Ambiguous Waltz?

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After reading Theodore Roethke's poem "My Papa's Waltz", I could not shake the feeling that it was about anything but a waltz between a child and parent. The first time through I thought the whole scene was kind of a cute, a loving father waltzing with their child and then putting them to bed. Then I read it a couple of more times, and the word choices make me a little uneasy.

(All references made are on page 13)

I feel it would not be completely outlandish to suggest that this poem is about an abusive father. One thing I thought of after  coming to this conclusion is that the poem is called "My Papa's Waltz", instead of something like "A Waltz With Papa". This makes me think that the waltz is specific to the speaker's father, as in maybe the way he was abused resembled a waltz, but in any capacity the waltz belongs to "Papa".

The first lines read, "The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy;" Obviously his papa is drinking, and alcohol often leads to violence. The second stanza makes mention of pans sliding from the shelf, and that "My mother's countenance / Could not unfrown itself". To me, pans falling on the floor is certainly annoying, but it would in no way lead my mother to not be able to unfrown. The first line of that stanza uses the word "romped", which makes me think that the speaker and his father are pushing each other around the room, and they slam into the shelf, spilling the pans on the floor. This interpretation makes it a lot more plausible that the father and the speaker are in confrontation, and the mother cannot stand the sight of it.

The third stanza reads

"The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At ever step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle."

Papa's battered knuckle could be from punching his son, and grabbing someone's wrist during a fight is a way to control their movements. Also, the word "scraped" makes me think of something negative, not just a gentle tap of a missed step. The fourth stanza seems much more innocent, but the final lines are "Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt". This could possibly be the speaker getting beat to the point of unconsciousness while still holding his father's shirt trying to defend himself.

Did anyone else get this feeling when reading this?


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2 Comments

Aja Hannah said:

I think it is also about abuse. The whiskey is definitly a warning sign. I'm not sure the kid got knocked unconscious at the end. Maybe he did. It can also be interpreted as the dad getting sick of him and dragging him to his room or it could be that the dad went to bed or was walking to his room when he fell unconscious after drinking.

In any case, I think the author chose the word waltzing because a waltz can be halting, almost staggering (like a drunk man). And a dance is a good way to compare a fight because of the coeography, repition, and force behind it. Sometimes in movies you hear the characters say "Let's dance."

Julianne Banda said:

I agree as well. I also talked about the fact that the undertone of child abuse was evident in my blog I thought the poem was about child abuse from the start because the choice of words was too harsh for it to be about a loving relationship. Like Aja said, the whiskey was almost like a warning sign. I also liked the fact that Aja mentioned that in movies before a fight they sometimes say "Let's Dance." It shows that fights do resemble a dance in a way, in this case a waltz.

However, I disagree with the child being knocked unconscious in the end. I thought that the fact that he was still clinging to his father's shirt to mean he was still dependent on his father and there was still some kind of love between the father and son.

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Julianne Banda on Ambiguous Waltz?: I agree as well. I also talked
Aja Hannah on Ambiguous Waltz?: I think it is also about abuse