Sylvia Plath: The Use of Dramatic Monologue as Confessional Poetry
Sylvia Plath presents an unusual paradox as a writer. On one hand, she is lauded by literary critics, particularly feminist critics, for her use of confessional poetry. Specifically, in poems such as "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" Plath is assumed to be 'confessing' certain aspects of her personal life. Like the speaker of "Daddy," she was the daughter of a German father; like the subject of "Lady Lazarus" she attempted suicide several times. On the other hand, both of these poems are still written in the genre of the dramatic monologue, in which a speaker articulates an idea through the assumed persona of another person obviously different from the poet.
In "Daddy," perhaps Plath's most famous poem, the speaker is the child of a former Nazi officer who is desperately trying to exorcise the ghost of her father.
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
The speaker of the poem "Daddy" identifies not with her father, but with her father's murdered victims, suggesting that the oppression she felt at his hands as a young girl mirrors that of the oppression he wielded against the Jews of Europe. The political oppression of the German man parallels his oppression within the home of his family. "Rather than an elegy or an angry conversation of a girl with her deceased father, 'Daddy' can be seen as a manifestation of the different aspects of a woman's oppression by patriarchy" (Hassanpour & Hashim 123). In other words, this gives the poem an explicitly political dimension that it would lack if simply read as an expression of Plath's feelings about her own father who was of German extraction but not a Nazi. Plath explicitly invokes the Holocaust in every line, effectively ratcheting upon the intensity of the poem and making its subject matter larger than that of a familial relationship.
Plath almost playfully creates connections with her poetry and her own life, even while using a dramatic monologue to hold the speaker at a distance. "Dramatic monologue in poetry, also known as a persona poem, shares many characteristics with a theatrical monologue: an audience is implied; there is no dialogue; and the poet speaks through an assumed voice -- a character, a fictional identity, or a persona" ("Poetic technique: Dramatic monologue," Poets.org.). Plath's dramatic persona is unique, in comparison with other dramatic poems such as the work of Robert Browning's assumed, murderous persona in "My Last Duchess." "Daddy" manages to be intensely personal in the lyrical mode yet contains enough identifying details to still qualify as a dramatic monologue and make explicit use of Holocaust symbolism in a manner that Plath could not, were she only referencing her own life.
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
Plath draws a direct connection to the mass slaughter of Europe, the perverse and masochistic attractions of fascism, and the way that women often undo themselves by being attracted to violent men, again and again. The Nazi father figure is simultaneously attractive and repulsive with his "bright blue eyes" and "neat mustache" which conveys his Aryan nationality and his masculinity (Hassanpour & Hashim 4).
At the end of the poem, the speaker must overcome 'daddy' to find her true identity. However, it is the villagers he father wronged, not the speaker, that enact the ultimate exorcism of the Nazi: "There's a stake in your fat black heart / And the villagers never liked you." Only after that can the speaker be free of the curse of her father -- or at least 'through' in the ambiguous words that end the poem about her fate. The ability to free one's self of an oppressive father requires social changes, not just changes within the individual.
Plath is able to tap into her own personal struggles with men and juxtapose them into a larger, collective historical struggle between marginalized people and fascism. Her poetry, through the use of the dramatic monologue, is simultaneously personal and political. This ironic tone combined with symbolism gives the work added weight beyond the lyrical confessional is also seen in her dramatic…