Baby Sylvia with her parents Aurelia Schober and Otto Emil Plath.

Sylvia Plath was born into German culture. Her father, Otto Emil Plath, was born in Grabow, northeast Germany, soon after Otto von Bismarck became chancellor of the modern German Empire. The son of Ernestine Kottke and Theodore Plath, a farmer and blacksmith, Otto emigrated to America in 1901, when he was sixteen. A tall, erect, handsome man, he had blue eyes, ruddy complexion, high-parted hair, neat brush mustache, and cleft chin. He was educated at Northwestern College in Wisconsin, where all the instruction was in German, received a master’s degree at the University of Washington in 1912, and had an unfortunate three-week marriage. He taught at Berkeley, Columbia, MIT, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins, from 1912 to 1921, and earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in zoology from Harvard in 1925 and 1928. After finally securing a permanent position, he taught science and German at Boston University for the rest of his life. He married Aurelia Schober, who had been his German student and was twenty-one years younger, in Carson City, Nevada, in January 1932. Two years later he published Bumblebees and Their Ways, which, along with her own beekeeping, influenced Sylvia’s poems about bees.

Otto, who admired the regimented nature of insect societies, was a rigid, short-tempered, domestic tyrant who ruled the household through the German concept of Ordnung. Fearful of doctors and surgery, the fifty-one-year-old scientist refused to recognize his own diabetes, which could have been treated and controlled. During his agonizing four-year illness, the once powerful man deteriorated physically and emotionally. When her father was dying, Sylvia, costumed in a nurse’s uniform, with long braids under a starched cap, served him food and water. But she was unable to save him and could say, with Miranda in The Tempest, “O, I have suffered/ With those that I saw suffer!” When Otto’s toe became blackened with gangrene, his foot, and then his leg, had to be amputated, and he became a hopeless cripple. In November 1940, when Sylvia was eight years old, he died of a pulmonary embolism in a hospital. (Hospitals to Plath were like dafffodils to Wordsworth.) When told of her father’s death, Sylvia reacted as if the Deity had committed a social gaffe and exclaimed, “I’ll never speak to God again!” Otto’s doctor asked, “How could such a brilliant man be so stupid?” and Sylvia spent the rest of her life trying to answer that vexing question. Her father’s virtual suicide, which she referred to obsessively throughout her life and art, profoundly influenced her own suicide.

Plath’s mother, Aurelia Schober, the daughter of Austrian-born immigrants, had grown up in a German-speaking household. After Otto’s death, her parents moved into her small home in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and she had to share a bedroom with Sylvia. The surname of Esther Greenwood, the autobiographical heroine of Plath’s novel The Bell Jar (1963), is the English translation of Grunwald, her maternal grandmother’s maiden name.

Tall and blond, Plath looked German. In 1947, soon after World War II, she began to correspond with a German pen pal. Plath had all the quintessential German qualities: she was clean, orderly, punctual, meticulous, disciplined, industrious, conformist, and obedient. In Cambridge, England, she obsessively cut her breakfast eggs into neat squares and triangles. (By contrast, when the critic Al Alvarez visited Plath at the very end of her life, her unwashed hair, an unmistakable sign of her depression, “gave off a strong smell, sharp as an animal’s.”) Plath always tried to please her superiors and abjectly submitted to figures of authority: her father, teachers, and husband. But when she was an adolescent, she had to hide these German characteristics, which were scorned by Americans during the war. Plath was also influenced by German philosophy, literature, and music. She used Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra as a self-help text to develop her own will to power, and was attracted to the cult of death in German Romantic and modern literature, and in Richard Wagner’s Liebestod and Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.

Plath’s orderly and repressive German traits, which helped control her mania, also accentuated the horrors and self-pity in her work, as well as the negative side of her personality: her unrelenting egoism, naked ambition, and aggressive quest for perfection. She tried to extinguish her German qualities and identify with several close Jewish friends in order to release her wilder creative side, which she described as “wanton, frivolous, spontaneous, skittish, whimsical, capricious, volatile, erratic and fitful.” She became a Unitarian and not, like Otto, a Lutheran; she learned French, not German, in high school and college (though she took German courses in England). In The Bell Jar, Esther says, “each time I picked up a German dictionary or a German book, the very sight of those dense, black, barbed-wire [Gothic print] letters made my mind shut like a clam.” In college, she studied literature, not her father’s dreaded science, and took courses in botany rather than in biology. She valued the wealth and social status of her classmates at Smith College more than her father’s intellectual achievements—his Harvard doctorate, professorship at Boston University, and scholarly publications—which she felt had been nullified by the maiming and death of that once dominating colossus.

In The Bell Jar, Plath associated her German origins with mental illness and wrote that her father “came from some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia”—though he actually came from Pomerania. She sometimes denigrated Otto as a “sort of fuddy-duddy professor who dealt with bugs down in Boston” and ambivalently said, “He was an ogre. But I miss him.” She unconsciously wished for his death to end the suffering of both the patient and his family, and expressed her guilt-ridden feelings by telling a college friend: “He was an autocrat. I adored and despised him, and I probably wished many times that he were dead. When he obliged me and died, I imagined that I had killed him.”

