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Analysis of Literary Techniques in My Papa’s Waltz by Theodore Roethke

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Looking past the negativity someone or something provides is a struggle humans can encounter in life. It can be difficult to still appreciate someone when all they do is cause you and others pain. In “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke, a son describes specific encounters with his alcoholic and violent father. Roethke aims to present the feelings the son has toward these occurrences in their relationship. If you were to look deeper, there are little details that allow the reader to look past this aspect of their relationship. Theodore Roethke utilizes specific imagery to clarify how the abuse negatively affected the son and makes it a point to provide the text with specific diction to enable the reader to realize that the son’s love for his father is still present in the end.

Roethke made it a point to use wording that has a positive connotation to enable the audience to look past the obvious negative aspect of their father/son relationship. When reading the title for the first time, you would assume the poem to be a more positive reflection on the relationship between the father and son. “Papa” is normally put into context with a more affectionate meaning. “Waltz” contains “a gentle rhythm that makes the dance’s flowing movements, and elegant rise and fall, easy”. Because waltz is referred to as a more graceful dance, that is the reasoning Roethke chose to include this word in the title. It was included the readers to overlook that obvious struggle in the relationship. Roethke distracts the reader with diction that provide a happier meaning so that the readers can have clarity that the son will always show affection towards his father. The son describes that “We romped until the pans Slid from the kitchen shelf; ”, which tells us that their encounter could have been horseplay because “romped” is a verb that expresses a child’s energetic playfulness. Roethke purposely makes use of the word “romped” in this context so that the audience does not get too caught up in the negativity the father projects from his violent actions. Because that word has a more positive meaning, the use of that word only allows the reader to question whether it was actual violence which is the point Roethke aims articulate. As the poem continues, it is mentioned that the mother’s expression towards the situation in the kitchen lets the reader question whether it is actual horseplay. Her “countenance Could not unfrown itself” shows that the mother is disappointed with what she sees, which implies that violence is occurring. However, noticing the mother’s expression justifies that it is indeed not horseplay. As Roethke purposely chooses to include diction like these mentioned in the poem to have the reader develop a better understanding of the son’s admiration toward his father no matter how violent their relationship really was.

Specific imagery is utilized to express how aggressive the father acted in the situations when he was not his sober self, but it was most importantly there to clarify how traumatizing those interactions could be for the son. In certain cases in the poem, Roethke makes use of specific diction within the imagery portraying violence to show that the son overlooks the pain and instead favors his father: ‘The hand that held my wrist Was battered on one knuckle; ”. Grabbing onto a wrist is usually acted out of violence or anger, so this creates an image to the reader how aggressive the father could have been towards the son. While the father was acting out of violence, the son observed a very tedious detail of his father’s battered knuckle. The use of the word “battered knuckle” could indicate that the father was hard at work during the day at his job, so this allows the son to admire his father’s strong work ethic. This admiration permits him to look past the pain from the violence encountered. The father “beat time on my head with a palm caked hard by dirt ”. The word “beat” is a word used when someone or something is being hit repeatedly out of violence, so this creates an idea of aggression to the readers. When something is ‘caked,” it refers to a thick layer of something. This word, then, is specifically used to imply a large amount of dirt noticed on the palm of the father’s hand. This observation allows the son to continue to be convinced that his father was hard at work. As the son continues to notice details like this, it allows him to accumulate yet another reminder to love his father no matter how much pain is felt along the way. Although the father’s breath “ Could make a small boy dizzy”, the son chooses to hang on “like death” since his love for his father is so strong. The imagery provided allows the audience to become more aware of the type of father he was, but that did not stop the son from loving him. Roethke chooses to incorporate a powerful word “ like death” in this poem to indicate how attached the son continued to be through their rough relationship which tells us that nothing will cause the son to stop admiring his father.

It is acceptable to be aware of someone’s negative feature that they provide, but inhibiting that negativity to overpower the love that is still present for that person is a crucial statement the son portrays in ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ by Theodore Roethke. It is indeed apparent that Roethke wanted to express what kind of father/son relationship the alcoholic and abusive father provided, but there was a deeper meaning then just having the reader understand that. By using detailed imagery that described the aggressive situations, it not only clarified as to what happened between the father and son but it permitted the reader to understand the large amount of pain the son encountered both mentally and physically. Within the imagery and throughout the whole poem, Roethke made use of specific diction that could allow the readers to conclude that the son is indeed mindful of how much of a struggle this relationship was because of the decisions the father made, but the word choice enables the audience to better understand that the son will always choose to love his father no matter what happens.

Works Cited

  1. Roethke, Theodore. “My Papa’s Waltz.” The Carolina Reader. Fall 2019 ed. Eds. Kelsey Flint-
  2. Martin & Ethan J. Knight. Columbia: MacMillan, 2019. Pp. 199-200.
  3. Admin. “When to Dance the Waltz.” Dance Passion Studio, 20 July 2016,

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