Tone and Style in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”

by Sara Wilson

 

Throughout “Daddy,” by Sylvia Plath, the tone varies from childlike adoration and admiration to that of a contemptuous and detached, yet fearful adult. The tone is found to be innocent, almost akin to a lullaby at times, and incredibly manic and sinister at others. Unlike her variations in tone, Plath manages to maintain a dark and heavy style throughout the poem through her use of diction. “Daddy” is a confessional poem, presented in an oppressive, negative manner, not unlike much of Plath’s work. With all that is known about Sylvia Plath and her short life, one would expect her experiences to reflect in her work in the form of her signature tone and style.

“Daddy” begins in an almost singsong, or nursery rhyme fashion with Plath’s use of repetition in the first stanza. She begins with, “You do not do, you do not do / Any more, black shoe” (1-2). It almost seems playful, like the familiar English nursery rhyme, "The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe." In addition to noticing Plath’s repetition throughout the poem, the reader recognizes the continual use of the (oo) sound. It is a soothing sound and its frequent use within the poem anchors Plath’s underlying childlike tone. Within the first and second stanza, the reader is quickly introduced to the intentional use of dark and heavy adjectives such as black, marble-heavy, and gray. Plath’s diction is deliberate; the reader must feel the desperation only an abandoned child could feel.

Moving along through “Daddy,” the reader is meant to first recognize the adoration Plath felt for her father and the God-like position he had in her life. Her emotions were intense in both admiration and anger, and those emotions translated recklessly into the tone and style of the poem. Plath loved her father and was left alone by him at a time when he was a “larger than life” character to her. The reader can easily detect the fearful tone in the fifth stanza with the line, “I never could talk to you. The tongue stuck in my jaw” (24-25).

Plath felt victimized, and that vulnerability was expressed in the tone of the sixth and seventh stanzas. Her choice to use both German and English could be interpreted as an analogy for her feelings of separation and dissolve. In the seventh stanza, the tone of the poem takes on something nearing self-deprecating. Plath likens herself to a Jew being transported to a concentration camp, “Chuffing me off like a Jew. A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen” (31-32). Jews were viewed as subhuman and they were treated as such. Plath’s submissive tone continues on through the ninth stanza with the line, “I have always been scared of you” (41).

When the reader reaches the 10th stanza, the tone of the poem shifts to that of a desperate woman, a woman who finally realizes just how dominant and threatening her deceased father has been. Plath’s diction is skillfully chosen with the line, “Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you” (48-50). With artfully chosen words such as those, the reader cannot help but feel the anger expressed by Plath. She indicates an attempt at suicide at the age of twenty, something only a desperate woman would try. After this point in “Daddy,” her tone moves from desperation to detachment.

Plath’s style remains, but her tone transforms toward the final stanzas of the poem. The changes are small, but significant in their own right. The line that may allude the reader to the change is, “So daddy, I’m finally through” (68). There is a sense of ambivalence in Plath’s tone, subtly suggesting that the struggle is finally over. She conveys to the reader that she has cut ties with her father’s ghost by aptly stating, “The black telephone’s off at the root, / The voices just can’t worm through” (70).

The final stanzas are fierce, yet somehow soothing and reassuring. They suggest a sense of deserved victory over the demons (both her father and her ex-husband) that haunted Plath. The tone expressed in the final line of “Daddy” is that of a liberated woman. Neither a dead man nor a man in black hold Plath prisoner. She is finally able to rid her heart and mind of the man who had oppressed her for the entirety of her life, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (80).