A Psychoanalytic Reading of ‘Daddy’

Before its publication she read ‘Daddy’ for a BBC radio broadcast in October 1962, and later, in notes for the BBC on her new poems, described the poem as ‘spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God.’ The girl’s ‘case’, Plath proceeds to explain, is difficult because the father was a Nazi, and the mother may have been ‘part Jewish’. These two inheritances meet in the daughter and ‘paralyse each other – she has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it’ (CP, p293, n183). Plath directs her reader to interpret the poem through the lens of a popular psychoanalytic narrative: a daughter with an Electra complex is one who desires her father sexually, her body incestuously devoted in this instance to a dead man’s, as Electra’s was to her father Agamemnon’s. In a state of unfulfilled and impossible desire, the daughter’s story might be one of static sexual frustration and father-worship; but Plath also insists on a paralysis of sexual roles historically derived from the Holocaust. Because the father is not just a dead God, but also a Nazi, and the mother ‘very possibly part Jewish’, Daddy is also a sadistic villain, and the daughter’s feminine sexuality is marked by the mother’s role as a victim, possibly in a masochistic relation to the father. As the speaker of ‘Daddy’ generalises, ‘Every woman adores a Fascist.’

The poem, Plath tells u, is also an ‘allegory’, suggesting that these sexual roles have been internalised by the daughter and are part of her psyche. They are symbolic figures enslaving her until the poem’s utterance, which will be an acting out of the internal struggle, intended to free her from paralysis. Here, too, Plath embeds an analogy to psychoanalytic therapy – the famous ‘talking cure’. In psychoanalysis the patient (the analysand) is encouraged by the analyst to speak, to free-associate, to thereby make what has been unconscious, conscious and available to control. ‘Acting out’ suggests the transference whereby the patient, unknowingly and unconscious of what she is doing, imposes on the analyst the role of father-oppressor. The daughter in Plath’s poem has done just that, but with her husband, ‘I made a model of you’, she says, ‘And I said I do, I do.’ Catharsis or freedom is supposed to arrive with the conscious knowledge of what is being acted out, how it has wounded her, and an ensuing awareness of how to begin healing. Plath seems to be asking her reader to understand the poem psychoanalytically as both symptomatic of illness and curative.

Readers seldom feel, however, that ‘Daddy’ achieves resolution or closure. Passions are not spent or assuaged. Even without the knowledge that Plath committed suicide four months after the composition of ‘Daddy’, the rage expressed in the poem and its excessive accusations, that Daddy is a Nazi devil, a brutish torturer and a vampire, are evidence that the speaker’s fury is ongoing and self-destructive. She has tried to kill herself once before, and when in the antepenultimate stanza she says the ‘telephone’s off’ and she is ‘finally through’, it sounds ominously as though her own death is the only way to end the struggle with Daddy. Because the poem also stresses repetition, the confident ‘once over’ of acting out proposed by Plath in her introduction is suspect. The ‘concept of repetition in Freudian thought’, as critic Jacqueline Rose points out, can be liberating, but may also signify a deadly compulsion. The speaker might be understood as ‘going back to the beginning in order to retrieve the mythic narrative of [her] individual history’, and with retrieval, she achieves both understanding and release. Or this might be ‘repetition as insistence without content’ – a compulsion to repeat that is associated by Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle with the death-drive (Haunting, p50). One of Freud’s best examples of this behaviour is Lady Macbeth’s futile efforts to wash away the crime of regicide by repetitively rubbing her hands while sleepwalking, ‘acting out’ her tortured conscience as she tries to exorcise its burden of guilt. This is, however, repetition for its own sake and does nothing for Lady Macbeth, who finally kills herself.

The daughter in ‘Daddy’ may be interpreted in a similar way. After her first suicide attempt, she did not surrender the wish to ‘get back’ to him, but married a surrogate figure and significantly, a Daddy substitute who would punish her, repeating a masochistic relationship to a dominant male figure: the husband is pictured as ‘A man in black with a Meinkampf look // And a love of the rack and the screw’. She must kill Daddy, she says, because he died before she had time, and if she has killed one man, she says, ‘I’ve killed two’. This is crime for punishment, once again soliciting physical abuse. The poem’s language is, in itself, highly redundant or repetitive in its rhymes and rhythms. The insistent ‘you’ in the opening line, as throughout the poem, is accusatory, as if the daughter is poking a finger in Daddy’s chest. Finally, all these repetitions may suggest that the daughter’s rage disguises unconscious guilt for wishing Daddy’s death.

The question of Plath’s difference from her speaker also remains unsettled and unsettling for critics… With ‘confessional’ poetry, though, such distinctions [between art and the event] are hard to to honour. We know, for example, from the date appended to the text in Plath’s Collected Poems, that ‘Daddy’ was composed on 12 October 1962, the anniversary of her father’s leg amputation in 1940 (Otto Plath died of a cardiac embolism on 5 November 1940) (LH, p24). Is Plath attempting to ‘amputate’ Daddy from her own psyche? To put him to rest finally? Should we read ‘Daddy’ in Freudian terms as a symbolic castration of the father, an attempt to rob him of his sexual power over her? …but one explanation Plath seems to be formulating for her first suicide attempt is internalised guilt for wishing her father dead and having that wish fulfilled. [Her father] died before she had time to resolve and overcome these oedipal – not Electra – wishes, and the consequence is an overidealised paternal figure, a Daddy of divine proportions, godlike infallibility and abusive powers to match his omnipotence in Plath’s psyche.

From Bundtzen, Lynda K. ‘Plath and psychoanalysis: uncertain truths’. 

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