Plath and Her Father

Sylvia Plath’s poems, “Full Fathom Five” and “Daddy” are both deeply personal poems which examine Plath’s relationship with her father. Clearly, many unresolved issues exist between the Plath and her father, creating tension in these two works. For example, in “Full Fathom Five” she compares her father to a fantastic old man emerging from the sea. She describes him, saying, “You float near/ As kneeled ice-mountains” (11-12); thus giving him a larger than life appearance. He seems to be domineering in comparison to the speaker, overpowering her. Yet, she seems unwilling to be parted from him. Plath asserts “Father, this thick air is murderous. I would breathe water”. Assuming that the speaker is human, one can infer that the speaker is willing to suffer under abnormal environmental conditions just to further her relationship with her father. As a result, it is difficult to discern the tone of the work in relation to her relationship with her father. One can argue that she intimidated by her father, yet she holds a certain affection for him. Contrastingly, “Daddy”, portrays her father in a different light. She seems to compare their relationship to that of Hitler and the Jews. She compares herself to a Jew, claiming she begins to “talk like a Jew” in line 34. She draws numerous parallels between her father and Hitler throughout the work, describing his “neat mustache” and “Aryan eye” (43-44). By drawing a parallels between Hitler and the Jews and she and her father, she implies that her relationship with her father is oppressive and cruel. Comparing the tone between these two works, one can debate the nature of their relationship.


What do you think that speaker’s relationship with her father?

What do you think the tone of these works says about their relationship and the tensions between father and daughter?

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10 Responses to Plath and Her Father

  1. Plath establishes the “I” and the apostrophe of her father very distinctly and opposite to one another, alienating herself from every aspect of what represents or is reminiscent of her father’s presence. She very obviously feels victimized, if not intimidated by, her father, which she had at one point considered a deified figure. This is interesting because it hints at a break in trust between the two, one which devastated Plath deeply. Plath describes the relationship as a power struggle, where she feels heavily oppressed, “tongue stuck in [her] jaw” (25). She seems to hint at a never-ending search for her father’s approval in other male figures, specifically in her husband, the “vampire who said he was you” (72).

  2. I agree with Rani that the man in “Full Fathom Five,” her father, is “domineering” and “overpowering.” However, Rani mentions one point that I disagree with. She says that the line “this thick air is murderous. I would rather breathe water,” is saying that “the speaker is willing to suffer under abnormal environmental conditions just to further her relationship with her father.” I disagree. I think that what the line is really saying is that humans survive by breathing, yet the air around her is so poisonous that breathing it in would have the same effect on her that breathing water would have – she would die.

  3. Steven says:

    I agree with your observation that her father was oppresive and cruel towards her. The Hitler connection is definitely there, and she also compares him to a devil multiple times in the poem. Her father died when she was young, ‘I was ten when they buried you,’ (Daddy) and he caused all of this pain that stuck with her afterwards. Even though the relationship was obviously not good, it is clear that she overcomes this struggle by the end of “Daddy” with the last line being ‘Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.’ This combined with the fact that it is title the endearing term Daddy, as opposed to a more formal father, seems to be that she has resolved their relationship and no longer lets it keep her down.

  4. Mika Katz says:

    I definitely agree with everything that you’ve stated. This relationship with her father is complicated, confusing, and ambiguous. I was equally as confused by the fact that Plath calls her father “daddy” as opposed to her father, or her dad. Perhaps because her father died when she was young, she might have been able to identify with him more if she called him the same name that she used as a little girl. In lines 8 and 9 she states, “Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, Ghastly statue with one gray toe”. This image in itself holds a very grave meaning. Marble heavy refers to a gravestone, and a bag full of God could refer to a body bag. She might feel that the human skin is a body bag containing our souls. More importantly, Plath references God, and it is unclear if she has a positive connation of God or a negative connotation of God. Maybe she felt like her father was a sort of God, or that he possessed that much power over her.

  5. Plath’s relationship seems to be a very complicated one. From reading both poems, I would say that Plath wants to be close with her father and has some amount of affection towards him. However, the negative aspects of their relationship seem to almost consume what good there is. Plath calls her father by a casual and endearing term “Daddy” instead of father which is much more formal. In her poem “Daddy,” Plath says “I use to pray to recover you” (14). In line 47, Plath mentions she has a picture of him and later says “At twenty I tried to die and get back, back, back to you” (53-54). This shows that Plath still has a longing to connect to her father. The repetition of the word back seems like an increase in time. This works as if Plath is implying she does not want to go back to the Father as he was before he died but rather the father of her early years. Plath almost seems haunted by her father in the sense of the contrast between the longing for him and the harsh descriptions of him such as “the vampire who said he was you” (67) and “you bastard” (75). Rani points out “By drawing a parallels between Hitler and the Jews and she and her father, she implies that her relationship with her father is oppressive and cruel.” I strongly agree with this. I also think that the parallels show just how strong of a disconnect there is between Plath and her father.

  6. In reading these two poems I believe that the negative aspects of this interesting relationship between Plath and her father far outweigh the good ones. The Nazi imagery is very powerful, much more so than the positive imagery used. Additionally, in “Full Fathom Five” I interpreted the line about breathing water as a negative. She is saying that the air is no good but clearly for a human to drink water is suicide, highlighting the negativity she feels towards her father.

  7. Bella Rubin says:

    I think the relationship the speaker has with her father is a fearing one out of respect. In “Full Fathom Five” Plath describes the father as an “old man”, older people are usually respected for their wisdom. Plath gives descriptions like a god coming from the sea which also makes the speaker feel belittled. The god has with “white hair” symbolizing old age and wisdom. In “Daddy” Rani explained how “she seems to compare their relationship to that of Hitler and the Jews.” This is definitely an extreme but it gets the job done effectively of Plath showing the extent to which she fears and respects her father. As much fear and respect for her father she still writes in the last line “daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” This shows how the fear and respect she has was forced, that she felt obligated to respect her father but in reality did not really respect him.

  8. Max Richter says:

    After reading “Full Fathom Five” a second time, something I kept noticing was the narrator constantly describing how tremendous this old man is, but that it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. I agree with Rani that the father was “overpowering her” and that could be seen from the tone of how this narrator was in awe and fear all at once. Also, the use of enjambment shows the uncomfortable nature of the speakers relationship to her father. “Daddy” carries a similar tension based on the tone, but not fully the same. There is clear empowerment from the father by comparing him to the Nazis and the speaker to a Jew, but this tone is less of fear and more of fighting back and staying strong.

  9. Deborah Shteierman says:

    Rani pointed out that while there certainly seems to be tension between Plath and her father, there also seems to be some affection there as well. In “Daddy,” Plath likens herself to a Jew and her father to a Nazi and yet, she calls her father “daddy,” affectionately. However in this poem, I think the negative tone far outweighs the seemingly affectionate title. Plath says “I never could talk to you,” and “I have always been scared of you.” These are not simple things and they are only glimpses into the deep emotions that surely lie behind these lines.

  10. Debra Zarny says:

    While reading “Full Fathom Five,” it seemed that this poem was more descriptive, describing her father’s features and other things noticeable to the outside world, while “Daddy,” a more personal name given to a father, is her description of this more personal relationship of a father and daughter. In the first poem she describes her father as being older, with “white hair, white beard, far-flung” (4) and also describes him as defying godhood. In her second poem, she says, “I never could talk to you” (24) and “I have always been scared of you” (51), descriptions that are on more of a personal level between her and her father, and are things that the outsider might not realize about their relationship. I am not sure if the speaker is simply afraid of her father, and this is their relationship, or if she feels this way out of respect for her father.

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