Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”

Plath’s famous poem “Daddy” (1965) enjoys myriad critical interpretations. The poem, as well as the literary tradition Plath is most closely associated with, Confessionalism, are both widely understood to be-revelatory. Plath, even more so than other Confessional poets like Anne Sexton or Robert Lowell, explored the poetic possibilities of contemporaneous self-expression which involved intimate, sometimes deeply personal psychological and biographical revelation.

This fact has led a number of prominent critics to mistake the autobiographical structure of the poem as “melodrama” and to conflate this melodrama with a disproportionate belief that Plath was reaching, in “Daddy,” for a theme of political or social criticism. A clear example of this mistaken conflation by critics of Plath’s autobiographical and socio-political impulse is Seamus Heaney’s take on the poem. Heaney writes in his book The Government of the Tongue ( 1989), “A poem like ‘ Daddy,’ [… ] remains, nevertheless, so entangled in biographical circumstances […] that it simply overdraws its rights to our sympathy” (Malcolm null45).

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However, Heaney’s remarks seem to be somewhat beside the point due to the fact that a more faithfully “Confessional” reading of the poem allows for a greater recognition of Plath’s correctly balanced emotion and detail in the poem. Interestingly, Plath her self noted, in a reading for the BBC, that “Daddy” was “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. ” (Plath, Nos. 166-188).

These words express Plath’s attempt to pace a narrative distance between herself and the speaker of the poem and seem to indicate that she felt such a distinction failed to be strongly apparent in the poem itself. This latter conclusion is understandable; close inspection of Plath’s diary, biographies, and the lines of “Daddy” exhume a potent parallels between the events described in the poem and the events of Plath’s life. The mistake that critics like Heaney make is in seeing, in the confessional element of the poem, a “failed” social or political critique of modern society. Another critic, Pamela J.

Annas, observes that “”Daddy” is an analysis of the structure of the society in which the individual is enmeshed. Intertwined with the image of sadist and masochist in “Daddy” is a parallel image of vampire and victim” (Annas 139). Again, this interpretation ignores the most obvious fact of the poem: that is confessional and relies on socio-political ideas and references to more clearly articulate subjective experience and emotion — not to diagnose of critique society, per se. Only by examining the autobiographical depth of the poem can Heaney Annas be succinctly shown to be mistaken in their judgments of the poem.

Beginning with the most obvious biographical parallel as well as the poem’s central theme of a “girl with an Electra complex,” Plath’s journals reveal that she, indeed, suffered personally from an “Electra complex. ” While undergoing treatment with her psychologist Dr. Ruth Beuscher, Plath experienced a cathartic emotional climax during psychotherapy and recorded her subsequent thoughts. Among observations about her mother and father, Plath revealed that she carried a deep resentment against her mother “I never knew the love of a father, the love of a steady blood-related man after the age of eight. [… ]

My mother{…}came in one morning with tears of nobility in her eyes and told me he was gone for goods. I hate her for that. ” (Plath, 430). Although the poem expresses the dramatic revelation of an “Electra complex,” the poem’s opening lines foreshadow a strange inversion of powers; the admonition “You do not do, you do not do/ Any more, black shoe” portends or infers that the speaker has won a victory over her oppressor (s); taken at their full impact, the opening lines convey not only a release from the familial neurosis implied by the aforementioned biographical details, but a sinister hint at the poem’s ultimately suicidal themes.