white stability, inheritance, and purity of position in order to hold up an incriminating mirror to readers. Yet, as Rose points out, there is the problem embedded in stanza ten—"every woman adores a Fascist." In this line, the incriminating mirror ricochets back from the reader upon yet another of Plath's interesting identifications; she changes from affinity with the victimized Jew to adoration of the Fascist victimizer. She claims this particular adoration as emerging from her womanliness rather than from her Jewishness. Rose reads this line and the following "boot in the face" line as housing such ambivalent agency that they suggest that women adore being violated and they worship opportunities to violate Others. This reading poses "the question of women's implication in the ideology of Nazism more fundamentally than has normally been supposed" (Rose, The Haunting 233). Plath has toyed before with this idea of white women as potentially culpable in oppression of Others in "Moon and the Yew Tree," "Bee Meeting," and I"Wintering"; however, as in most other circumstances, she ultimately recuperates the white woman from significant blame by concluding the poem with an image of the more responsible white male. "Daddy" thus ends with a visit from the villagers, similar to those of "Bee Meeting," who, this time, have come to kill the white man rather than the white woman:

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.

In Plath's white imagination, white men's responsibility for oppression far outweighs that of white women.


From White Women Writing White: H. D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Whiteness. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Renèe R. Curry.

Christina Britzolakis: On "Daddy"

. . . recall Theodor Adorno's view, in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) of the advance of Enlightenment rationality as a narrative of violence which tends to annihilate otherness in the name of an implacable principle of identity. Rooted in a prehistoric split between subject and object, the dialectic of enlightenment attempts to outlaw primitive modes of perception such as sympathetic magic, and 'makes the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities'. The very reason which the Enlightenment used as a weapon against myth, religion, and illusion has, in modem society, turned against itself and reverted to irrationalist violence. Its oppressive tendency culminates in the catastrophe of the Holocaust, in whose wake the entire heritage of European high culture appears discredited or exhausted.

For Adorno, as for Plath, this dark vision of Enlightenment rationality is informed by the catastrophic events of recent history. Yet while Plath's writing mourns the victims of what goes by the name of historical 'progress', it also, as we have seen, plays out a deep complicity with the drive towards mastery that Adorno sees as central to Enlightenment. This paradox manifests itself as a tendency to yoke together historical and subjective crisis in manifestly unstable metaphorical conjunctions. The invocation of events such as the Holocaust and Hiroshima as metaphors for states of psychic extremity ('Daddy', 'Lady Lazarus', 'Fever 103°', 'Mary's Song') is often seen as merely capitalizing on their public significance. Thus Irving Howe, for example: 'There is something monstrous, utterly disproportionate, when tangled emotions about one's father are compared with the historical fate of the European Jews . . . "Daddy" persuades once again, through the force of negative example, of how accurate T. S. Eliot was in saying, "the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates".' The familiar charge of metaphorical overreaching takes on, here, an ethical dimension; in turning a historical event of this magnitude into a metaphor for subjective crisis, Plath allegedly perpetrates a violent twisting or perversion of the principle of metaphoric similarity. This violation of New Critical codes of impersonality is conflated, as Jacqueline Rose has argued, with its violation of the widespread belief that the Holocaust is in some ultimate sense beyond representation. The scandal of 'Daddy' is compounded by the sexualized scenario of collusion, in which the daughter/victim identifies with, and is seduced by, the father/oppressor. What Alicia Ostriker calls 'the earliest and most famous of female vengeance poems' none the less remains a love poem which not only explores the tangled links between femininity, eros, and domination, but mockingly appropriates 1950s myths of female masochism in order to do so.

As I have already argued, 'Daddy' operates in the modes of pastiche and parody, mixing Gothic folklore, Freudian clichés, and racial and sexual stereotypes with allusions to historical events and literary echoes. Through its blatant theatricality and unstable irony, it reflects on its own insertion into literary history and on its own figurative processes. The speaker's comparison of herself to a Jew also happens to thematize the activity of figuration itself:

I thought every German was you. 

And the language obscene


An engine, an engine 

Chuffing me off like a Jew. 

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. 

I began to talk like a Jew. 

I think I may well be a Jew.

The infamous metaphor (more precisely, simile) is an extension of the prior metaphor of the father's language as 'An engine, an engine | Chuffing me off like a Jew'. It is, as Helen McNeil has-suggested, 'a kind of psychic conceit, as if she is daring her reader to disbelieve what has been so passionately felt and powerfully expressed'. Once this extravagant 'train of thought' has been put into motion, it becomes a metaphorical machine which conveys the 'I' into a historical and ideological 'other' space not of its own choosing ('I've boarded the train there's no getting off', as Plath puts it in 'Metaphors'). The figurative act therefore not only puts into question the ethical status of the poem's discourse but foregrounds this ethical instability as an aspect of the motivation or intentionality of metaphor itself.

