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Daddy, Sylvia Plath uses a combination of repetition. Her masterful use of these poetic elements captures emotions that words alone could never. In 16 stanzas, each consisting of five lines, Plath shows us how she copes with her father’s death while revealing a scathing bitterness for his life. One of the ways Sylvia Plath conveys her complicated relationship with her father is through her use of repetition, which ultimately contributes to the tone. In the very first stanza, Daddy offers a particularly commanding tone.
Sylvia Plath’s repetition of the phrase “you do not do” is direct and emphasizes her frustration with her life up until this point. It’s a proclamation; this “shoe,” or “life,” no longer suits her, and she’s here to tell the audience her story.
As the poem progresses, the tone shifts while Plath reminisces on the fear she felt growing up with her aggressive father. Her tone becomes anxious. In line 27 (cite book, page 1074), she repeats the German word “Ich” meaning “I” four times before finishing the sentence with “I could hardly speak.
” When read aloud, this creates a stutter effect indicative of a frightened child. In line 45, we get another shift in tone. “Panzer-man, Panzer-man, O You-“she writes, repeating a nickname for her father. In earlier stanzas, Plath compared her father to a German, and herself to a Jew in a fearful manner. Here, her repetition is indicative of mocking, and signals a change of tone from fear to disgust. Another interesting example of repetition occurs in line 59, when Plath repeats “back” three times.
Here, the tone shifts to desperation; by repeatedly saying back, she shows her longing to confront her father and gain the closure his death robbed her of.
Another way Plath illustrates her thorny history with her father is through contrasting diction, both English and German. Take, for example, the title of the poem. According to The Thesaurus (https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/daddy), there are 18 words that mean the same thing as “daddy”, yet she chose the word most closely associated with children and innocence. This choice was a deliberate way to infantilize the author, an effort that continues in the first stanza where Plath references a nursery rhyme. “Black shoe in which I have lived,” she writes, summoning the imagery of “The Little Old Lady Who Lived In a Shoe”. By opening the poem with childlike diction, Plath subtlety manipulates her readers into associating her with innocence. This comes in handy as the poem progresses and she describes her father in stark contrast.
Throughout the poem, Plath occasionally references the title, softening the blow of an otherwise unapologetically scathing critique of her father. The childlike diction is meant to represent her perspective in the poem. On the other hand, Plath uses the German language to represent her father in the poem. After her initial use of German in line 15, Sylvia Plath directly mentions the German tongue, conflating it with war and later calling it “obscene” (line 30). By referencing the German military, concentration camps, and Meinkampf, she makes it clear that she associates her father with obscenity, if not outright evil. Sylvia Plath also uses imagery and symbolism to illustrate the contrast between her father and herself. The most obvious example, of course, are her uses of Holocaust references to compare her father to a Nazi and herself to a Jew.
By doing this, the audience can’t help but picture Plath as a helpless victim, while her father appears as a heartless monster. But there are also more subtle uses of imagery and symbolism. In line 56, Plath writes “bit my pretty red heart In two,” and then later writes “The vampire who said he was you And drank my blood for a year”. Here, she likens her father’s death to a bloodsucking vampire. She wants to show her reader how draining his death has been for her because, as she mentioned earlier in lines six and seven, she wanted to kill him but he died before she had the chance. She continues the vampire symbolism in line 76 where she mentions “a stake in your fat black heart”. When analyzing that line, the vampire imagery immediately stands out, but on closer inspection there’s also a clear callback to line 56 where Plath describes her own heart as “pretty” and “red”. Here, ‘fat’ and ‘black’ are symbols of inhumanity and cruelty, whereas ‘pretty’ and ‘red’ represent love and sanguinity.
Finally, in analyzing Daddy, touching on context is useful. A few years following the poem’s publishing, Sylvia Plath committed suicide by breathing in noxious gas from her kitchen oven (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/sylvia-plath). Although it was not her first suicide attempt, her ultimate decision to take her own life through gas poisoning creates a chilling link to her comparisons of herself to a Holocaust victim. In a larger sense, the poem is a metaphor for Sylvia Plath’s life as a whole. As a child she felt fearful and trapped by her father, and although he eventually died, she was still trapped in the memory of his authority and abuse. By killing herself in the manner in which she did, she validates her comparisons of herself to a victim of a metaphorical Holocaust; she ultimately did not survive the trauma her father inflicted, making him every bit the monster she makes him out to be when she compares him to a Nazi. Sylvia Plath’s relationship with her father was obviously extremely complicated. Although she makes it clear that she was deeply wounded by his treatment, she also regrets his death and yearns to have some part of his body, if only to destroy herself. While on it’s surface the poem shows a clear disdain toward Otto Plath, it’s the tone and contrasting imagery that makes Daddy so powerful. Through the poetic devices of repetition, diction, and imagery, Sylvia Plath is able deeply convey her complex feelings about her relationship with her father in a way that leaves a mark on all who read it.
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