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This problem which Plath's treatment of the Holocaust exhibits, of exploring or representing the inconceivable (the mythic horror of the Holocaust) with the conceivable (be it a conceivable subject, such as personal difficulties, or a conceivable form), is also apparent in the Hollywood films produced at the time (as well as many similar cinematic treatments from then on, with the notable exception of Shoah [1983]). Annette Insdorf describes the difficulties inherent in cinematic treatments of the Holocaust, citing John J. O'Connor (a New York Times television critic), who writes: "The Diary of Anne Frank and Judgment at Nuremberg... depend on a confined theatrical setting, superfluous dialogue, star turns, classical editing (mainly with close-ups), and musical scores whose violins swell at dramatic moments. These studio productions essentially fit the bristling raw material of the Holocaust into an old narrative form, thus allowing the viewer to leave the theater feeling complacent instead of concerned or disturbed." The act of trying to bring such horrific events to a popular audience involves a rationalizing and conventionalizing of the material, which ultimately runs the risk of trivializing the very events it is trying to commemorate. In Plath's case, the "old narrative form" is that of a lyrical expression through personalized mythmaking, within which the Holocaust fits uncomfortably. In addition to these wider difficulties of using traditional conventions to represent the horrors of the Holocaust, the expressly symbolic approach of poetry appears tainted by the abuse of metaphor in the Nazi regime's employment of the "language rules" cited above, an abuse of language that Plath herself feared in the less extreme cold war "doubletalk" discourse.

It is these problems surrounding the conventionalization and metaphorizing of the Holocaust that not only inform Plath's late poems but are enacted by them. Lawrence Langer's tentative answer to the way out of the impasse between the impact of the Holocaust and the ethical problems associated with its depiction is through a creativity which works to collapse the distinction between history and the present, metaphor and subject. . . .

Plath's late poems try to work in a similar way, "inducing a sense of complicity" by combining the events with an intimate tone and material. Yet instead of trying directly to present the cruelty of the Holocaust itself, the feeling Plath's poems generate is one of complicity in the easy assimilation of such past cruelties. Her poems try to avoid the anonymity and the amnesia contingent on the "them and us" and "then and now" distinctions that characterize the perception of history by highlighting her use of the Holocaust as metaphor. In such poems, readers are meant to feel uncomfortable with the suprapersonal, mythical depiction of Jewish suffering, feeling somehow implicated (because of their traditional identification with the lyric persona) in the voyeurism such an assimilation of the Holocaust implies. This feeling of implication that Plath's poems generate may be viewed in broad terms as their success. Such poems are culturally valuable because the appearance of the Holocaust in them is like a "boot in the face"--certainly, few readers leave them feeling "complacent instead of concerned or disturbed."

[. . . .]

An understanding of the "boot in the face" effect of Plath’s treatment of the Holocaust, then, enables the recognition that the dissonances between history and myth in her poetry are not an aesthetic problem but work to prohibit complaisance about the definitions of--and the relationship between--myth, history, and poetry in the post-Holocaust world.

[. . . .]

"Daddy" does not attempt to depict the suffering directly for our view (an impossible task, for the reasons given above) but works by confronting readers with, and compounding the problematic distinctions and connections between, the private and the historical (our lives and their suffering). In other words, readers' reactions of unease, discomfort, and outrage are necessarily a response to the surface, the poem itself, rather than to the events the poem uses as metaphors for its subject (be it about individualism, freedom, or memory), because the events themselves are not graspable. The poem is effective because it leaves readers in no clear or easy position in relation to the voyeuristic gazes operating within it (of reader at speaker, reader at poet, poet at speaker, and all at the events which are metaphorized) and able to take no unproblematic stance regarding the uses of metaphor involved.

[. . . .]

In Plath's poem "Daddy," the controversial lines "Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you" are trying to make a similar, though gendered, point. Throughout the poem, the speaker and "daddy," masochistic and sadistic figures respectively, appear dependent upon each other, and both figures' connections to Nazism (as Jew and Fascist) link their dependence on each other (lack of individuation) . . . .

In the speakers consciously disturbing over-statement that "Every woman adores a Fascist," Plath asserts that, while the archetypal male figure appearing in the rest of the poem (as father and lover) connotes the escape from freedom through sadism, the female figure's adoration of the Fascist is an extreme result of a stereotypically feminine escape from the feelings of aloneness associated with freedom, through masochistic strivings. Freedom, for the archetypal "feminine" figure in "Daddy," is freedom from the authoritarian father figure. Political realities (in the form of Nazism) and psychological difficulties (in the form of neurosis) are inescapably linked . . . for Plath. Thus Plath's lines in "Daddy" are both psychological and political. They are psychological not because "Daddy" is about Plath's relationship with her father, but in the sense that Plath uses the situation depicted in the poem to explore the dynamics of her attitude toward individualism. Her intellectual and moral approval of individualism is set against a consciously explored ambivalence in her desire for such freedom, an ambivalence which is summed up in the final line, so that "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through" may mean either that the speaker is "through with daddy" or free from him, or that she is (in relation to the imagery of the black telephone in stanza 14) through to him, having made a final and inescapable connection with him--having, in short, given up her freedom.


From "’The Boot in the Face’: The Problem of the Holocaust in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath," in Contemporary Literature 37.3 (Fall 1996).