The Nazi-Jew metaphor is an extreme manifestation of the trope of subjection to otherness which, I have argued, governs much of Plath's poetry. It signals a radically simplified and unstable dialectic of self and other at work in the poem's language. This projective dialectic, of which the speaker represents herself as both victim and perpetrator, is acted out through the metrical parallelism of rhyme which becomes an 'engine', a seemingly automatic force with its own momentum. The entire poem is dominated by the compulsive necessity of the 'you' rhyme, which generates as its corollary the 'Jew'; the 'I' marking the 'not-I' as its other.

'Daddy' self-consciously exploits the linguistic primitivism of the 'unleashed tongue' through parody voodoo rituals. The father becomes a scapegoat, ritually dismembered into metonymic body parts such as foot, toe, head, mustache, blue eye, cleft chin, bones, heart, and resurrected in a bewildering variety of guises: black shoe, 'ghastly statue with one gray toe', 'panzer-man', teacher, devil, black man, Teutonic vampire, and, finally, Freudian father of the primal horde murdered by his sons. The original of 'Daddy' is irrevocably lost; it is the symbols of the (dead) father, his law, which the speaker is addressing: 'And then I knew what to do. | I made a model of you, | A man in black with a Meinkampf look.' The transformations of the father are matched by the daughter, who becomes, in succession, a white foot, Jew, pupil, gipsy, witch, and doll with a 'pretty red heart'. The violent symmetry and parallelism of the victim-oppressor scenario recalls Theodor Adorno's claim, in 'Elements of Anti-Semitism' (1944) that the Fascist projects the impulses he cannot accept as his own on to his victim. It is his similarity to the Jew which arouses the paranoid rage of the anti-Semite and turns the oppressed into an oppressor. The preverbal language of mimicry—of primitive gesture—becomes the tabooed sign of the Jew, marking him as the scapegoat. In 'Daddy', the oppressive relationship between father and daughter is seen as part of a larger process of scapegoating at work in history and language alike:

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—


Not God but a swastika 

So black no sky could squeak through. 

Every woman adores a fascist, 

The boot in the face, the brute 

Brute heart of a brute like you.

Language threatens to break down into nonsense, stuttering, and aphasia ('the brute | Brute heart of a brute like you') . The terroristic staccato consonants of the German 'Luftwaffe' are translated into the childish barbarism, 'gobbledygoo'. The 'blue' of the 'Aryan eye', Nazi symbol of racial purity, is rhymed with the blue of the sky which 'squeak[s]' through the death-dealing blackness of the swastika. Victim and oppressor secretly mirror each other; and the victim's response to paranoid oppression is to imitate its features.

Plath's overreaching use of the Nazi-Jew metaphor in 'Daddy' cannot be separated from the poem's wider exploration and exploitation, through language, sound, and rhythm, of the violent logic of 'othering'. It is, perhaps, this linguistic regression which is at the heart of its perceived offence to canonical values. It does not merely refute the self-possession of the poetic subject but also suggests that, as Freud argues in The Ego and the Id, 'what is highest in the human mind' is rooted in 'the lowest part of. ..mental life'. There is no document of culture, Walter Benjamin wrote in the 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. Although 'Daddy' seems flagrantly to violate the Eliotic doctrine of 'impersonality', therefore, it can equally be seen as pushing it to an unholy extreme: the truly original poet who is in touch with tradition expresses 'the mind of Europe' not merely in its cultural glories but also in its deepest disgrace.

Plath's 'negations' are the effect of a profound ambivalence towards poetic language itself. On the one hand, her work can be seen as a triumphant celebration of the transformative powers of metaphor and of the 'oracular' dimension of poetic language invoked by Seamus Heaney; on the other, it can be seen as activating a darker, daemonic, or nihilistic side of the auditory imagination. In Plath's poetry, the Romantic identification of the 'symbol' with the sensuous, maternal fecundity of nature, as a means of overcoming the terror of death, or of transcending melancholy, is effectively disabled. Her rhetoric is founded on the recognition of a chronic lack of solace in figurative language. Metaphor appears less as a means of harmonizing an alienated self with the world, as in the Romantic tradition, than as a technology which violently, if exhilaratingly, wrests the body to its own ends. The noble rider's drive towards mastery tends to undo itself, precipitating a backlash of linguistic regression. Plath thus stages a 'dialectic of enlightenment' in the arena of metaphor, rhythm, and sound, drawing upon the ambiguously incantatory and oral powers of poetic language itself. The splitting and instability of the subject in these poems—its alternation between the roles of oppressor and victim—forms part of a disturbance of memory and of language that is, as I shall argue in the next chapter, at once psychic and historical.

From Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Christina Britzolakis.

