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Undying Love for a Father, Essay Example

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Essay

Introduction

That familial relationships are inherently complicated is typically understood as an inevitable reality.  Each relationship within a family, from mother/son to that of siblings, is built upon multiple layers of intimacy and awareness so complex as to render them exponential. Then, external factors contribute further influences, adding to the closeness or distance of the family members.  This is represented in a terse fashion in Theodore Roethke’s short poem, “My Papa’s Waltz”.  As Roethke demonstrates in sixteen lines of verse, the child’s feelings about the father are intertwined, conflicting, and incalculably visceral.   All the aspects of a child’s world, from the need for paternal affection, to the way the authority figure of the father is translated into experience, create a vastly complex foundation for the love the child feels.  In Roethke’s short poem can be seen traces of a child’s ambivalence regarding how its willingness to please the father affects the mother, the deeply internal duality of fear and affection, and the ultimately overwhelming need of the child to be acknowledged by the father.

Three Layers of Feeling

There is only one reference to the mother in “My Papa’s Waltz”, and it is one of a bystander role.   The character has no voice; she is simply there, expressing disapproval through a constant frown, and it has been argued that this aspect of the situation is one a child would not actually comprehend, or even take in at the time.   Only the adult with the memory can understand it: “The adult has learned to understand the mother’s disapproval, for the adult stands with the mother, observing” (Fong  81).   Such a view, however, ignores the intense awareness children have of their surroundings, and particularly in regard to the reactions of a mother.   The poem’s reality is that, as the drunken father manhandles the child in play, this child sees the mother’s dislike of the situation. That is to say, the child is by no means so lost in the experience of the “waltz” that this goes unnoticed. Consequently, ambivalence must be created within the child.  Desperate to please the father during this rare expression of a kind of intimacy, the child nonetheless fully perceives that the spousal relationship, as well as that of the mother/child, is in the room as well. Given the tone of the poem, it is reasonable to surmise that the child is unable to sort out this maternal reaction, but what is more important is that it be temporarily set aside.  In these few moments of connection, the child makes a choice of sorts, and sacrifices a level of allegiance to the mother.

Then, Roethke powerfully conveys the conflict within the child regarding its love for the father. The poem consistently has a wide audience because the essential duality of it lends itself to diverse interpretations (McKenna  38). The poem’s enduring popularity serves to confirm the inherent conflict in such relationships; in other words, it is widely appreciated because so many readers can easily identify with the mix of fear and joy within the child. It is usually the brutality of the father’s form of dancing with the child that is seen as creating the fear, and this is, of course, logical.  The father is drunk, obviously.  He is spinning the child around, scratching it with his belt buckle, and harshly tapping out a rhythm on its head. This may certainly be seen as physical abuse and, even if not perceived at all as such by the child,  it is nonetheless fearful. Roethke’s “papa” may easily do harm, without intending to, and the child is aware of its own vulnerability.

This aside, there remains a potent sense of absolute willingness on the part of the child that transcends obedience. One of the aspects of the poem is its spontaneity.  It appears, dashes across the room for a moment, and is gone. This conveys a sense of extraordinary opportunity as perceived by the child, in the form of an unexpected – and apparently infrequent – chance to be held by the father, which usually is taken in by a child as being loved. There are scrapes and bruises in this quick waltz, but they are wholly unimportant because the sense is that these are minimal sacrifices to make, in order to be close to the father.   Drunk or not, abusive or not, the father is blatantly crucial to this child, and the dangerous waltz, if not a gentle expression of love, is accepted by the child as, perhaps, as close as it will ever get to one.

This goes to the poem’s reinforcing of the primal truth for most children, in that some kind of recognition from the father is essential to their being.  The roughness of the father, in fact, completely reinforces this point, because the love desired by the child is willingly accepted event in this form. Two elements of the poem support this.The first is the mode of address; it is a reminiscence directed to, not a caring third party, but to the father himself, and one made to reinforce the import of the occasion. Clearly, remembered in such detail, the waltz was intensely meaningful to the child.  Then, last line two lines irrefutably evince this childlike need to be acknowledged: “Then waltzed me off to bed/ Still clinging to your shirt”  (Roethke  256). Recognized by the father, the child is unwilling to sever the connection until forced to.

Conclusion

In every child/father relationship, elements of need and affection typically coexist with  the roles each party plays in the family and, usually in the father’s case, in the outside world. However these complex elements manifest themselves, they point to an inescapable reality: children require love from the fathers, even as they also must manifest it. In “My Papa’s Waltz”, a child’s conflict regarding both parents, a mix of fear and affection, and the urgent need of the child to be acknowledged by the father, are all evident.

Works Cited

Fong, B.  “Roethke’s ‘My Papa’s Waltz.’”  College Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1990: pp. 79-82.

McKenna, J. J.  “Roethke’s Revisions and the Tone of ‘My Papa’s Waltz.’”  ANQ, Vol. 11, No. 2 1998: pp. 34-38.

Roethke, T.   “My Papa’s Waltz.”  Making Literature Matter,  4th Edition.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009.  Print.

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