Sylvia Plath as Electra

Sylvia Plath as Electra

Collage showing Sylvia Plath, Sigmund Freud, and Ted Hughes
Sylvia Plath, Sigmund Freud, and Ted Hughes; Collage by Alejandro Villa Vásquez (2018)

While the poetry of Sylvia Plath is rife with experiences of unresolved love and sensuous imagination, “Daddy,” written in the months before her death, is the ideal case study for Freudian analysis. Described by the poet in a 1962 BBC interview as one girl’s confrontation with the unresolved Electra complex manifested in the wake of her father’s untimely death, “Daddy” is a blueprint for the processes of sublimation, fomentation of psychical trauma and its subsequent talking cure, as well as experiences that, Plath felt, were unique to women in her society for the roles they play in familial and social relations.1 The poem is further complicated by references to the Holocaust, and Plath states in the same BBC interview that the narrator of the poem also tries to mend the rift between her Nazi father and Jewish mother, exploring victimhood on a larger scale. Plath is among the most gifted English-language poets of the twentieth century, but for the purposes of this paper, I engage with her work not as literary objects but as though they are the statements of a patient undergoing psychoanalytic treatment, post-trauma. Plath endured such a trauma at age eight, when her father died of diabetes-related complications.2 The poem is most likely her attempt to resolve the trauma that resulted from the initial impact of her father’s death. Her enormous body of writing suggests that she pursued this art form to master it—to gain control of her painful experiences. Ultimately, the execution of a poem like “Daddy” is meant to provide catharsis of the psychical residue left behind by trauma. It is but one of countless poems that strongly suggest poetry has often provided a remedy for the cathexes that form in response to traumatic experiences. But it can be argued, at least in the case of Sylvia Plath, that “Daddy” was not enough to cure her of this neurosis.

The poem itself is morbid in content, but makes use of sonic devices to create an indefatigable cadence that makes it difficult to turn away from the narrator’s truth. Placed in biographical context, the initial trauma endured by the patient was the abrupt death of her father, when she was still a small child. While these are stanzas of poetry, I firmly believe their confessional nature provides uninhibited insight into the patient’s neuroses. Freud mentioned throughout his writings that a prominent characteristic of deep-seated psychical trauma is the suddenness with which the first shock occurs. It makes the impact more disorientating—Plath did not know that her father was going to die, nor did she have the slightest idea that such a fate could become of her father. At that point in psychological development, the patient as a child conceived of her father as an immortal and benevolent character. In the aforementioned BBC script note, she explained that the father of the narrator died when she still thought he was God.3 The emotional attachment is of such profundity that the patient, after the initial trauma, spent years internalizing it. At the same time that she was internalizing it, the patient also began to write letters and practice her hand in poetry. Her body of written work strongly suggests that writing was her primary outlet for emotional catharsis. Plath became a renowned poet and novelist, showing her dedication to the mastery of a skill. But more than writing poetry well and receiving praise and pay for it, the patient’s poems were her attempts to gain control over the sorrow and happiness that defined much of her life. I use the phrases “subject” and “patient” interchangeably, as the purpose of this paper is to analyze the relationship between neurosis and writing as a cure, as well as listen to the patient as she explicates her pain. In trying to explain to herself, and therefore accept, the death of her father and everything she felt in the aftermath, the subject wrote poems like “The Colossus” and “Daddy,” in which narrators address father figures with miserable confessions. The speakers vacillate between wanting to resurrect their paternal addressees or vanquish them altogether. These poems are paragons of sublimating mortifying pain into socially acceptable, artistic forms.

After the initial impact of her father’s death, the subject began her career to master poetry, her preferred art form. At the same time, the psychical residue left from an encounter with death significantly changed the subject’s attitude toward life. Going years without confronting the agony of her father’s death, the psychical residue had perniciously affected the patient, giving her a propensity to write brooding poetry and, arguably, engage in unfruitful relationships with men that only further turned her inward. Suffering from this neurosis, the patient attended to her impassioned thoughts by validating them through writing. The poetry the patient wrote was her method of a talking cure. Through “Daddy,” for example, the poet was able to relive all parts of her relationship with and the life of her father—as opposed to earlier psycho-literary confrontations like “The Colossus,” in which she seems only to admit longing and ultimate defeat. In “Daddy,” she confesses that he “Bit my pretty red heart in two. / I was ten when they buried you. / At twenty I tried to die / And get back, back, back to you.”4 The pulpy and lovely image of a heart and the admission that a suicide attempt was at least partially motivated by her longing to see her father again. These lines encompass the emotions that the poet ricocheted between when dealing with the acceptance of her father’s untimely passing. Writing allowed the patient to reenact very specific moments of trauma impact, without the immediate demand of the body and mind to cope with the pain. The talking cure recreates a certain pain, unfettered yet more easily dissectable so that the subject may explore all the facets of pain. Here, the patient depicted her self-described Electra complex and the tension she felt she inherited because of the contrasting heritages of her parents.

But Plath did not write to rid herself of the memory of her father or his relationship with her mother; she wrote to accept the reality of what she felt against her father, so that she may finally move on. Moving on, in Freudian terms, means abreaction. It would mean the patient, knowing herself and how she reacted to the situation better, would no longer have to invert herself further to cope with her bereavement. What Freud argued about the development of sexual aberrations very well may apply here: she felt unable to accept the curious anger that permeated her thoughts toward her father, let alone freely express them in a way that would allow abreaction, and containing those feelings only magnified her sadness. Because there was no other theater than her mind to live out her trauma, the patient became self-obsessed, developing a cathexis on her own feelings of bereavement. Poetry was her way out of her own mind, turning to the world for or better or worse to explore everything she felt toward her father, and herself. “Daddy” is a poem of abreaction. She ventured into the deepest recesses of her undying devotion to her father. The use of (slant) rhyme is the uplifting but unsettling undercurrent of love that flows even deeper than all the misery the patient has felt because of her father.