Al Strangeways: On "Daddy"

This problem which Plath's treatment of the Holocaust exhibits, of exploring or representing the inconceivable (the mythic horror of the Holocaust) with the conceivable (be it a conceivable subject, such as personal difficulties, or a conceivable form), is also apparent in the Hollywood films produced at the time (as well as many similar cinematic treatments from then on, with the notable exception of Shoah [1983]). Annette Insdorf describes the difficulties inherent in cinematic treatments of the Holocaust, citing John J. O'Connor (a New York Times television critic), who writes: "The Diary of Anne Frank and Judgment at Nuremberg... depend on a confined theatrical setting, superfluous dialogue, star turns, classical editing (mainly with close-ups), and musical scores whose violins swell at dramatic moments. These studio productions essentially fit the bristling raw material of the Holocaust into an old narrative form, thus allowing the viewer to leave the theater feeling complacent instead of concerned or disturbed." The act of trying to bring such horrific events to a popular audience involves a rationalizing and conventionalizing of the material, which ultimately runs the risk of trivializing the very events it is trying to commemorate. In Plath's case, the "old narrative form" is that of a lyrical expression through personalized mythmaking, within which the Holocaust fits uncomfortably. In addition to these wider difficulties of using traditional conventions to represent the horrors of the Holocaust, the expressly symbolic approach of poetry appears tainted by the abuse of metaphor in the Nazi regime's employment of the "language rules" cited above, an abuse of language that Plath herself feared in the less extreme cold war "doubletalk" discourse.

It is these problems surrounding the conventionalization and metaphorizing of the Holocaust that not only inform Plath's late poems but are enacted by them. Lawrence Langer's tentative answer to the way out of the impasse between the impact of the Holocaust and the ethical problems associated with its depiction is through a creativity which works to collapse the distinction between history and the present, metaphor and subject. . . .

Plath's late poems try to work in a similar way, "inducing a sense of complicity" by combining the events with an intimate tone and material. Yet instead of trying directly to present the cruelty of the Holocaust itself, the feeling Plath's poems generate is one of complicity in the easy assimilation of such past cruelties. Her poems try to avoid the anonymity and the amnesia contingent on the "them and us" and "then and now" distinctions that characterize the perception of history by highlighting her use of the Holocaust as metaphor. In such poems, readers are meant to feel uncomfortable with the suprapersonal, mythical depiction of Jewish suffering, feeling somehow implicated (because of their traditional identification with the lyric persona) in the voyeurism such an assimilation of the Holocaust implies. This feeling of implication that Plath's poems generate may be viewed in broad terms as their success. Such poems are culturally valuable because the appearance of the Holocaust in them is like a "boot in the face"--certainly, few readers leave them feeling "complacent instead of concerned or disturbed."

[. . . .]

An understanding of the "boot in the face" effect of Plath’s treatment of the Holocaust, then, enables the recognition that the dissonances between history and myth in her poetry are not an aesthetic problem but work to prohibit complaisance about the definitions of--and the relationship between--myth, history, and poetry in the post-Holocaust world.

[. . . .]

"Daddy" does not attempt to depict the suffering directly for our view (an impossible task, for the reasons given above) but works by confronting readers with, and compounding the problematic distinctions and connections between, the private and the historical (our lives and their suffering). In other words, readers' reactions of unease, discomfort, and outrage are necessarily a response to the surface, the poem itself, rather than to the events the poem uses as metaphors for its subject (be it about individualism, freedom, or memory), because the events themselves are not graspable. The poem is effective because it leaves readers in no clear or easy position in relation to the voyeuristic gazes operating within it (of reader at speaker, reader at poet, poet at speaker, and all at the events which are metaphorized) and able to take no unproblematic stance regarding the uses of metaphor involved.

[. . . .]

In Plath's poem "Daddy," the controversial lines "Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you" are trying to make a similar, though gendered, point. Throughout the poem, the speaker and "daddy," masochistic and sadistic figures respectively, appear dependent upon each other, and both figures' connections to Nazism (as Jew and Fascist) link their dependence on each other (lack of individuation) . . . .

In the speakers consciously disturbing over-statement that "Every woman adores a Fascist," Plath asserts that, while the archetypal male figure appearing in the rest of the poem (as father and lover) connotes the escape from freedom through sadism, the female figure's adoration of the Fascist is an extreme result of a stereotypically feminine escape from the feelings of aloneness associated with freedom, through masochistic strivings. Freedom, for the archetypal "feminine" figure in "Daddy," is freedom from the authoritarian father figure. Political realities (in the form of Nazism) and psychological difficulties (in the form of neurosis) are inescapably linked . . . for Plath. Thus Plath's lines in "Daddy" are both psychological and political. They are psychological not because "Daddy" is about Plath's relationship with her father, but in the sense that Plath uses the situation depicted in the poem to explore the dynamics of her attitude toward individualism. Her intellectual and moral approval of individualism is set against a consciously explored ambivalence in her desire for such freedom, an ambivalence which is summed up in the final line, so that "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through" may mean either that the speaker is "through with daddy" or free from him, or that she is (in relation to the imagery of the black telephone in stanza 14) through to him, having made a final and inescapable connection with him--having, in short, given up her freedom.

From "’The Boot in the Face’: The Problem of the Holocaust in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath," in Contemporary Literature 37.3 (Fall 1996).

