Exploring Underlying Sociopolitical Criticism in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” by Mathew Anania

Exploring Underlying Sociopolitical Criticism in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” by Mathew Anania

About Mathew Anania: I am a fourth-semester student in the Law, Society and Justice profile. Funnily enough, I was persistent on writing this essay on Plath and even rewrote a previous assignment to be able to. This essay analyzes embedded sociopolitical criticism in Sylvia Plath’s canonical poem “Daddy”, and explores her personal relationships. A prima facie reading of “Daddy” will yield an incomplete interpretation and disservice to Plath’s genius, which I believe is through admiring the metaphors she seamlessly employs to convey a profound message. I extend a special thank you to Professor Shalon Noble for encouraging me to submit to the Dawson English Journal. 


       Written four months prior to her suicide in 1963, Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy” metaphorically analyzes her relationship with her late father Otto Plath. At the time of Plath’s suicide, a predilection for second-wave feminism, a movement whose beginnings are rooted in the early 1960s, was on the rise. Challenging the privacy and boundaries of relationships, the personal is political posits the existence of political aspects in the private life of women (Lee 165). Although the term was coined five years after Plath’s suicide, the significance of the notion is embedded in second-wave feminism, an era of which Plath saw the beginnings (165). Anachronistically, Plath challenges the dominant ideologies present in late 1960s society and her confession transcends personal purposes; her work supports the notion that the personal is political. Plath employs the use of overtly masculine depictions of her late father to criticize the patriarchy.

Throughout the poem, the role of the patriarchy is addressed through the power imbalance established in the speaker’s relationship with her father. Identifiable traits and characteristics of the patriarchy are discerned through male-controlled, male-dominated, and male-oriented actions and structures that disadvantage women (Becker 24). The speaker uses repetition, simile, and allegory to convey emotions of defeat and subordination: “You do not do, you do not do/Any more, black shoe/ In which I have lived like a foot” (1-3). From the outset, the speaker addresses her father and is eager to take control of the situation by repeating the command to cease the behaviors that have persisted. The frantic tone and repetition of the command underline the speaker’s desire to overcome and subdue her father’s domineering presence. Furthermore, the frantic tone demonstrates the fear and irrationality the speaker’s father imparted to her. Through referring to the famous child’s nursery rhyme titled “There Was an Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe,” the speaker invokes the use of the simile to articulate her father’s tendency to infantilize and subordinate her. However, the speaker deliberately uses the nursery rhyme as an allegory to posit a social and political critique. Characterizing herself as the old woman who is living in the shoe, the speaker attributes to herself a sense of fragility and helplessness. The other character in the narrative entails someone who is using the shoe and is stepping on the old woman. The allegory establishes the nature of the helpless lady and the domineering man, revealing a profound political lesson and critique of the patriarchy. Precisely, the speaker wishes to demonstrate the helplessness, impotence, and inferiority she experiences as a result of her father’s domination and aggressivity. Moreover, the speaker’s use of the allegory emphasizes her father’s tendency to exercise control and domination over her, traits that the speaker associates with signs of patriarchy in her personal life. Onomatopoeia is used to demonstrate the unreasonable level of constant control and surveillance by her father: “Barely daring to breathe or Achoo” (5). The speaker explains that she has constantly lived in fear of her father, forcing her to exercise a level of caution and restraint that no child should need to. Although a sneeze is uncontrollable and nonautonomous, the speaker expresses that she lives in a constant state of fear of her father’s merciless attitude. The level of restraint the speaker must exercise demonstrates how the overbearing presence of her father paralyzes her with fear and subsequently subdues her. Ultimately, the speaker wishes to illustrate the domination brought on by her father’s demeanour, alluding to the presence of patriarchal aspects within her relationship.