She further admits that “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two— / The vampire who said he was you / And drank my blood for a year, / Seven years, if you want to know. / Daddy, you can lie back now.”5 These two men that she mentions almost at the end of the poem are mysterious. It is likely that one of these men is her father, the precipitator of her anguish. Recently, literary scholars have said that the other man the narrator has killed is an archetypical derelict husband. In real life, the patient had to endure a very turbulent relationship to a man she met while studying in England, fellow poet Ted Hughes. The latter was an adulterer and some accounts by the patient claim that he was violent with her.6 That single line about doing away with two men is telling. The narrator isn’t killing both at the same time; she says that if she has succeeded in laying one of them to rest, then she has done so with the other. She sees these two figures as the same, as manifestations of each other. These two men are guilty of the same God-like mastery over her and negligence of her feelings. Considering that the poem was written well after the revelation of her husband’s infidelity, it means that the patient intertwined two of the most influential men in her life into the same executioner. What this means is that the psychic trauma of her father’s death and subsequent lack of a male presence made her look for a companion that could simulate the feelings of paternal love that went unfounded. This in itself is stereotypically Freudian, but not without reason. Living in a traditional society, women were often left no choice but to depend on their male counterparts. The death of her father created a deficiency that the patient wanted to make up for in the other part of her life that relied on interactions with males. In romantic relationships, her self-obsession with her paternal relationship and his seeming abandonment made her seek out men that could mirror the love she had and lost. The poem was her way of getting done with both of the men that ultimately betrayed her in the worst ways imaginable: parting through death and extramarital affairs.

In the same way that she intertwined a lover with a parent, the following lines about being sucked dry of her blood by a vampire also involve a conflation. Who is the vampire? Is it the shadow, the mirage that the patient’s father left in his wake? Is it the father himself? Or, perhaps, just as likely, is it the dark conception of her father that the patient formed in response to the anger and sadness he caused her. However dark or embittered it may be, the sensuous imagery of this stanza cannot be ignored. The image of a horrifying figure feeding on the neck of a despondent woman is erotic to say the least. The entire poem is tinged with images and expressions that hinge on desire. These desires become incestuous—the title of the poem also lending itself to this interpretation. The confluence of her father with her unfaithful husband means that the patient often could not compartmentalize her feelings of love, lust and longing. While futilely becoming enraged with her father for dying, the subject’s innocent feelings of sadness were choked out. While dealing with the anger and lust she felt toward her treacherous husband, the subject magnified these feelings by (perhaps involuntarily) introducing the unresolved feelings that made up her Electra complex. But rather than the true definition of an Electra complex in Freudian psychology, it was her own definition, marked by a complex of betrayal, sadness, and arousal brought about by the impact of her father’s death. It was this displeasure that drove the patient to pursue mastery over art. In mastering such a method of communication with the world around her, the patient attempted to invert the displeasure into the pleasure of satisfaction with one’s own work, and the satisfaction of others. Only with this reversal could the patient have been able to resolve her pain. Perhaps she did not want to resolve her pain. For without the impetus of pain resolution (contentment), the patient might have feared losing the drive toward mastery that afflicted her in the first place.

The poem is further complicated when one analyzes it from the standpoint of group psychology. In the poem, she aligns herself with being Jewish. According to the note, the patient was Jewish on her mother’s side, while her father, she suggests in the same note, may have had a past with Nazi Germany. This, she felt, was a conflict that she had to resolve in the theater of her own mind on behalf of her parents. According to Donald Moss in his work Hating in the First Person Plural, people often align themselves with victims in their attempts to sympathize, and have much more difficulty admitting any proximity to the tormentors.7 The patient easily imbued her traitorous father—and by proxy, her husband—with a guilt only comparable to the guilt of the Nazis; but she could not have completed the allegory if she didn’t associate herself with the tormentor’s victim: Jewish people. It suited the patient to write from the perspective of a Jewish woman being tormented by the memory of an evil man who is also a Nazi and who also happens to be her father. In part the analogy effaces the speaker and the father, and makes them extensions of their respective associations, Jews and Nazis. It makes it easier to celebrate her triumph over her monstrous father, because he becomes inextricably tied to the ferociously violent entity that was the Nazi party. It’s befitting then, that the last stanza includes the line “They are dancing and stamping on you.”8 These villagers, perhaps Jews overcome with joy that the Nazi threat has been vanquished, are celebrating on the grave of a wrongdoer, a person who was a bad man, and an even worse father.

Plath was damned if she did, damned if she didn’t. If she hadn’t resolved the complex feelings caused by her father’s demise, then she would have spent the rest of her life feeding the unstoppable drive toward mastery over the only thing that could give her release from her own feelings. But if she had successfully abreacted, then she might have feared losing the drive that very well may have kept her alive. Sylvia Plath, for better or worse, was a patient dependent on the impetus of pain resolution. She may have vanquished everything that stood in her way, even herself.

  1. “On ‘Daddy,’” Modern American Poets, University of Illinois,
  2. “Sylvia Plath,” The Poetry Foundation,
  3. Jon Rosenblatt, “Jon Rosenblatt: On ‘Daddy,’” Modern American Poetry,
  4. Sylvia Plath, “Daddy,” 56-59, via The Poetry Foundation,
  5. Plath, “Daddy,” 71-75.
  6.  Aiyana Edmund, “The Tragic Relationship of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes,” Literary Ladies Guide, March 7, 2018,
  7. Donald Moss, “Introduction,” Hating in the First Person Plural (New York: Other Press, 2003) xvii-xxxiv.
  8. Plath, “Daddy,” 78.
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