Daddy | Study Guide

Sylvia Plath

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Daddy | Symbols

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Foot and Shoe

Throughout the poem, the speaker uses recurring references to feet and shoes or boots to describe her relationship with her father. The interpretation of these images shifts, representing the complex emotions the speaker feels toward her father. She feels resentment and anger for keeping her confined mixed with a lifelong longing to know and connect with him. In addition, they add an underlying sexual undertone to the speaker's feelings about her father. Freud maintained the foot is a phallic symbol—specifically the phallus of a mother. Freud suggested male children believe their mothers have phalluses before learning women do not have them. For this reason, Freud believed, men often develop fetishes about feet and foot coverings.

The poem opens with the image of a pale foot trapped inside a black shoe. In this metaphor, the foot is the poem's speaker, and the black shoe is her father. Her father's presence in her life—even though he is long dead—has had a confining or constraining effect. The boot in Stanza 10, has a similar interpretation. Here, however, the boot is that of a fascist kicking a woman in the face. Boots and shoes share the sense of being tools of captivity and oppression.

In the second stanza, the foot belongs to a statue of the speaker's father. It has a gigantic gray toe. This reference is tied to Plath's own father, who had an infected toe due to the diabetes that would eventually kill him. However, it also suggests another Freudian meaning: an Oedipus complex. The name Oedipus literally means "swollen foot." A person with an Oedipus complex has a romantic or sexual attraction to the parent of the opposite gender. (Later the term Electra complex came to be used for the female version of an Oedipus complex.) Here the symbol is one of aberrant sexual attachment between child and parent.

Finally, in Stanza 5 the speaker refers to the father's foot as a connection to the ground—the town in which he was born. The foot connects to the ground in a childhood home just as a tree puts down roots, another image in this stanza. This use represents the speaker's longing to connect with her father.

Nazis

The use of Nazi and Holocaust imagery in the poem is uncomfortable for many readers since Plath's father was not a Nazi and she was not Jewish. Yet in this poem, as well as in others, Plath uses Nazis as symbols of oppressors and Jews as the ultimate symbol of victimhood. In "Daddy" the speaker begins to introduce the Nazi symbolism in Stanza 7, as she says she is like a Jew being taken by train to a concentration camp. She suggests being treated like a Jew, or victim, made her speak like and then become one. In the following stanzas, she uses this extended metaphor of her father as a Nazi and herself as his victim, both as a Jew and as a "gipsy"—another group the Nazis persecuted. The introduction of the Nazi symbol of a swastika "so black no sky could squeak through" combines this Nazi symbolism with the death symbolism of the color black.

The Color Black

Black is often used as a symbol of death, gloom, or evil, and this poem is no exception. Throughout the poem, the color black is used to create a dark, oppressive mood. It consistently represents the oppression the speaker feels, which is inextricably tied to her obsession with death and the grave. In Stanza 1, the father is described as a "black shoe" that keeps the speaker confined. The black swastika in Stanza 10 is an oppressive, looming presence so black it blocks all of the light from the sky. The boot in this same stanza is not explicitly said to be black, but the Nazi uniform included black boots. In Stanzas 11 and 12, a black man "bit my pretty red heart in two"—an image that seems to refer to her father. It also prefigures the model she made of her father at the end of Stanza 13, who is also described as a "man in black." In Stanza 14, the telephone is black. The black telephone represents the speaker's connection to her dead father, which has made her life torturous and confined her psychologically and emotionally. Finally, in the final stanza the speaker describes her father as having a "fat black heart." She has driven a stake through it as one stakes a vampire. This symbolically suggests the speaker has put an end to the influence of oppression, death, and fear in her life.

Vampire

Vampires are, according to legend, undead beings who must drink the blood of the living in order to exist. This image is appropriate for a poem about needing to kill someone who is already dead. Yet the vampire image in the poem is applied to two men, not only to the one who is literally dead. In the final two stanzas of the poem, the speaker speaks of a "vampire who ... / ... drank my blood for ... / Seven years." This is a reference to her husband, the man she loved as a "model" of her father and who became a substitute for her father. This suggests not that he is dead but that he fed off her life. But the vampire is soon transformed into her father, as she describes Daddy lying back with a stake through his heart. This killing of the father, who died years ago but who controls her life regardless, is the main concern of the poem. However, the dual use of the vampire symbol shows an intertwining of the two male figures in the poem—her father and her husband. Thus it suggests a more general indictment of men as oppressors and as vampires who feed off of the women they oppress.

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