The Role of Fathers in “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke and “Daddy” by Sylva Plath

In the poems, “My Papa’s Waltz” and “Daddy”, the children look at their fathers with melancholy and resentment. In “My Papa’s Waltz”, the son finds his father behaving in the most unpredictable and cruel way. A drunken father is seen in the poem, smelling whiskey, and his waltz with his son is the subject of the poem. In “Daddy”, the daughter verbally kills her father as in a fantasy. He died when she was only ten. Her nostalgic reaction to his absence is filled with anger and resentment. Both the poems ironically reflect the general perception of the role of an ideal father. This paper examines the role of the fathers in the poems.

The role is not similar in the poems. What is similar is only the resentment the fathers create in their children. In Theodore Roethke’s poem, “My Papa’s Waltz”, the father treats his son very roughly and brutally: “You beat time on my head/ With a palm caked hard by dirt” (Roethke). The helplessness of the child is very much evident in it. The father inflicts both emotional and physical pain on the child. The poet uses metaphors to show the intensity of the rough treatment. The word waltz, which is used normally to reflect joy, is used here ironically to show the father’s utter indifference to the pain his son undergoes. In “Daddy”, destiny has a role in the daughter’s suffering, because the father died when she was only ten, at an age when she wanted him more than ever: “You died before I had time” (Plath). Her father’s Prussian ancestry and her mother’s Jewish background also contribute to the unfortunate development of her anguish. But she loved her father very much. Such intensive love from a daughter to her father is termed as Electra complex by Freud. She first tries to join him through suicide, and then through her marriage with a person resembling her father: “I made a model of you” (Plath). The impact of the negative relationship the children have with their fathers in both the poems is almost similar. It is an immediate reaction in the form of outrage. A sense of helplessness runs through the poems.

The key significance of the two poems lies in the awareness they create among the readers about the actual role of a father in a family. The most important elements that should guide a father’s role are love, a sense of giving protection, and the need of consciousness to impart values. The child usually knows his father as a source of security. The last line in “Waltz” is “Still clinging to your shirt”, which highlights the child’s desire to cling on to his father (Roethke). The trauma inflicted on the children by their fathers develops into a form of fear. This is more evident in Plath. Words like “achoo”, “Ach”, Ich”, in the poem are fine examples of it (Plath). “My Papa’s Waltz” illustrates the negative attributes of the father through words like “whiskey”, “dizzy”, “waltzing”, “romped”, “battered”, “beat”, and “dirt” (Roethke). His rhyming of the word “breath” with “death” speaks more of the physical and mental torture the child undergoes. His “mother’s countenance/ Could not unfrown” his pain, says the poet (Roethke).

The two poems, thus, illustrate the similarities and the differences which the two fathers show in their behavior to their children. The poems indirectly remind the readers of the important role the parents should have in a family, particularly of the responsibility they have in rearing their children. The children need physical, psychological, and moral growth. If these are not adequately provided, the traumatic effect could be disastrous, as is in the case of Sylva Plath.

Works Cited

Plath, Sylva. “Daddy”.Web. 2009.

Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz”. Web, 2009.

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