The Political Plath

Jun 8 2013 @ 5:42pm

April Bernard regrets that Sylvia Plath died before exploring “political themes nascent in her final work, which many readers ignore or misread as only ‘personal'”:

Take “Daddy,” a key example of how, in her last poems, Plath’s politics began to emerge more clearly. Of course many will already have its catchy thumping iambs imbedded in their minds—“You do not do, you do not do…” Here’s a stanza from later in the poem:

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
With your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—

Plath can cause embarrassment through overstatement—going a little too far is her signature move. (One line from “Elm,” another late poem, that best captures her veer towards overstatement is, “I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.”) But if we consider embarrassment as an aesthetic strategy rather than as a mistake, we begin to see how funny Plath often is. I confess I had read and admired Plath for several years before her humor struck me full-force—the first time I heard a now-famous BBC radio recording in which she reads “Daddy” with a discernible wave of laughter in her voice. (And yes, there is also rage, and profound sorrow.) I re-read the poem, and realized for the first time that her exaggerations and preposterous claims, which link the Holocaust with an American middle-class “family romance,” were meant to be an elaborate joke, one in extreme bad taste, right on the edge of kitsch. …

At the time of the poem’s writing, in the early 1960s, the first psychoanalytic studies of Hitler’s childhood were appearing in print; and this poem also has to do with how the Teutonic, rigidly patriarchal, model of the family affects the culture at large. When Plath says, “I may be a bit of a Jew,” she may indeed, as some critics have said, be speculating about her own origins; but more likely she is asserting that, for the purposes of her family, she contains the seeds of the “other” that must be eradicated. In the comic-grotesque scenario of “Daddy,” the bullying father is Hitler, the at-last rebelling daughter a Jew who is deciding, after all, not to be wiped out in the threatened genocide. “Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through,” as the final line ringingly announces, is a political rejection of patriarchal bullying at least as much as it is adolescent foot-stomping.

Previous Dish on Plath here, here, and here.