Plath was born in Boston, Mass. on Oct. 27, 1932. Her father, Otto Plath, taught at a local university. He was an authoritarian, strict parent to Sylvia, but there were also times when he showered her with affection. These mixed messages confused Sylvia and made her yearn all the more for her father’s love.
Otto Plath suffered from untreated diabetes. In 1940, one of his feet developed gangrene and had to be amputated. The surgery did not go well and he died shortly thereafter, only a few days after Sylvia’s eighth birthday. When told of his death, Plath declared she would never speak to God again.
Plath’s life was a difficult one. While at college, she experienced a serious bout of depression and attempted suicide. In 1956, she married the emotionally unavailable Ted Hughes. They had two children together, a boy and a girl, but separated in 1962.
Overwhelmed by being a single mother, Sylvia Plath threw herself into the one thing she knew she could control – her poetry. In less than two months, she wrote most of the poems that appeared in her posthumously published book, “Ariel.” “Daddy” was one of the poems she penned during this time.
“Daddy” is perhaps best described as a barely controlled howl of outrage. Perhaps Plath was trying to confront her feelings about her father once and for all before moving on with her life. “Daddy, I have had to kill you,” the poem declares. “You died before I had time.”
“Daddy” then goes on to compare Otto to a Nazi – “A man in black with a Meinkampf look and a love of the rack and the screw.” Plath then compares herself to a Jew under Otto’s thumb. The implication that Otto had Nazi sympathies might have been more than poetic license. In the article “FBI Files on Sylvia Plath’s Father Shed New Light on Poem,” the author concludes that, while there is no evidence that Otto engaged in treasonous activities, he was certainly pro-German during World War II. The FBI also described him as “a man who makes no friends.”
Plath has other unflattering things to say about her father, describing him as “the black man who bit my pretty red heart in two.” She also remarks,
“Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.”
It is likely that this passage was also referring to her crumbling relationship with Ted Hughes, who had left her for another woman.
Finally, the end of the poem seems to bring some catharsis. “Daddy, daddy, you bastard. I’m through.”
Unfortunately, the poet’s insights appeared to come too late. In February of 1963, Sylvia Plath left a meal out for her children, wrote a suicide note telling her neighbor to call the doctor, and put her head in a gas oven. She died before help could arrive. Even today, historians argue whether Plath intended to complete suicide or if she expected to be rescued, as she had been in the past.
A word of warning to readers: “Daddy” is a harsh, angry and unforgiving poem. The intensity may be upsetting, especially if you are grieving the death of a parent.