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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Renée R. Curry: On "Daddy" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Renèe R. Curry Criticism Target Sylvia Plath
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Jan 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication White Women Writing White: H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Whiteness
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