In the late fifties, a new form of poetry was taking shape. These poems were of a personal nature, and the more personal, the better. This unrestrained, autobiographical poetry was coined “confessional” by M.L. Rosenthal in 1959 (Bawer 7). Sylvia Plath is one of the most widely known and widely celebrated confessional poets of the twentieth century. One theme Plath revisits in her poetry is the father figure which, due to the confessional nature of her poetry, is directly correlated to her father. One such poem is “Daddy,” written in her last collection of poems, Ariel, ironically edited and published posthumously by her estranged husband, Ted Hughes. The irony lies in the belief that Ted Hughes’ decision to leave the marriage in pursuit of another woman was the impetus that led to Plath’s suicide. While it has been argued that “Daddy” is an autobiographical account of Sylvia Plath’s unhealthy relationship with her father, which led to an unhealthy relationship with her husband, it is more likely that it is an account of Plath’s unhealthy relationship to her father’s death which led her into an unhealthy relationship with her husband and the death of their marriage, ultimately resulting in the death of herself.
“For psychoanalytic theory, our adult personality is the result of the emotional experiences we had while growing up” (Tyson 83). Plath suffered the loss of her father at the young age of eight. The loss of a parent is devastating, to be sure. However, couple that loss with the lack of understanding a young child possesses, and the loss intensifies. “As Plath describes it in her note, “The poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God” (Rosenblat). The Electra complex is Carl Jung’s version of Freud’s Oedipus complex. It is a stage in the psychosexual stage between the ages of two and five in which the child, our Electra in Plath’s case, strongly desires her father’s love, creating jealousy and hate for her mother. In a healthy environment, this crisis resolves itself naturally. The girl, giving up her desire for her father, begins to identify with her mother. “The phase is characterized by either vanity or recklessness in adulthood or its opposite. So a poor resolution to this conflict may lead to excessive promiscuity or chastity. It may lead to parent fixation or a continuously looking backward to the past” (Furnham).
Though Plath did leave the phallic stage and enter the latency stage, her father’s death caused her to regress. “Daddy, I have had to kill you / you died before I had time / Marble-heavy, a bag full of God (“Daddy” II. 6-8). The conflict that had been previously resolved reestablished itself in Plath with a vengeance. His sudden and traumatic death rekindles her intense and unhealthy desire for her father, and that desire becomes like a ghost, marble heavy, who will not leave her be. A natural defense mechanism to any trauma is repression. “This is not a very successful defense in the long-term since it involves forcing disturbing wishes, ideas or memories into the unconscious, where, although hidden, they will create anxiety” (McCleod). Plath repressed her feelings over her father’s death by becoming an overachiever. The day after her father died, Sylvia insisted she still go to school. This intense focus on her academic success became the biggest driving force in her attempt to escape the trauma of her father’s death: “As if possessed by a demon, Sylvia drove herself to succeed” (Lameyer 33).
In an earlier poem, “Lament,” Plath does not write any harsh words regarding her father as she does in “Daddy.” There is no mention of a “Brute heart of a brute like you” (“Daddy” X. 50). In “Lament,” she describes her father with the beautiful imagery of him walking in a shroud of wings and daring to scorn the falling weather. He is a man larger than life and one whom not even the fierce lightning can fell. He rides the “flood in a pride of prongs” scorning the mighty weather, and “he counted the guns of god a bother / laughed at the ambush of angels’ tongues” (“Lament” V. 13-14). But a bee sting? Something so small this God, her father, cannot defeat. She ends her lament with a plea, “O ransack the four winds and find another / man who can mangle the grin of kings” (“Lament” VI. 16-17). It is easy to see the regression that has occurred where Plath has reverted to the intense desire and love for her father and resentment and hatred for her mother, as can be seen in Freud’s phallic stage: “A scowl of sun struck down my mother / tolling her grave with golden gongs” (“Lament” IV. 10-11). The father figure in “Lament” is a far cry from the fascist, Jew-killing father figure in “Daddy,” who terrifies Plath.
The contradictory images of the father figure in the two poems indicate that these poems are less about her father and more about her father’s death and, ultimately, the fear of abandonment. When contemplating how repression shaped Plath’s poetry and life, it is essential to remember that “repression doesn’t eliminate our painful experiences and emotions. Rather, it gives them force by making them organizers of our current experience: we unconsciously behave in ways that will allow us to ‘play out,’ without admitting it to ourselves, our conflicted feelings” (Tyson 13). For Plath, the ultimate painful experience was the abandonment by her father when he died. According to Plath’s “major man” during her Smith years, “I think Sylvia wanted someone to replace the father she had lost in childhood…” but she would inevitably “reject this suitor as not godlike enough to be both father and lover” (Lameyer 41). She would eventually find the “model” of her father, or rather the model which would allow her to subconsciously relive the abandonment she suffered when she married fellow poet Ted Hughes, “a man in black with a Meinkampf look / and a love of the rack and the screw” (“Daddy” XIII-XIV. 64-66). And it is only in the context of her relationship with Hughes that the father figure from “Lament” transforms into the vampire from “Daddy”.
Another defense mechanism Plath resorted to was identification with the aggressor; in her case, the aggressor was death. Death was introduced in such an abrupt way and at such a very early age. It is easy to imagine the unexpected death of her Godlike father kicked around in her brain for many years. The knowledge that in the end, no matter how much we love someone or how much they love us, “when we die we die alone” and “we each die our own private death” so “taken to its logical extreme, this relationship to death will result in suicide” (Tyson 23). The easiest way to identify with death in order to conquer the fear is, ironically, to die; “at twenty I tried to die / and get back, back, back to you” (“Daddy” XII. 58-59).
In Plath’s personal life, she relives the abandonment of a literal death in the abandonment of a figurative death of her marriage, and this is mirrored in her poem, “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two / the vampire who said he was you” (“Daddy” XV. 75-76). In the end, it appears the repetitive loss became too much for Plath’s fragile ego to handle, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (“Daddy” XVI. 80). It seems for Plath, her father’s death was the destructively defining moment in her life. It is a mistake to assume the confessional poem “Daddy” is meant to describe a tyrant, a brute, a man who haunted her unto her death. There is no evidence to support this. However, if taken from a psychoanalytic approach, if one is willing to peel back the layers of the psyche, it is clear that it was not her father’s memory that haunted Plath and ultimately led to her amazing poetry and tragic suicide, but her repression of his death.
Bawer, Bruce. “Sylvia Plath and the Poetry of Confession.” Ed. Harold Bloom. Blooms Modern Critical Views: Sylvia Plath. NY: Infobase Publishing. 2007. Print.
Furnham, Adriane. “Psychosexual Stages: Freud’s Theory.” Psychology Today. 5 Sep, 2015. Web. 4 June, 2016.
Laymer, Gordon. “Sylvia at Smith.” Ed. Edward Butscher. Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. NY: Dodd, Mead & Company. 1977. Print.
McCleod, Saul. “Defense Mechanisms.” Simply Psychology. 2009. Web. 4 June, 2016.
Plath, Sylvia. “Internal.org Poets.” Daddy. Web. 4 June 2016.
Plath, Sylvia. “Internal.org Poets.” Lament. Web. 4 June 2016.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. NY: Routeledge. 2015. Print.