Jacqueline Rose: On "Daddy"

For a writer who has so consistently produced outrage in her critics, nothing has produced the outrage generated by Sylvia Plath's allusions to the Holocaust in her poetry, and nothing the outrage occasioned by 'Daddy', which is just one of the poems in which those allusions appear. Here is one such critic, important only for the clarity with which he lays out the terms of such a critique, Leon Wieseltier is reviewing Dorothy Rabinowicz's New Lives: Survivors of the Holocaust in an article entitled 'In a Universe of Ghosts', published in The New York Review of Books:

Auschwitz bequeathed to all subsequent art perhaps the most arresting of all possible metaphors for extremity, but its availability has been abused. For many it was Sylvia Plath who broke the ice . . . In perhaps her most famous poem, 'Daddy,’ she was explicit . . . There can be no disputing the genuineness of the pain here. But the Jews with whom she identifies were victims of something worse than 'weird luck'. Whatever her father did to her, it could not have been what the Germans did to the Jews. The metaphor is inappropriate . . . I do not mean to lift the Holocaust out of the reach of art. Adorno was wrong—poetry can be made after Auschwitz and out of it . . . But it cannot be done without hard work and rare resources of the spirit. Familiarity with the hellish subject must be earned, not presupposed. My own feeling is that Sylvia Plath did not earn it, that she did not respect the real incommensurability to her own experience of what took place.

It is worth looking at the central terms on which this passage turns—the objection to Plath's identification with the Jew: 'the Jews with whom she identifies'; to the terms of that identification for introducing chance into Jewish history (into history): 'victims of something worse than "weird luck"'; above all, to Plath's failure to recognise the 'incommensurability to her experience of what took place'. Wieseltier is not alone in this criticism. Similarly, Joyce Carol Oates objects to Plath 'snatching [her word] metaphors for her predicament from newspaper headlines'; Seamus Heaney argues that in poems like 'Lady Lazarus', Plath harnesses the wider cultural reference to a 'vehemently self-justifying purpose'; Irving Howe describes the link as 'monstrous, utterly disproportionate'; and Marjorie Perloff describes Plath's references to the Nazis as 'empty' and 'histrionic', 'cheap shots', 'topical trappings', 'devices' which 'camouflage' the true personal meaning of the poems in which they appear. On a separate occasion, Perloff compares Plath unfavourably to Lowell for the absence of any sense of personal or social history in her work. The two objections seem to cancel and mirror each other—history is either dearth or surplus, either something missing from Plath's writing or something which shouldn't be there.

In all these criticisms, the key concept appears to be metaphor—either Plath trivialises the Holocaust through that essentially personal (it is argued) reference, or she aggrandises her experience by stealing the historical event. The Wieseltier passage makes it clear, however, that if the issue is that of metaphor (‘Auschwitz bequeathed to all subsequent art perhaps the most arresting of all possible metaphors for extremity’) what is at stake finally is a repudiation of metaphor itself—that is, of the necessary difference or distance between its two terms: 'Whatever her father did to her it cannot be what the Germans did to the Jews.' Plath's abuse (his word) of the Holocaust as metaphor (allowing for a moment that this is what it is) rests on the demand for commensurability, not to say identity, between image and experience, between language and event. In aesthetic terms, what Plath is being criticised for is a lack of 'objective correlative' (Perloff specifically uses the term). But behind Wieseltier's objection, there is another demand—that only those who directly experienced the Holocaust have the right to speak of it—speak of it in what must be, by implication, non-metaphorical speech. The allusion to Plath in his article is there finally only to make this distinction—between the testimony of the survivors represented in Rabinowicz's book and the poetic metaphorisation (unearned, indirect, incommensurate) of Plath.

Turn the opening proposition of this quotation around, therefore, and we can read in it, not that 'Auschwitz bequeathed the most arresting of all possible metaphors for extremity', but that in relation to literary representation—or at least this conception of it—Auschwitz is the place where metaphor is arrested, where metaphor is brought to a halt. In this context, the critique of Plath merely underlines the fact that the Holocaust is the historical event which puts under greatest pressure—or is most readily available to put under such pressure—the concept of linguistic figuration. For it can be argued (it has recently been argued in relation to the critic Paul de Man) that, faced with the reality of the Holocaust, the idea that there is an irreducibly figurative dimension to all language is an evasion, or denial, of the reality of history itself. But we should immediately add here that in the case of Plath, the question of metaphor brings with it—is inextricable from—that of fantasy and identification in so far as the image most fiercely objected to is the one which projects the speaker of the poem into the place of a Jew. The problem would seem to be, therefore, not the slippage of meaning, but its fixing—not just the idea of an inherent instability, or metaphoricity, of language, but the very specific fantasy positions which language can be used to move into place. Criticism of 'Daddy' shows the question of fantasy, which has appeared repeatedly as a difficulty in the responses to Plath's writing, in its fullest historical and political dimension.

In this final chapter, I want to address these objections by asking what the representation of the Holocaust might tell us about this relationship between metaphor, fantasy and identification, and then ask whether Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ might not mobilize something about that relationship itself. The issue then becomes not whether Plath has the right to represent the Holocaust, but what the presence of the Holocaust in her poetry unleashes, or obliges us to focus, about representation as such.

[. . .]

