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Controversial Interpretations of My Papas Waltz by Theodore Roethke

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Depending on a person’s personality, background, mindset, etc. , they can see some things in the complete opposite way of another. A prime example of this is the poem by Theodore Roethke titled “My Papas Waltz”. The poem, depending how one can interpret the situation, can be a sweet tale of a child dancing with he or she’s father. It could also be seen as a child being abused by their father.

The poem takes us on a journey of a kid “waltzing” with his dad around the house, while his mother observes the situation upset. With that being said, there is textual evidence that concluded this to be a fun and happy story of a child having a great time with his dad. Roethke uses the first line to conclude that the small child is a young boy who has a drunk dad but as the poem continues we learn that he is not a violent drunk. The reader can conclude he is young later on in the story. He is having a great time with his kid making memories in the house. Some people associate the term “drunk” as a bad thing. But, being drunk does not automatically mean one is the kind of drunk who comes home to throw around their kid. Many people can be drunk and still understand right from wrong. In the last lines of the first stanza the reader can get an insight as to what is occurring. The narrator recalls “I hung on like death / such waltzing was not easy”. Every kid has, at one point or another, stood on their dad’s shoes and held tight to his shirt as he dances them around. The boy in the poem was just trying to not fall off his drunken dads clumsy waltzing steps.

Another clue is in the title. If one was being beaten and abused constantly, they would not call their dad “papa. ” They would be called father, or another plain and unsentimental words. “Papa” is a loving word similar to dad, daddy, or pops, used primarily by kids who adore their dad. “Father” is bland and generic word. People who are abused and do not associate themselves with their dad often recall that the man is their father, not their dad. Using the sentimental words shows love and understanding to him. In the middle two stanzas, the reader is taken deeper into the situation at hand. As they dance around clumsily, they are wreaking havoc on the kitchen and running into shelves. “My mother’s countenance / could not unfrown itself” is a line that explains that the mother was upset, but not saying anything back to them. Countenance is a term used to describe facial expression. She was clearly unhappy about her kitchen being ruined and being busted, but she couldn’t stop the fun her boys were having. In the next middle stanza, things start to get even more confusing. The narrator states, “The hand that held my wrist / Was battered on one knuckle / At every step you missed / My right ear scraped a buckle”. The reader can take this in two ways, seeing how they interpreted the rest of the poem. This is how many people decide that the story is dark and abusive.

Many jobs require some blood sweat and tears. Anyone who knows someone working outdoors in some type of labor job will know they do not have the most pristine and pretty hands around. They get scrapped, cut up and battered in filth. His father simply has not had the chance to get cleaned up after a long day at work and is spending time with family. This is also where the reader sees that the boy is young. Standing on his dad’s feet and still only being waist height (ears being by the belt) would mean he is only a few years old. Since it has already been concluded that most kids ride on their dad’s shoes when dancing around, the reader can see that in the drunken state of the dad, its making him hard to balance himself plus the swaying weight if this child. Every time he stumbles, the boy barely misses his dad’s belt while swaying to counteract the balance of his dad. The dad was not trying to hit him with the belt, he never even took it off his waist. The last stanza the reader can come to the conclusion that it is not a terrifying story. The boy ends the poem by saying his dad “…beat time on my head”. His papa kept on tempo to the music by tapping the beat on his son’s head as they danced. In his drunken state he could still clumsily dance and keep beat. Then at the end of the tale, they danced off to the boy’s room, so he could put him to sleep.

The end of the poem, Roethke makes it clear that the boy is not scared of his dad. He in fact loves his papa and cherishes the time they have together. When the author mentions that that he is waltzed of to hos room to sleep for the night, it should be a big indicator that this is a happy story. Even if it was an abuse story, the dad would not walk his kid to his room to put him to bed after beating him. Putting your kid to sleep is a sign of care and compassion. The dad loves his boy, even when he is drunk.

Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papas Waltz” is a confusing tale about a boy’s night with his dad. It many ways, the poem could have been a dark and abusive tale or a light and happy and one. But, when really studying and understanding the story closely, the reader can tell that this is clearly not a story of an abusive relationship. There is textual evidence that declare this to be a happy and joyful story. Starting all the way from the title, to the last line, the reader can see this is a fun night between a boy and his papa.

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Controversial Interpretations Of My Papas Waltz By Theodore Roethke. (2020, March 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 18, 2021, from
“Controversial Interpretations Of My Papas Waltz By Theodore Roethke.” GradesFixer, 16 Mar. 2020,
Controversial Interpretations Of My Papas Waltz By Theodore Roethke. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 18 Oct. 2021].
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