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“My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke Analysis

“My Papa’s Waltz”: The Effects of Alcoholism of the Family Unit

To reach a point where the family is in a perfect state is always impossible. It is truly unfeasible to have a fully functioning unit without some sort of issues. The poem “My Papa’s Waltz,” written by Theodore Roethke, picks up on some of these issues that can implode a once near perfectly functioning family. Overall, the poem depicts the effects that abuse and addiction have on a typical family structure and shows the contradictory feelings an abused child and mother may exhibit that stems from these poor practices.

To begin, the first stanza lays the groundwork for the poem and allows the reader to get a taste for the young boy’s situation. In the first few lines, it depicts that the father may have a problem. As the kid dances with his papa, he “[Could] smell the whiskey on [the father’s] breath” and it was so apparent that it “Could make a small boy dizzy” (1-2). For a young child to recognize the smell of whiskey on his father instantly, it suggests that he has experienced his father under the influence often and knows what alcohol is. This is essential to establish since it is only the beginning of the inner turmoil of the son; trapped between the idea of loving his dad, or fearing him, which will occur often in the poem. It sets the tone of the overall poem and makes the reader concerned for the young child. To continue, the next two lines open the idea of the waltz and what it represents. As they danced the boy “hung on like death” and explains how “Such waltzing is not so easy” (3-4). Him desperately hanging on like “death” seems to be an oxymoron, as hanging on to death seems to be redundant. To truly be dead, a person must let go, but the boy continues to cling on to life. This same line is also a simile; the boy is clinging to his dad but could be pointing to the idea of peril. Why does he cling so desperately? Is this out of love for his father or out of fear of his father’s wrath? As the reader continues through the poem, this can be seen in both lights, and sets the tone of the impending doom the boy will face. In summary, the first stanza brings along the beginning questions for the readers on the son and father’s relationship, and of the father is truly dangerous.

The next stanza depicts the mother of the boy and shows what her place is in this strained family. Their dance starts to escalate as the boy and his father continue their waltz as they “romped until the pans / slid from the kitchen shelf” (5-6). This line suggests that their “waltz” may be an extended metaphor throughout the poem. This metaphor seems to compare their dancing to their relationship. So far, the poem has shown how the boy seems conflicted in his dance, as he clings to his father desperately, and the violence this supposed loving relationship contains. From a literal sense, this force of knocking pans everywhere allures to the idea that the father is highly aggressive in his relationships. To continue, the next few lines depict how the mother is forced to act in this life. The perspective turns to the “Mother’s countenance / [that] could not unfrown itself” (7-8). As the mother is experiencing this violent dance, she does nothing to interfere and frowns at them as they destroy the kitchen. This may seem unusual, but it could be seen in a place of fear. Normally in a family unit, the mother and the father would have an equal say in the upbringing of a child, but not in this family. The mom seems completely powerless in her own home to stand up for herself or her son. This leaves the trail for readers to understand what truly goes behind the scenes of this family. To end, this stanza allows readers to see how the mom is placed in this strange household.

To continue, the third stanza provides even more context on what the household is dealing with the father pulling all the strings. The poem continues to explain the physical characteristics of the father and gives more insight into how he ticks. In these few lines, it explains how the boy is “Held [by his] wrist / [that hand] was battered on one knuckle” (9-10). By describing the image of being held by the wrist the author depicts an image of the father disciplining his child. Being held by the wrist can have two different connotations; it can be out of love or out of a need to punish. Also, the image of the “battered” hand depicts anther image that points to him being an abuser. A bruised hand alludes to a stereotype of toxic masculinity; the drunk father lashing out at his family members. According to all of these signs, it is safe to assume the father probably beats the mom into submission and takes out his anger on his son. Additionally, the next few lines allure more to their relationship and the missteps the father has taken. In their dance, the dad seems to miss most of his “steps” and this allows his “right ear [to] scrape [his] buckle” (11-12). Since the dance allures to their complicated relationship, all the literal missteps the father makes in their dance can represent the atrocities he has made in their relationship. Consequently, the mention of the belt buckle is yet another symbol of toxic masculinity, and how the father truly interacts with his son. The buckle brings an image of abuse since a belt can be commonly used for beatings. The deep addiction the father has adapted towards alcohol has created a rifted relationship with both his son and spouse. In the end, this stanza reveals even more symbols and ideas of the husband’s continued abuse to his mistreated bloodline.

The final stanza introduces the confusion the boy sees throughout all of this abuse; an unforeseen love for his father. Before the reader gets those connections, the next few lines provide more reasons for why the father may lash out at his family. It is explained that he “[Beats] time on the head / with a palm caked hard by dirt” (13-14). The image of the dad “beating time” on his child seems to depict that the father has been doing this for an extended time. It seems to be an on-the-nose way of showing the reader the true aggression and physicality the dad constantly uses in the presence of his close family. With the explanation of his dirty hands, it shows he works hard and constantly to support his family. The dad, once again, represents the stereotypical abusive parent; he works hard all day, comes home to drink, and is in full control of his wife’s and child’s actions. On the other hand, the father has a loving side that the last stanza reveals to the reader. As they finish their dance, the father “waltzes” the boy “off to bed” and the boy continues to “cling to his shirt” (15-16). Even though all the symbols of physical abuse that is exposed to the audience, the father has a soft, fatherly side. He “waltzes” the boy to bed which seems to be the positive side of their relationship, he still seems to care for his son even though the abuse. As a result of the father’s affection the boy still “clings to his shirt,” which seems to be in an affirmative connotation in comparison to him clinging to his father like death, mentioned at the beginning of the poem. This stanza truly shows the disorienting relationship the father has on his family. His addiction has created a rift in his family, but he still works hard for his family’s wellbeing and displays his affection for his loved ones. In summary, this final stanza finally shows the positive side of the perceived evil father and allows the father to be a more round character than the readers perceived him in the first place.

Roethke’s poem provides great insight into the inner turmoil of a family that is faced with an abusive, overworked father and how that sort of situation can create a contradicting atmosphere of both love and abuse. The first stanza introduces their constant waltz that is an extended metaphor for their twisted relationship. The son clings onto his father, yet it is unclear if it is out of love or fear and the wife is forced into submission The second stanza allows the readers to see how the mom’s position in the family and how she is powerless to protect her son from her spouse’s violence. In the next stanza, it creates even more images of the father’s constant abuse to his family, and how much power over everyone he truly has. In the final stanza, it molds the father into a more dynamic character, an overworked man, and turns to alcohol and physical violence to deal with his issues. It also shows he is still capable of affection and still loves his son, even through all of his abuse. The author uses this poem to push his readers to treat all members of one’s family with respect and warns them to not be trapped by harmful addictions that will ruin their lives and long-lasting relationships.

Student’s Name: Illya Nestor

Professor Roden

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