In her poem “Daddy”, Plath artfully intermixes the “factually” true with the “emotionally” true. There are scraps of her own life here, but the poem is much bigger than that, and goes beyond the face-value interpretation that is it nothing but a self-indulgent literary vengeance spree. Daddy works on both a biographical/personal level for Plath, but also on an allegorical level as well.
I see this poem as a dual testament to Plath’s (and all women’s) struggle against male power, authority, influence, etc. She never “had time” to define her feminine self in opposition to her father, in the context of this male relationship, or legitimately break free of it, because of his untimely death. She first resented his being emotionally absent in her life, and then physically absent. In her journals she admits how she struggles in her relationships with men because of this lack. Accounts by both Plath and Aurelia, assert that her father was quite the stereotypical authoritarian male, and although she loved him, she came to hate what he represented and how he had treated Aurelia and her. Many women of that time, (and all times) can understand this dynamic—loving men, but hating how they treat us and view us and exploit us— consciously or unconsciously, on either a personal, or societal level.
Taken from this perspective, the Holocaust/victim analogy takes on a whole different slant. Rather than referring (exploitatively) to the personal sufferings of one individual woman, it can allegorically represent the mass, historical victimization of women by patriarchy, which has been well-documented (witch hysteria) and which continues (female circumscision) She says “every woman adores a Fascist in boots”–all women in some way participate (if only in their passivity, in refusing to reject the roles that society attempts to force upon them) in this social and cultural situation.
The child-voice of the poem can represent,on a deeper level, that innocence young girls lose as they become women and find themselves being “chuffed off like a Jew,” often reluctantly or unknowingly, into the expected roles for women in marriage and childbearing—when fairy tale expectations of love crash into the reality of the Sisyphian tasks of dishes, cooking,cleaning,laundry, child care, when so many women have their dreams and identities erased under the daily grind of domesticity—a different sort of confinement, slavery, suppression, another and altogether different kind of death and destruction of the spirit.
Plath’s Daddy Essays: Language in Plath’s Daddy
Language in Plath’s Daddy
The speaker of “Daddy” might be seen as our collective inner child, the voice of a world that has “fallen a long way.” There is an implied gain in the poem — of catharsis, liberation — but “Daddy” is fundamentally a poem about loss. The speaker has finally and irrevocably disabused herself of the notion of a “recovered” childhood, the dream of “the waters off beautiful Nauset.” There is no going “back, back, back” to some illusory idyllic existence, no way to make whole that “pretty red heart”: the first oppressor in this poem is the unrealized past (“You died before I had time–“). The poem exemplifies this in its form, the nursery-rhyme sound, the ooh, ooh, ooh of the end rhymes, so jarring in contrast with its substance, its images of stark brutality. Childhood and innocence are corrupted herein by the inescapable internalization of “wars, wars, wars.” Conventional images have undergone a desecration: “Not God but a swastika”; not father but devil; not husband but vampire. Language, rather than a means of connection, has become an obstacle, confining the self (“The tongue stuck in my jaw. / It stuck in a barb wire snare. Ich, ich, ich, ich . . . “)
Language, as a conveyor of images, is itself the subject of this poem — the “foot” in line three is as much metrical as it is metaphorical, one could argue. Plath’s “Colossus,” her apprenticeship in the Western poetic tradition, with this poem is junked in the “freakish Atlantic,” just another thrown off oppressor. The language of this world has conveyed the speaker to a place of horrors: “obscene,” it is “An engine, an engine / Chuffing me off like a Jew. / A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.” In this sense, Plath’s appropriation of Holocaust imagery, much castigated, must be seen as subsequent to that imagery’s appropriation of her — and, by extension, of us all. Plath demonstrates in this poem that the horrors of history are fundamentally personal, that human history is simply personal! history writ large, that the brutalities of the age inform every childhood, that the notion of innocence is a sham, a game of cowboys and Indians, to use a less highly charged analogy, against a backdrop of the Trail of Tears.