Sylvia Plath: The Language of Female Unspeakability


Written by: Sidra Ali Shah

“Daddy” by Sylvia Plath: The Language of Female Unspeakability

Paradoxical in its form and content, Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is one of the pioneering texts that break free from modernist poetic tradition by disturbing what is familiar. Sylvia wrote this poem four months before her death by suicide, and it still has not diminished in its aggressive self-assertion and clarity even six decades after its posthumous publication in Ariel (1965).

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The evocation of holocaust imagery as a metaphor for personal confession and Neo-Freudian family dynamic lend to the multiplicity of possible interpretations inherent to ‘unspeakability’ – which is often penalized by many biographical critics. This initial response to the poem, however relevant, fails to acknowledge its representation of a deeply rooted and historical oppression. This paper considers the poem’s political and biographical interpretations using postmodern analysis to trace the language of desertion and revenge, while highlighting Plath’s outright feminist refusal of patriarchal manipulation and control.

Parallels between the overt themes in the poem and the biographical facts of Plath’s life are unmistakable in some stanzas of “Daddy.” In the first two lines of the poem, there is a declaration, “You do not do, you do not do”, and then a denunciation of what might have been accepted once: “Any more, black shoe,” introduces the influential figure being rejected by the voice of a rebellious girl child (lines1–2). A long series of volatile language builds the rhythm of the poem until the later stanzas, where a shift in imagery creates the awkward and uncomfortable paradox of adult female revenge in the form of a nursery rhyme: “I made a model of you” (line 64). Repetition of the sound “oo” as a rhyming scheme is hauntingly juxtaposed with the macabre: “They are dancing and stamping on you” (line 78). Then the initial resentment of a daughter being abandoned by death turns into an angry protest against the oppression of the Jews during the holocaust, as she identifies with those victims. But it would be an injustice not to detect in this holocaust imagery a parallel with gender inequality which is at the core of all other systems of oppression. The binary opposites of rich/poor, black/white, and male/female in the “I” and the “you” of the poem signify a postmodern identity crisis of a marginalized subject. The speaker is determined to rid herself of the white hue: “poor and white” (line 4), and the burden of the male ego and its authority, which dominate not just her own life but the whole of society with its male privilege and “swastika” gods.

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However, there is a clear subversion from Plath’s lived experience in other stanzas, which could be taken as a move to transform the girl speaker of the poem into a representative voice of millions of others like her in post-war America and England, and those silenced by the “boot” (line 49) of a patriarchal social order. Sylvia’s personal struggles qualify her to be the voice of every “woman [who] adores a fascist” (line 48). It is a remarkable metaphor for internalized misogyny and born out of the standard of perfection against which every woman is measured, and thus seeks validation in the socio-cultural sphere. The distance from the German “Ich, ich, ich, ich” (line 27), the “I” of self-expression which was stuck in the “barb wire snare” (line 26) out of fear, to the astounding sharpness of the last stanzas: “Daddy, you can lie back now” (line 75), which renders the subject overcome by emotional frenzy. For a poet, it is inevitable to contain the raw material they earn from the experience, whether personal or external, within a larger world of phenomena.

The poem is full of contradictory emotions in multiple layers of disconcerting language and never ceases to challenge the myths that create taboos around female identity and sexuality. These contradictions of desire and rejection indicate an agitation, which critics have coined the “Electra complex” regarding female speakers: “I thought even the bones would do” (line 60).

Plath introduced “Daddy” to a BBC.1 audience with a reading of the poem in 1962. And later, during a British Council interview with Peter Orr the same year, she said:

I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathize with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife. . . I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrific, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and intelligent mind. I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut-box and mirror looking, narcissistic experience.

In his 1971 publication The Savage God, A. Alvarez writes that poetry was the method Sylvia utilized to process her lived experiences. Alvarez recalls the conditions in which she wrote “Daddy” and other Ariel poems after her separation from her husband and poet Ted Hughes in these words; “she felt abandoned, injured, enraged and bereaved as purely and defenselessly as she had as a child twenty years before” (Alvarez, 24). The blazing language of “Daddy” is an act of courage that speaks to Plath’s determination towards the task she picks up in her poetry; Saying what she is forbidden to say and saying it out loud enough for its echo to be heard for generations to come. Plath’s poetry was ahead of her time. To truly be able to get through the rage and intensity of “Daddy,” it becomes imperative to read it not just in relevance to Plath’s biography and her family history (the asymmetrical relationship of her parents Otto and Aurelia Plath in particular), but also in regard to the the socio-cultural and literary milieu in which Plath, as a woman poet struggling to be acknowledged, was writing her challenging works of poetry. It is not her poetry that is to be read in terms of her death, but her death which should be understood in terms of her poetry.

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