'Daddy' is a much more difficult poem to write about. It is of course the poem of the murder of the father which at the very least raises the psychic stakes. It is, quite simply, the more aggressive poem. Hence, no doubt, its founding status in the mythology of Sylvia Plath. Reviewing the American publication of Ariel in 1966, Timemagazine wrote:

Within a week of her death, intellectual London was hunched over copies of a strange and terrible poem she had written during her last sick slide toward suicide. 'Daddy' was its title; its subject was her morbid love-hatred of her father; its style was as brutal as a truncheon. What is more, 'Daddy' was merely the first jet of flame from a literary dragon who in the last months of her life breathed a burning river of bale across the literary landscape.

Writing on the Holocaust, Jean-François Lyotard suggests that two motifs tend to operate in tension, or to the mutual exclusion of each other—the preservation of memory against forgetfulness and the accomplishment of vengeance. Do 'Little Fugue' and 'Daddy' take up the two motifs one after the other, or do they present something of their mutual relation, the psychic economy that ties them even as it forces them apart? There is a much clearer narrative in 'Daddy'—from victimisation to revenge. In this case it is the form of that sequence which has allowed the poem to be read purely personally as Plath's vindictive assault on Otto Plath and Ted Hughes (the transition from the first to the second mirroring the biographical pattern of her life). Once again, however, it is only that preliminary privileging of the personal which allows the reproach for her evocation of history—more strongly this time, because this is the poem in which Plath identifies with the Jew.

The first thing to notice is the trouble in the time sequence of this poem in relation to the father, the technically impossible temporality which lies at the centre of the story it tells, which echoes that earlier impossibility of language in 'Little Fugue':


You do not do, you do not do

Any more, black shoe

In which I have lived like a foot

For thirty years, poor and white,

Barely daring to breathe, or Achoo.


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


And a head in the freakish Atlantic

Where it pours bean green over blue

In the waters off beautiful Nauset.

I used to pray to recover you.

Ach, du.


What is the time sequence of these verses? On the one hand, a time of unequivocal resolution, the end of the line, a story that once and for all will be brought to a close: 'You do not do, you do not do/Any more'. This story is legendary. It is the great emancipatory narrative of liberation which brings, some would argue, all history to an end. In this case, it assimilates, combines into one entity, more than one form of oppression—daughter and father, poor and rich—licensing a reading which makes of the first the meta-narrative of all forms of inequality (patriarchy the cause of all other types of oppression, which it then subordinates to itself). The poem thus presents itself as protest and emancipation from a condition which reduces the one oppressed to the barest minimum of human, but inarticulate, life: ‘Barely daring to breathe or Achoo’ (it is hard not to read here a reference to Plath’s sinusitis). Blocked, hardly daring to breathe or to sneeze, this body suffers because the father has for too long oppressed.

If the poem stopped here then it could fairly be read, as it has often been read, in triumphalist terms—instead of which it suggests that such an ending is only a beginning, or repetition, which immediately finds itself up against a wholly other order of time: 'Daddy, I have had to kill you./ You died before I had time.' In Freudian terms, this is the time of 'Nachtraglichkeit' or after-effect: a murder which has taken place, but after the fact, because the father who is killed is already dead; a father who was once mourned ('I used to pray to recover you') but whose recovery has already been signalled, by what precedes it in the poem, as the precondition for his death to be repeated. Narrative as repetition—it is a familiar drama in which the father must be killed in so far as he is already dead. This at the very least suggests that, if this is the personal father, it is also what psychoanalysis terms the father of individual prehistory, the father who establishes the very possibility (or impossibility) of history as such. It is through this father that the subject discovers—or fails to discover—her own history, as at once personal and part of a wider symbolic place. The time of historical emancipation immediately finds itself up against the problem of a no less historical, but less certain, psychic time.

This is the father as godhead, as origin of the nation and the word—graphically figured in the image of the paternal body in bits and pieces spreading across the American nation state: bag full of God, head in the Atlantic, big as a Frisco seal. Julia Kristeva terms this father 'Pere imaginaire', which she then abbreviates ‘PI’. Say those initials out loud in French and what you get is 'pays' (country or nation)—the concept of the exile. Much has been made of Plath as an exile, as she goes back and forth between England and the United States. But there is another history of migration, another prehistory, which this one overlays—of her father, born in Grabow, the Polish Corridor, and her mother's Austrian descent: 'you are talking to me as a general American. In particular, my background is, may I say, German and Austrian.

If this poem is in some sense about the death of the father, a death both willed and premature, it is no less about the death of language. Returning to the roots of language, it discovers a personal and political history (the one as indistinguishable from the other) which once again fails to enter into words:

In the German tongue, in the Polish town

Scraped flat by the roller

Of wars, wars, wars.

But the name of the town is common.

My Polack friend


Says there are a dozen or two.

So I never could tell where you

Put your foot, your root,

I never could talk to you.

The tongue stuck in my jaw.


It stuck in a barb wire snare.

Ich, ich, ich, ich,

I could hardly speak.

I thought every German was you.

