A Picture of Otto
Otto Plath’s unabating grasp on his daughter
Hughes’ emergence as a father-figure to Plath
Plath’s need for a father-figure
Hughes’ struggle to grasp his role in Plath’s life
A Picture of Otto is addressed to Otto Plath. Throughout it, Hughes reflects on his relationship with Sylvia, and how it has brought the two men together in a strange and unexpected way.
The poem opens with Hughes describing a photograph of Otto standing by a blackboard like a teacher. Hughes describes him as ‘manque,’ meaning someone who has not lived up to their potential. But it is the second stanza where Hughes really begins to dissect Otto and his influence. With ‘your Prussian backbone,’ Hughes references Otto’s Aryan heritage. The Nazis believed the Aryans to be the dominant race, so the third line of the second stanza, ‘To find yourself so tangled with me - / Rising from your coffin, a big shock’ reveals how Hughes thinks Otto would be insulted to find that Sylvia had replaced her father with a man like Ted Hughes. Referring back to the use of the word ‘tangled,’ Hughes deliberately describes his relationship with the Otto, and both men’s relationship with Sylvia, to emphasise the turbulent and convoluted nature of their connections, and how improbable it is that they are tied to one another. This is furthered in ‘Your ghost inseparable from my shadow / As long as your daughter’s words can stir a candle.’ Here, Hughes is attempting to distance himself from Sylvia, firstly by referring to Sylvia as Otto’s ‘daughter’ and not his wife, and through the imagery of ‘ghost,’ which suggests some kind of enduring legacy, to describe Otto, and ‘shadow,’ to describe his own presence as something that exists in the background. With ‘This underworld, my friend, is her heart’s home. / Inseparable, here we must remain.’ Hughes conveys how the men have a common bond over their relationships with Sylvia, and how through her writing she has condemned them to join in her suffering for an eternity. The final stanza, with its allusion to Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting, hints at an unknown cause of Plath’s trauma.
As such, throughout this poem we see Hughes attempt to distance himself from Plath, and in turn obscure his role in her mental torment. He simultaneously connects with Otto over their shared experience of Sylvia’s psychosis, and ultimately shifts the responsibility to him for her suffering.