Many people have interpreted Theodore Roethke’s My Papa’s Waltz as a poem about child abuse. The poem describes a young boy being spun around by his father, and some have read this as a metaphor for the physical abuse that can occur in such a situation.
However, it is also possible to read the poem differently. Some believe that the boy is simply enjoying a playful game with his father, and that the poem is not actually about abuse at all. This is certainly a valid interpretation, and it’s up to the reader to decide what they believe the poem is really about.
In Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” the persona reveals a previous instance of child abuse. He informs the reader about the event of abuse by employing certain words and describing what goes on during the dance. Roethke informs the reader that “My Papa’s Waltz” depicts an episode of childhood trauma through vivid language. In his poem, Roethke portrays a persona who discloses an occurrence of child abuse to the reader.
For example, the word “scraped” is used to describe the sound of his father’s belt buckle hitting him. The sound of the belt scrape against the floor gives the reader a sense of how physical this interaction between father and son actually is. Furthermore, the use of words such as “dizzy,” “missed,” and “beat” also help to create a violent image in the reader’s mind.
These words contribute to the feeling that something dangerous is happening in this poem. Roethke writes, “We missed the stairs a couple times./ My mother held her breath/ But once I slept through the night/ All waltzed away.” This suggests that the child was so exhausted from the abuse that he fell asleep through it.
The persona in “My Papa’s Waltz” is a victim of child abuse. He uses words to create a violent image in the reader’s mind, which helps to disclose the incidence of abuse. The poem leaves readers wondering if the father ever stopped abusing his son.
The persona in “I died a thousand deaths, / And one was at your hands” says, “I hung on like death: such waltzing was not easy” to convey that he is being beaten badly yet still alive (Roethke 3,4). The phrase “battered on one knuckle,” which refers to his father’s knuckles, is also used (10). The term “battered,” which the persona employs in the phrase “his father’s knuckles,” evokes a realistic picture of the beating. When someone is pummeling another person, his or her fists are frequently bruised.
Another indicator of abuse is the way the persona’s mother stands in the corner “Pointing her finger at my father” (12). She does not intervene to help her son, which suggests that she is either afraid of her husband or she has been beaten herself. The final clue that this poem is about child abuse is the fact that Theodore Roethke was abused by his father. He wrote My Papa’s Waltz in order to deal with his own abuse.
When the speaker’s father misses steps, his son’s “right ear [scrapes] a buckle,” which suggests that the father is projecting his irritation with himself onto his son (12). As a result, the father punishes his child for his own incompetence. One of the last words Roethke uses in this poem to illustrate child abuse is “beat.”
This could be interpreted in two ways. First, the father is beating time with his son as they dance the waltz together, emphasizing the role music plays in their relationship. Second, the father is beating his son because he’s angry and taking it out on the child. My Papa’s Waltz could be interpreted as a metaphor for child abuse, with the father representing the abuser and the son representing the victim.
“Beat time on [the boy’s] head,” the phrase implies that the father is thrashing the son by striking him on the head (13). Roethke makes use of “beat” because of the images of mayhem that go with child maltreatment. Roethke emphasizes specific behaviors of the characters in order to imply to the reader that the poem deals with child abuse. To suggest to readers that
My Papa’s Waltz exposes child abuse in a subtle way that many people can relate to. There are several controversial interpretations of Theodore Roethke’s My Papa’s Waltz. While some argue that the poem is about the love and bond between a father and son, others suggest that it is actually about child abuse. Given the evidence present in the poem, it is more likely that My Papa’s Waltz is, in fact, about child abuse.
The title of the poem, My Papa’s Waltz, gives away one of the main characters in the poem—the speaker’s father. The use of “My Papa” suggests that the speaker has a close relationship with his father, which would lead one to believe that the poem is about the speaker’s fond memories of dancing with his father.
However, upon further analysis, it becomes clear that the title could also be interpreted in a more sinister way. “Waltz” implies not only dancing, but also a type of dance in which the dancers move around each other in a circle. This could be interpreted to mean that the speaker is trapped in a cycle of abuse with his father.
The poem itself is written in first person point of view, which allows readers to feel closer to the speaker and understand his feelings and emotions more easily. The speaker describes his father as being “drunk as ninepence” (1), which immediately gives the reader a negative impression of the father. A man who is “drunk as ninepence” would be staggering and slurring his words, which makes it clear that he is not in a condition to be taking care of a young child.
The speaker goes on to say that his father “beat time on my head” (13) as they were waltzing around the kitchen. The phrase “beat time on my head” implies that the father is actually thrashing the son by hitting him in the head. This is a clear act of child abuse, and Roethke chooses his words carefully to expose the mistreatment of the child.
In addition, Roethke goes into detail on certain actions of the characters in the poem to intimate to the reader that the poem addresses child abuse. For example, he describes how his father “held my wrist/ So I wouldn’t fall” (9-10). A caring father would not need to hold his son’s wrist so tightly that it hurt in order to prevent him from falling—this is an act of control and domination.
The speaker also says that his mother “laid her head/ My shoulder and cried” (11-12). The mother is crying because she can see what is happening—her husband is abusing her son right in front of her, and she is powerless to stop it.
The father drinks and says, “The whiskey on [his] breath / might make a small boy dizzy”; this implies that the father may be an alcoholic (1,2). After any amount of alcohol is consumed, it has an effect on a person’s behavior. The father may be an alcoholic and become more abusive and violent after drinking, resulting in him beating his son. The father and son “romped till the pans / slid from the kitchen shelf,” demonstrating that the father was in fact throwing his son.
This is not a gentle game of catch; the father is using his son as a tool for his own amusement. The “blistered right hand” suggests that the father has hit his son with enough force to leave a handprint on the child’s skin (6).
The speaker then says how his mother “tugged at a shirt / My papa held me tight,” which could be interpreted in two ways: either the mother was trying to pull her son away from his abusive father, or she was helping her husband hold their son still so he could beat him more efficiently (7,8). In either case, it is clear that the mother is not stopping the abuse. The poem concludes with the image of the father “dancing with / a palm caked hard by dirt,” which could be seen as a metaphor for the father’s abusive nature (9,10).
While Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” could be interpreted as a loving memory of a childhood moment spent with one’s father, it is more likely that the poem is actually about child abuse. The speaker describes how his father would “beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt,” which suggests that the father was using his son as a tool for his own amusement (6,7).
The poem concludes with the image of the father “dancing with / a palm caked hard by dirt,” which could be seen as a metaphor for the father’s abusive nature (9,10). While the poem could be interpreted in different ways, it is more likely that “My Papa’s Waltz” is actually about child abuse.