And the language obscene


Twice over, the origins of the father, physically and in language, are lost—through the wars which scrape flat German tongue and Polish town, and then through the name of the town itself, which is so common that it fails in its function to identify, fails in fact to name. Compare Claude Lanzmann, the film-maker of Shoah, on the Holocaust as 'a crime to forget the name', or Lyotard: 'the destruction of whole worlds of names'. Wars wipe out names, the father cannot be spoken to, and the child cannot talk, except to repeat endlessly, in a destroyed obscene language, the most basic or minimal unit of self-identity in speech: 'ich, ich, ich, ich' (the first draft has ‘incestuous' for 'obscene'). The notorious difficulty of the first-person pronoun in relation to identity—its status as shifter, the division or splitting of the subject which it both carries and denies—is merely compounded by its repetition here. In a passage taken out of her journals, Plath comments on this 'I':

I wouldn't be I. But I am I now; and so many other millions are so irretrievably their own special variety of 'I’ that I can hardly bear to think of it. I: how firm a letter; how reassuring the three strokes: one vertical, proud and assertive, and then the two short horizontal lines in quick, smug, succession. The pen scratches on the paper I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I.

The effect, of course, if you read it aloud, is not one of assertion but, as with 'ich, ich, ich, ich', of the word sticking in the throat. Pass from that trauma of the 'I' back to the father as a 'bag full of God', and 'Daddy' becomes strikingly resonant of the case of a woman patient described at Hamburg, suspended between two utterances: 'I am God’s daughter' and 'I do not know what I am' (she was the daughter of a member of Himmler’s SS).

In the poem, the 'I' moves backwards and forwards between German and English, as does the 'you' ('Ach, du'). The dispersal of identity in language follows the lines of a division or confusion between nations and tongues. In fact language in this part of the poem moves in two directions at once. It appears in the form of translation and as a series of repetitions and overlappings—‘Ich’, ‘Ach', ‘Achoo'—which dissolve the pronoun back into infantile patterns of sound. Note too how the rhyming pattern of the poem sends us back to the fist line. ‘You do not do, you do not do’, and allows us to read it as both English and German: ‘You du not du’, ‘You you not you’—‘you’ as ‘not you’ because ‘you’ do not exist inside a space where linguistic address would be possible.

I am not suggesting, however, that we apply to Plath's poem the idea of poetry as ecriture (women's writing as essentially multiple, the other side of normal discourse, fragmented by the passage of the unconscious and the body into words). Instead the poem seems to be outlining the conditions under which that celebrated loss of the symbolic function takes place. Identity and language lose themselves in the place of the father whose absence gives him unlimited powers. Far from presenting this as a form of liberation—language into pure body and play—Plath's poem lays out the high price, at the level of fantasy, that such a psychic process entails. Irruption of the semiotic (Kristeva's term for that other side of normal language), which immediately transposes itself into an alien, paternal tongue.

Plath's passionate desire to learn German and her constant failure to do so, is one of the refrains of both her journals and her letters home: 'Wickedly didn't do German for the last two days, in a spell of perversity and paralysis' . . . 'do German (that I can do)' . . . 'German and French would give me self-respect, why don't I act on this?' . . . 'Am very painstakingly studying German two hours a day' . . . 'At least I have begun my German. Painful, as if "part were cut out of my brain"' . . . 'Worked on German for two days, then let up' . . . 'Take hold. Study German today.' In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood says: 'every time I picked up a German dictionary or a German book, the very sight of those dense, black, barbed wire letters made my mind shut like a clam'.

If we go back to the poem, then I think it becomes clear that it is this crisis of representation in the place of the father which is presented by Plath as engendering—forcing, even—her identification with the Jew. Looking for her father, failing to find him anywhere, the speaker finds him everywhere instead. Above all, she finds him everywhere in the language which she can neither address to him nor barely speak. It is this hallucinatory transference which turns every German into the image of the father, makes for the obscenity of the German tongue, and leads directly to the first reference to the Holocaust:

And the language obscene


An engine, an engine

Chuffing me off like a Jew.

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.

I began to talk like a Jew.

I think I may well be a Jew.


The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna

Are not very pure or true.

With my gypsy ancestress and my weird luck

And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack

I may be a bit of a Jew.


The only metaphor here is that first one that cuts across the stanza break—'the language obscene/ /An engine, an engine'—one of whose halves is language. The metaphor therefore turns on itself, becomes a comment on the (obscene) language which generates the metaphor as such. More important still, metaphor is by no means the dominant trope when the speaker starts to allude to herself as a Jew:

Chuffing me off like a Jew.

I began to talk like a Jew.

I think I may well be a Jew.

I may be a bit of a Jew.


Plath's use of simile and metonymy keeps her at a distance, opening up the space of what is clearly presented as a partial, hesitant, and speculative identification between herself and the Jew. The trope of identification is not substitution but displacement, with all that it implies by way of instability in any identity thereby produced. Only in metaphor proper does the second, substituting term wholly oust the first; in simile, the two terms are co-present, with something more like a slide from one to the next; while metonymy is, in its very definition, only ever partial (the part stands in for the whole).