The speaker invokes the use of the male-dominated doctrine and symbols of Nazism to metaphorically analyze her relationship with her father. The speaker transitions into employing language synonymous with the Holocaust, and uses repetition, auditory imagery, metaphor and symbolism to project the fear she experiences while attempting to address her father: “I never could talk to you/The tongue stuck in my jaw/It stuck in a barb wire snare/Ich, ich, ich, ich” (25-28). Diminished by her incapability to directly address her father, the speaker repeats the word “ich” and further underlines the paralysis she experiences when attempting to address her own father. Instinctively, the visual imagery of the barbed wire evokes symbolism from the Holocaust. Possessing the power to instantly electrocute and kill, the thin wires cultivated fear amongst prisoners and created solid boundaries. The “barb wire snare” the speaker is paralyzed by is metaphorically representative of the relationship between the Nazis and the Jews. The speaker’s employment of Antisemitic language continues through enumeration and simile: “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” (31-35). The speaker enumerates several concentration camps to illustrate the magnitude of the trauma, defeat, and subordination she experiences. Specifically, the speaker invokes the concentration camp Auschwitz to represent the insurmountable and unparalleled level of subordination she was subjected to. Notorious for its lethality, Auschwitz was a death camp where millions of Jews and other prisoners were murdered. Furthermore, the speaker refers to herself as a Jew thrice within the stanza, reinforcing the notion of subordination at the hands of a higher power. The use of the simile draws a comparison between the speaker and her Jewish counterpart yet, conversely, the simile also establishes her father’s role as a Nazi. Given Plath’s Austrian-German heritage, the use of the Nazi amplifies the significance of her father’s role in the metaphor itself. Plath depicts her father as a Nazi through the use of overt Nazi symbolism: “I made a model of you/ A man in black with a Meinkampf look” (64-65). Although the power dynamic seems to be between the Jewish individual and the Nazi throughout the medial stanzas, the speaker uses the dynamic to analyze and understand the presence of the patriarchy in her own life. Particularly, the Nazis were infamous for being a patriarchal political organization, as the commanding officers were all men who exercised excessive force and domination. Nonetheless, the speaker believes that the authority of the Nazi party during the Holocaust is comparable to the male dominance in her own life. The speaker believes that the power and authority the Nazis were able to exercise upon a subordinate group is comparable to the domineering demeanour of her father.

Finally, the speaker expresses a similar level of subordination in the relationship with her husband and father. To depict the cruel and torturous nature of the relationship with her husband, the speaker uses visual imagery, symbolism, and repetition: “And a love of the rack and the screw. /And I said I do, I do” (66-67). The speaker confesses that she derives pleasure and satisfaction from being subjected to torture through the devices of the rack and the screw. Skillfully, the speaker uses a torture device to invoke the binary of the dominant and subordinate, as torture devices operate through an individual’s initiation of torture upon a receiving individual. However, the speaker’s willingness to be subjected to the torture of others through subjugation demonstrates her acceptance of the violence in her life.  Although Plath reports the same painful effects in her relationship, the repetition of her vows not only ordained her marriage but also preordained her downfall. Using symbolism, repetition, and enumeration, the speaker analyzes the relationship with her husband: “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——/The vampire who said he was you/ And drank my blood for a year/ Seven years, if you want to know/Daddy, you can lie back now” (71-75). The speaker explicitly mentions that she has killed two men in her life, conflating her father and husband into one entity. Although Plath’s father died when she was young, her actions did not cause his death. Instead, the speaker is listing the men in her life whom she has metaphorically cut off and killed, highlighting her desire for liberation and freedom from the men in her life. The level of domination and subordination in her own life is attributed to her husband and father’s domineering influence, further proving the presence of patriarchal norms in her relationships with men.  In a confluence of the vampirical energy of her father and husband, the speaker reinforces the idea of subordination and inferiority to the dominance of men. The vampire signifies a draining and exhausting presence, and by metaphorically comparing her husband and father to a vampire, the speaker demonstrates the draining presence of the men in her life. Additionally, the speaker mentions that her husband has been asserting a vampirical force over her for seven years, which amplifies the effects of the draining energy. Ultimately, the speaker triumphantly overcomes the power and domination of the men in her life: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (80). The speaker’s tone transitions occur as the speaker swears for the first time in the poem, signifying her fearlessness and reclamation of her power. Ultimately, the speaker can overcome the male figures and presences in her life, attributing her with her agency.

Although Plath’s poem ponders the question of whether a reader should separate the artwork from the artist, one can undoubtedly argue that “Daddy” acts as a canonical poem in the backdrop of American literature. Cleverly, Plath captured the essence of the patriarchy in an anachronistic manner where sociological and political definitions of the term itself were unpoliticized. Nonetheless, Plath searched for sociopolitical aspects within the relationships she maintained with her father, her former partner, and herself, supporting the notion that the personal is political. Notwithstanding the opinions one may hold about how overtly antisemitic imagery and dialogues rupture the integrity of the poem, Plath’s poem is carefully curated and indicative of her devotion to metaphorically analyzing her relationships. Ultimately, Plath’s confession transcends personal means, and its purpose is vested in positing a social critique. 


Works Cited

Becker, Mary. “Patriarchy and Inequality: Towards a Substantive Feminism.” University of   

Chicago Legal Forum, vol. 1999, no. 1, 1999. pp. 24. www.chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1999/iss1/3.        Accessed 6 Dec. 2022.


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