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Catherine Daly

"DADDY" SYLVIA PLATH (1965) Written during the final months of her life, "Daddy" is one of Sylvia PLATH's most famous poems. It may also be one of the best-known examples of confessional poetry in 20th-century literature, demonstrating both the positive and negative connotations associated with the term. It has been praised by critics, such as George Steiner, for successfully "translating a private, obviously intolerable hurt into a code of plain statement, of instantaneously public images which concern us all" (218). Some scholars, such as Helen Vendler, consider the poem an outstanding example of the possibilities of lyric poetry. Feminist critics have found it to be an effective exploration of feminine rage against male power structures. Other readers, however, protest that "Daddy" indulges in self-aggrandizement because the speaker aligns her suffering with that of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. "Daddy" elicits conflicting responses from readers, for it is a poem that explores and enacts one of the contradictions at the heart of identity: the need for, but impossibility of, self-definition.

Like much of Plath's work from this period, "Daddy" expresses anger and bitterness, blending terse statements with repetitive phrasing and violent imagery. The poem rehearses Plath's unresolved feelings about her father, who died when she was only eight, through a speaker who attempts to exorcise ritualistically the father's malevolent and domineering spirit: "Daddy, I have had to kill you." Presenting herself as his victim, the speaker transforms the father into a range of monstrous figures—Nazi, vampire, devil—and resurrects him in the husband, "A man in black with a Meinkampf look," whom she must kill as well.

In the end, the speaker seems to triumph: "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through." But it is unclear whether the speaker is through with the father or has gotten through to him. For along with rage and vitriol, the speaker expresses affection for the father and a desire to connect with him. Nursery rhyme cadence and relentless repetition of "oo" sounds create a sense of helpless entrapment that conflicts with the assertive and aggressive stance of the speaker, underscoring the impossibility of ever genuinely achieving clear disengagement. As Jacqueline Rose notes, it is clear "that such an ending is only a beginning or repetition" (224).

While the conflict "Daddy" expresses has most often been understood as personal rage, as Barbara Hardy has suggested, by turning the father into a Nazi, Plath is able "to promote the private concern to a public status" (222). Certainly Plath makes shocking use of the Holocaust in this poem, but it is clear that she aims to disturb and disrupt; the shock is part of her poetic point.

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