If the speaker claims to be a Jew, then, this is clearly not a simple claim ('claim' is probably wrong here). For this speaker, Jewishness is the position of the one without history or roots: 'So I never could tell where you/Put your foot, your root'. Above all, it is for her a question, each time suspended or tentatively put, of her participation and implication in the event. What the poem presents us with, therefore, is precisely the problem of trying to claim a relationship to an event in which—the poem makes it quite clear—the speaker did not participate. Given the way Plath stages this as a problem in the poem, presenting it as part of a crisis of language and identity, the argument that she simply uses the Holocaust to aggrandise her personal difficulties seems completely beside the point. Who can say that these were not difficulties which she experienced in her very person?

If this claim is not metaphorical, then, we should perhaps also add that neither is it literal. The point is surely not to try and establish whether Plath was part Jewish or not. The fact of her being Jewish could not legitimate the identification—it is, after all, precisely offered as an identification—any more than the image of her father as a Nazi which now follows can be invalidated by reference to Otto Plath. One old friend wrote to Plath’s mother on publication of the poem in the review of Ariel inTime in 1966 to insist that Plath's father had been nothing like the image in the poem (the famous accusation of distortion constantly brought to bear on Plath).

Once again these forms of identification are not exclusive to Plath. Something of the same structure appears at the heart of Jean Stafford's most famous novel, ABoston Adventure, published in 1946. The novel's heroine, Sonie Marburg, is the daughter of immigrants, a Russian mother and a German father who eventually abandons his wife and child. As a young woman, Sonie finds herself adopted by Boston society in the 1930s. Standing in a drawing-room, listening to the expressions of anti-Semitism, she speculates:

I did not share Miss Pride's prejudice and while neither did I feel strongly partisan towards Jews, the subject always embarrassed me because, not being able to detect Hebraic blood at once except in a most obvious face, I was afraid that someone's toes were being trod on.

It is only one step from this uncertainty, this ubiquity and invisibility of the Jew, to the idea that she too might be Jewish: 'And even here in Miss Pride's sitting-room where there was no one to be offended (unless I myself were partly Jewish, a not unlikely possibility) . . .'. Parenthetically and partially, therefore, Sonie Marburg sees herself as a Jew. Like Plath, the obverse of this is to see the lost father as a Nazi: 'what occurred to me as [Mrs. Hornblower] was swallowed up by a crowd of people in the doorway that perhaps my father, if he had gone back to Wurzburg, had become a Nazi'—a more concrete possibility in Stafford's novel, but one which turns on the same binary, father/daughter, Nazi/Jew, that we see in Plath.

In Plath’s poem, it is clear that these identities are fantasies, not for the banal and obvious reason that they occur inside a text, but because the poem addresses the production of fantasy as such. In this sense, I read 'Daddy' as a poem about its own conditions of linguistic and phantasmic production. Rather than casually produce an identification, it asks a question about identification, laying out one set of intolerable psychic conditions under which such an identification with the Jew might take place.

Furthermore—and this is crucial to the next stage of the poem—these intolerable psychic conditions are also somewhere the condition, or grounding, of paternal law. For there is a trauma or paradox internal to identification in relation to the father, one which is particularly focused by the Holocaust itself. At the Congress, David Rosenfeld described the 'logical-pragmatic paradox' facing the children of survivors: 'to be like me you must go away and not be like me; to be like your father, you must not be like your father). Lyotard puts the dilemma of the witness in very similar terms: 'if death is there [at Auschwitz], you are not there; if you are there, death is not there. Either way it is impossible to prove that death is there' (compare Levi on the failure of witness). For Freud, such a paradox is structural, Oedipal, an inseparable part of that identification with the father of individual prehistory which is required of the child: '[The relation of the superego] to the ego is not exhausted by the precept: "you ought to be like this (like your father)." It also comprises the prohibition: "You may not be like this (like your father)".' Paternal law is therefore grounded on an injunction which it is impossible to obey. Its cruelty, arid its force, reside in the form of the enunciation itself.

'You stand at the blackboard, Daddy/In the picture I have of you'—it is not the character of Otto Plath, but his symbolic position which is at stake.

[. . .]

One could then argue that it is this paradox of paternal identification. that Nazism most visibly inflates and exploits. For doesn't Nazism itself also turn on the image of the father, a father enshrined in the place of the symbolic, all-powerful to the extent that he is so utterly out of reach? (and not only Nazism—Ceausescu preferred orphans to make up his secret police). By rooting the speaker's identification with the Jew in the issue of paternity, Plath's poem enters into one of the key phantasmic scenarios of Nazism itself. As the poem progresses, the father becomes more and more of a Nazi (not precisely that this identity is not given, but is something which emerges). Instead of being found in every German, what is most frighteningly German is discovered retrospectively in him:

I have always been scared of you

With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.

And your neat moustache

And your Aryan eye bright blue.

Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—


Not God but a swastika

So black no sky could squeak through.


The father turns into the image of the Nazi, a string of cliches and childish nonsense (‘your gobbledygoo’), of attributes and symbols (again the dominant trope is metonymy) which accumulate and cover the sky. This is of course a parody—the Nazi as a set of empty signs. The image could be compared with Virginia Woolf's account of the trappings of fascism in Three Guineas.