Otto’s spectral and menacing figure—always dead, not alive—recurs throughout Sylvia’s poems. She never portrays her father as an American, but always as a German or even a Nazi. And she repeatedly kills Otto in her poems to punish him for killing himself in life. In “Berck-Plage” (a seaside town in the Pas de Calais in northern France), her father’s oppressive black boot, which holds his severed limb, “has no mercy for anybody./ Why should it, it is the hearse of a dead foot.” In “Little Fugue,” an allusion to a composition by J. S. Bach, she mourns for her father and calls him “Gothic and barbarous, pure German.” She portrays Otto, who lived in humble obscurity when Americans were extremely hostile to Germans, as a symbolic executioner: “you, during the Great War/ In the California delicatessen/ Lopping the sausages!” And she exclaims, “You had one leg, and a Prussian mind.”

The literary allusions and echoes in Plath’s poetry give weight and authority to her rage and fury. “Electra on Azalea Path” suggests Electra on Aurelia Plath and refers to the Freudian complex in which the daughter has an unnaturally strong sexual attachment to her father. Plath alludes to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, to W. B. Yeats’s “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/ And Agamemnon dead” in “Leda and the Swan,” and to the goddess Athena, born full-blown from the head of Zeus.

The opening stanza describes Plath’s reaction to her father’s death. She retreats into the dark hibernating quarters of Otto’s bees, just as she would later retreat into the dark cellar of the family house when she tried to kill herself. Denying her biological father, she claims to be “God-fathered into the world from my mother’s belly.” After Otto’s death had liberated Aurelia, Sylvia “wormed back under my mother’s heart.” Plath then describes the path to the “cramped necropolis,” the cheap plastic evergreens on the neighboring grave, and (using a German word) the “ersatz petals” dripping red like blood.

The final stanza—a devastating mixture of exorcism and excoriation—specifies the malodorous gangrene that destroyed her father’s leg and caused the maimed colossus to collapse. She describes her inability to accept the reality of his death, blames Otto for her own suicide attempt (the cut-throat razor rusting in her neck), and begs forgiveness for sniffing out his grave. She concludes, since she is only half alive, that her self-destructive love has nearly killed them both:

I brought my love to bear, and then you died.
It was the gangrene ate you to the bone. . . .
I am the ghost of an infamous suicide. . . .
It was my love that did us both to death.

“Lady Lazarus,” one of her greatest and most ghoulish poems, describes her precarious resurrection by alluding to John 11:43-44: Jesus “cried with a loud voice, Lazarus come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes.” This densely allusive poem also recalls people coming back from the dead in Edgar Allan Poe’s poems “Ligeia” and “Berenice” and in Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Ariel’s song “Full fathom five” in Shakespeare’s The Tempest; T. S. Eliot’s “I am Lazarus, come from the dead” in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; and Coleridge’s warning “Beware! Beware!” in “Kubla Khan.” Plath’s most important allusion is to Franz Kafka, who, on his deathbed, paradoxically told his doctor, “Kill me, or else you are a murderer!” “The peanut-crunching crowd [that]/ Shoves in to see/ Them unwrap me hand and foot” alludes to the ghastly public spectacle in Kafka’s story “A Hunger Artist,” in which the well-fed crowd first watches and then ignores the sacrificial artist who starves himself to death.

In August 1962, when she wrote “Lady Lazarus,” Plath had just survived a near-fatal car crash in England. The poem expresses her conviction that she was condemned to a ten-year cycle of suicide attempts. She compares her “callings” of suicide and poetry; though she has failed twice and survived each attempt, she is ironically proud of her past record. Dying is an art and she has learned to do it very well. Playing on the three meanings of “charge” (fee, electric current, and thrill), she imagines herself dismembered and distributed like the relics of a saint or—hinting at her murderous father—melted down in a Nazi oven to “A cake of soap,/ A wedding ring,/ A gold filling.” Otto—the indirect cause of her death—obliquely enters the poem through her references to gas ovens and crematoria, as well as to a series of German words: “Nazi lampshade” (once made of human skin), “Herr Doktor,” “Herr Enemy,” and “Herr God” (not “Herr Gott”). Yet even the final solution is not final. The poem ends with the vindictive threat of a red-haired she-devil who haunts and feasts on fathers as naturally as other women breathe: “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.”

Plath uses the ironically intimate and American title “Daddy” rather than the more formal and appropriate Otto, Father, Papa, Vater, or Papi. The cruel catharsis of the poem absorbs the barbarous Gothic imagery of “Little Fugue” and adopts the brutal image of the boot in the face in “Berck-Plage.” The poem opens with the Plath-speaker exclaiming that she will no longer allow her father, who betrayed her by dying, to oppress her. For thirty years, she has lived like a foot enclosed in a black shoe. She associates herself with the Jewish victims—Kafkaesque symbols of alienation and suffering—who managed to survive against overwhelming odds. The Jews are being shipped to extermination camps by her Aryan, Fascist, Luftwaffe, Panzer, Mein Kampf, swastika-wearing, rack-and-screw father. A steam engine drags her off like a Jew to Dachau, Belsen, Auschwitz. She speaks like a Jew and may actually be a Jew. She connects her father, who like a vampire bit her “pretty red heart in two,” with her suicidal attempt to return to him and dig him up. But after she has been rescued from death, she makes a voodoo image of her vampire-father and uses it to destroy him:

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you,
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

By gassing herself when she was thirty, Plath cruelly exorcised her German qualities and authenticated her role as daughter of a Nazi father and vicarious Jewish victim. Her patricidal poetic assaults, lashing with Teutonic morbidity, punished Otto for her emotional deprivation and financial insecurity. She had to kill her father to kill the German in herself.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 3, on page 77
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