Dancing with Darkness: Analyzing Abuse and Violence in 'My Papa's Waltz' by Theodore Roethke

Published: 2024-01-28
Dancing with Darkness: Analyzing Abuse and Violence in 'My Papa's Waltz' by Theodore Roethke
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Violence Poem Abuse
Pages: 3
Wordcount: 680 words
6 min read


"My Papa's Waltz" is a poem written by Theodore Roethke, an American poet. The poem contains a description of an exciting and beautiful family scenario when first observed. A father and son dance in their kitchen and showcase how much they love each other. However, as the poem continues, the poet showcases how unhappy the family is and how there exist tensions between the father and his son, which might result in violence. The poet utilizes various literary elements to pass the themes of family violence, and abuse. This essay analyzes Theodore Roethke's poem, "My Papa's Waltz," by discussing literary devices used to illustrate the themes of abuse and violence, including symbolism, imagery, and simile.

Trust banner

Is your time best spent reading someone else’s essay? Get a 100% original essay FROM A CERTIFIED WRITER!

Literary Devices


The poem has a dark undertone depending on the point of view of the reader. It can be read as violent, dark, or playful. Symbolism is used to indicate violence and abuse of the father towards the son in the poem. The son cares deeply about his father, but there are undertones of the darker aspect filled with alcoholism, violence, and abuse. "Waltz" means beautiful music or dance, but it can symbolize something much darker. It could refer to shedding some light on the violence inflicted on the son at home by his father when he comes home drunk. When the stanza first begins, it says, "The whiskey on your breath, could make a small boy dizzy" (Roethke, 1961, stanza 1). This is a clear indication that the father is a drunkard. Even though the smell of whiskey keeps the boy uncomfortable, he longs to be in his father's presence and still dances with him. When the speaker says that, "we romped until the pans, slid from the kitchen itself" (Roethke, 1961, stanza 2). it shows that "Waltz" was not an ordinary dance but a form of abuse towards the boy. The son says, "but I hang on like death" (Roethke, 1961, stanza 1). To indicate a threatening and dangerous tone that gives tension to the reader. Although he is scared that his father might hurt him, the son still holds to his father like death to symbolize that his father cannot get rid of him, even if he tries.


Imagery in this poem illustrates the dark emotions that the boy has to encounter as he dances late at night with his father. The poem is not the son's dance that would refer to the enjoyment of excitement, but rather, "the father's waltz," meaning it is all about the father's actions towards the son. Each stanza conveys different images of the father's dance. In stanza one, the narrator says, "the whistling on your breath, could make a small boy dizzy, but I hang on like death, such waltzing was not easy" (Roethke, 1961, stanza 1). The father comes home drunk and immediately starts dancing with his son. The nose is the initial sense that is addressed, by "the sour smell of whiskey" (Roethke, 1961, stanza 1). Although the son attempts to overlook it, the odor makes him dizzy. Fear is also illustrated by how the boy hangs on like death to avoid getting hurt, regardless of the foul smell and irrespective of whether the dance was not easy.


The poem's simile is, "But I hung on like death" (Roethke, 1961, stanza 1). It indicates how the dance is unpleasant and how the son is not happy while dancing around his father, but he continues dancing to prevent his father from hurting him. He has to hang on to his father's movements and persevere the whiskey's smell to avoid the violence that comes from rebelling against his father.


The poem "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke utilizes various literary elements, including symbolism, imagery, and simile, to illustrate violence and abuse and the father's domination over his son. It seems to be a happy dance, but it is a horrific encounter for a little boy who is forced to dance with his drunkard father. All these literary devices showcase and point the poem towards an extremely dysfunctional family.


Roethke, T. (1961). My Papa's Waltz. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43330/my-papas-waltz

Cite this page

Dancing with Darkness: Analyzing Abuse and Violence in 'My Papa's Waltz' by Theodore Roethke. (2024, Jan 28). Retrieved from https://speedypaper.com/essays/dancing-with-darkness-analyzing-abuse-and-violence-in-my-papas-waltz-by-theodore-roethke

Request Removal

If you are the original author of this essay and no longer wish to have it published on the SpeedyPaper website, please click below to request its removal:

Liked this essay sample but need an original one?

Hire a professional with VAST experience!

24/7 online support

NO plagiarism