Not that this makes him any the less effective, any the less frightening, any the less desired. In its most notorious statement, the poem suggests that victimization by this feared and desired father is one of the fantasies at the heart of fascism, one of the universal attractions for women of fascism itself. As much as predicament, victimization is also pull:

Every woman adores a fascist,

The boot in the face, the brute

Brute heart of a brute like you.


For feminism, these are the most problematic lines of the poem— the mark of a desire that should not speak its name, or the shameful insignia of a new license for women in the field of sexuality which has precisely gone too far: 'In acknowledging that the politically correct positions of the Seventies were oversimplified, we are in danger of simply saying once more that sex is a dark mystery, over which we have no control. "Take me—I'm yours", or "Every woman adores a fascist".' The problem is only compounded by the ambiguity of the lines which follow that general declaration. Who is putting the boot in the face? The fascist certainly (woman as the recipient of a sexual violence she desires). But, since the agency of these lines is not specified, don’t they also allow that it might be the woman herself (identification with the fascist being what every woman desires)?

There is no question, therefore, of denying the problem of these lines. Indeed, if you allow that second reading, they pose the question of women's implication in the ideology of Nazism more fundamentally than has normally been supposed. But notice how easy it is to start dividing up and sharing out the psychic space of the text. Either Plath's identification with the Jew is the problem, or her desire for/identification with the fascist. Either her total innocence or her total guilt. But if we put these two objections or difficulties together? Then what we can read in the poem is a set of reversals which have meaning only in relation to each other: reversals not unlike those discovered in the fantasies of the patients described at Hamburg, survivors, children of survivors, children of Nazis—disjunct and sacrilegious parallelism which Plath's poem anticipates and repeats.

If the rest of the poem then appears to give a narrative of resolution to this drama, it does so in terms which are no less ambiguous than what has gone before. The more obviously personal narrative of the next stanzas—death of the father, attempted suicide at twenty, recovery of the father in the image of the husband—is represented as return or repetition: 'At twenty I tried to die/ And get back, back, back to you' . . . 'I made a model of you', followed by emancipation: 'So Daddy I'm finally through', and finally 'Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through'. They thus seem to turn into a final, triumphant sequence the two forms of temporality which were offered at the beginning of the poem. Plath only added the last stanza—'There's a stake in your fat black heart', etc.—in the second draft to drive the point home, as it were (although even 'stake' can be read as signaling a continuing investment).

But for all that triumphalism, the end of the poem is ambiguous. For that 'through’ on which the poem ends is given only two stanzas previously as meaning both ending: 'So daddy, I'm finally through' and the condition, even if failed in this instance, for communication to be possible: 'The voices just can't worm through'. How then should we read that last line—'Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through’? Communication as ending, or dialogue without end? Note too how the final vengeance in itself turns on an identification—'you bastard'—that is, 'you father without father', 'you, whose father, like my own, is in the wrong place'.

A point about the more personal narrative offered in these last stanzas, for it is the reference to the death of the father, the attempted suicide, and the marriage which calls up the more straightforward biographical reading of this text. Note, however, that the general does not conceal—'camouflage'—the particular or personal meaning. It is, again, the relationship of the two levels which is important (it is that relationship, part sequence, part overdetermination, which the poem transcribes). But even at the most personal level of this poem, there is something more general at stake. For the link that 'Daddy' represents between suicide and a paternity, at once personal and symbolic, is again not exclusive to Plath.

At the end of William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, Peyton, with whose suicide the book opened, is allowed to tell her story; the book has work backwards from her death to its repetition through her eyes. In one of her last moments, she thinks— encapsulating in her thoughts the title of the book—'I've sinned only in order to lie down in darkness and find, somewhere in the net of dreams, a new father, a new home.' And then, as if in response to that impossible dream impossible amongst other things because of the collapse of the myth of America on Nagasaki day, the day Peyton dies—the book ends with a 'Negro' revival baptism, as the servants of the family converge on the mass congregation of 'Daddy Faith'. As if the book was suggesting that the only way forward after the death of Peyton was into a grossly inflated symbolic paternity definitively lost to middle America, available only to those whom that same America exploits. 'Daddy' is not far from this—if it is a suicide poem, it is so only to the extent that it locates a historically actualised vacancy, and excess, at the heart of symbolic, paternal law.

[. . .]

Finally, I would suggest that 'Daddy' does allow us to ask whether the woman might not have a special relationship to fantasy--the only generalisation in the poem regarding women is, after all, that most awkward of lines: 'Every woman adores a fascist.' It is invariably taken out of context, taken out of the ghastly drama which shows where such a proposition might come from—what, for the woman who makes it, and in the worse sense, it might mean. Turning the criticism of Plath around once more, could we not read in that line a suggestion, or even a demonstration, that it is a woman who is most likely to articulate the power—perverse, recalcitrant, persistent—of fantasy as such? Nor would such an insight be in any way incompatible with women's legitimate protest against a patriarchal world. This is for me, finally, the wager of Plath's work.

From The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. Copyright © 1992.

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.