Sylvia Plath has never directly stated that her poem “Daddy” is about her father, Otto Plath. In fact, in the months before her suicide, Plath had described the poem as being about, “a girl with an Electra complex [whose] father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part Jewish.” Biographically, it is known that Plath’s father was not a Nazi, and her mother was not part Jewish, but the allegory stands. Though Plath never admitted that the poem is a metaphysical, metaphorical confession of feelings, critical analysis still regards it as such. “Daddy,” comprised of sixteen five-line stanzas, can be read as a brutal, unforgiving poem where the deepest, most strongly rooted message is that she (or the girl in the poem) simply cannot overcome her father’s death.
The Electra complex, as propped by Carl Jung, is a young girl’s psychosexual competition with her mother for the affections of her father. This complex is the girl’s phallic stage, analogous to the Oedipal complex in boys. (Heller, 2005) Plath’s poem is written as if from the perspective of a small child. This is evinced by the title itself “Daddy,” instead of something more formal like “Father” or “Dad.” It also shows in the styling of the poem, which uses repetition of sentence structure in a very infantile manner.
The tone of the poem would give the surface reading of the girl viewing her father negatively – referencing him as just a mere archetype of a nation with a recently blackened history. “I thought every German was you,” Plath writes. But a deeper analysis shows that this is a mask of what was likely and overtly obsessive love for her father. So obsessive that she wished to be next to him even through death. “I used to pray to recover you…/bit my pretty red heart in two/I was ten when they buried you./At twenty I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you./I thought even the bones would do.”
The poem suggests that the girl views her father as a sort of God, and that his influence on her was immense and far-reaching, so much so that her misery at his loss was too great to cope with normally. For that reason, she transfigures the image of her father onto one of a Nazi German soldier, so the true image of Plath’s father becomes lost in a sea of references to the Holocaust and to herself as a Jew, the ultimate victim. More specifically, the girl implies she found it extremely difficult to communicate with her father (perhaps implying “in death” rather than “in life”), as she writes that she found her father’s native language was brute and “obscene,” heavy and gray. The “weight” of things is a constant reference in Plath’s poem, referenced time and again. Some critics suggest that this is a direct reference to her father’s weight, as “portly” – though not necessarily physical as much as metaphorical in nature. Her father was an overbearing presence, not when alive, but when dead, one whose intensity needed to be downplayed and washed out for Plath to feel at peace with herself in adulthood. The “weight” here can also be a reference to German history and the implications of her father associating, and biological descending, from German stock. The psychological trauma that a parent’s untimely death has on a child can be connected to this same “weight.” When a child neglects to mourn or refuses to mourn, its effects last long into adolescence and beyond. (Barnett, 1991)
Plath’s poem begins with the structure and scheme of a nursery rhyme, with a childlike tone, and a subject-matter akin to the nightmares young children might have of their parents. Though the initial impression of the poem can be of whimsy and delight, this is quickly squelched by references to World War II and bloodsucking vampires. Plath includes in her essay lines like “every woman adores a Fascist,” but there is a clear fractiousness and irony to these lines. Critic Helen McNeil sees the poem as an embodiment of every child’s irrational rage towards a parent that left them prematurely, attributing qualities onto her father that are not rational, logical, or fair. As her daughter left her, and hurt her, he must be an evil man – and as his ethnic origin implies – he probably was an evil man, cruel and unflinching. Of course, this is wholly unsubstantiated, but Plath’s poem isn’t one where facts and truth holds any weight – it is entirely about emotion. (Bloom, 1989)
As the poem concludes, the girl in the poem realizes that since she cannot be with her father in death, she perhaps must replace him. It is implied through the lines that the girl, when grow, marries a man who resembles her father. “And I knew what to do./I made a model of you./A man in black with a Mein Kampf look/And a love of the rack and the screw/.And I said I do, I do.” Plath continues by writing, “I’ve killed a 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.” Here, Plath describes a vampire husband that seems to have taken place of her dead Nazi father, suggesting that the husband drinks her blood until she finally has no choice but to put a stake through his heart. Whatever the psychological implications, Plath seems to suggest that girl’s relationship with her father is one beyond a normal father/daughter relationship.
Indeed, in Freudian term, it can be said that Plath’s conflating of the girl’s father with her husband, both of whom she only knew for eight years (She was eight years old when her father died, and she was eight years married when she committed suicide), the girl in Plath’s poem had been suffering from an unresolved Electra complex, which can lead to serious mental distress if a young girl remains in this phase of her psychosexual development without moving on (Bowlby, 2007)
The ending of Plath’s poem is one of a triumphant tone, perhaps implying that she has “overcome” the memory of her father. Yet, as Plath has stated numerous times in public discussions, “contradiction is at the heart of the poem’s meaning.” There is no triumph at the poem’s conclusion as much as there is horror. Every element, Plath implies, has a contradiction, which may suggest why the poem is prone to many differing interpretations. Though there are implications that Plath, or the girl in the poem, loved her father, everything in the tone and diction seems to suggest a disdain and hatred for the man. This type of nonsensical wrath is a common coping mechanism for people who had “disrupted relationships” with a parent, especially a father.