Effects of Alcoholism on Children

To illustrate the effects of alcoholism on children, I've chosen to look at a famous poem which beautifully captures the emotions of this particular child when dancing with his drunken father.
The Drunken Dance:

“My Papa’s Waltz”

     
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

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

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Theodore Roethke


Nearly everyone can recollect individual memories from their childhood, both enjoyable and unpleasant alike.  Special attention should be given to the effects of alcoholism on children because of that. The children of alcoholics have a bigger chance of having unpleasant memories than other children.

The speaker in Theodore Roethke’s poem“My Papa’s Waltz” is the child of such and alcoholic and reflects upon the waltzes he and his father dance around the house after his father has been drinking.  His father's breath smells of whiskey, his moves are awkward and borderline abusive, and the son's love and fear of his father cause him to cling to him "like death" (line 3).

 The abuse of alcohol by a parent can be very difficult for a child, and possibly even destroy a family.  The effects of alcoholism on children is often much more profound than the alcoholic and even the alcoholic's family is willing to admit. On the other hand, though there is apparent abuse between the father and his son in Theodore Roethke’s poem, “My Papa’s Waltz,” the speaker’s love and admiration for his father is also portrayed. 

That is part of the problem of living with an alcoholic parent. However his drinking affects his children, they still love him, and he is still their father.

Using duality and contrasts of emotions, imagery and tone in his poem, Roethke conveys the story of a naïve and loving child’s nighttime waltzes with his dangerous and drunken father, and his misinterpretation of abuse for love.   

    The poem is told with dual aspects of emotion.  The speaker uses a disapproving yet nevertheless loving multi-tone to speak of his alcoholic father.  The effects of alcoholism on children is beautifully illustrated in this multi-tone. Children of alcoholics often deal with these clashing emotions.

The tone of the first stanza (“The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy; / But I hung on like death / Such waltzing was not easy” (1-4)) is harsh, almost brutal. The harshness illustrates the effect of the drunkenness of the father has on his son.  

The tone in the second stanza begins to take on not only a harsh characteristic but affectionate as well, representing the speaker’s attitude toward his father. Especially now that he is grown up, he looks back at the effect of his father's alcoholism on his life, and he sees the bad, but he recognizes that he loved him him, and still does.  This affection is especially evident in the last two lines, "Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt" (16)

The overall tone is loving and painful, humorous and depressing.  With the same duality and ambiguity, the speaker uses frightening images which are then contrasted by comforting images.  For example, "The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy" (1­2), a disturbing image, is then followed by their "romp" (3)in the kitchen, a warmer, calmer image.  However, their romp then has frightening effects, with pans falling from the shelves due to the father’s drunken stumbling.

The abuse of alcohol by a parent can be very difficult for a child, and possibly even destroy a family.  The effects of alcoholism on children is often much more profound than the alcoholic and even the alcoholic's family is willing to admit. On the other hand, though there is apparent abuse between the father and his son in Theodore Roethke’s poem, “My Papa’s Waltz,” the speaker’s love and admiration for his father is also portrayed. 

That is part of the problem of living with an alcoholic parent. However his drinking affects his children, they still love him, and he is still their father.

Using duality and contrasts of emotions, imagery and tone in his poem, Roethke conveys the story of a naïve and loving child’s nighttime waltzes with his dangerous and drunken father, and his misinterpretation of abuse for love.   

    The poem is told with dual aspects of emotion.  The speaker uses a disapproving yet nevertheless loving multi-tone to speak of his alcoholic father.  The effects of alcoholism on children is beautifully illustrated in this multi-tone. Children of alcoholics often deal with these clashing emotions.

The tone of the first stanza (“The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy; / But I hung on like death / Such waltzing was not easy” (1-4)) is harsh, almost brutal. The harshness illustrates the effect of the drunkenness of the father has on his son.  

The tone in the second stanza begins to take on not only a harsh characteristic but affectionate as well, representing the speaker’s attitude toward his father. Especially now that he is grown up, he looks back at the effect of his father's alcoholism on his life, and he sees the bad, but he recognizes that he loved him him, and still does.  This affection is especially evident in the last two lines, "Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt" (16).

The overall tone is loving and painful, humorous and depressing.  With the same duality and ambiguity, the speaker uses frightening images which are then contrasted by comforting images.  For example, "The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy" (1­2), a disturbing image, is then followed by their "romp" (3)in the kitchen, a warmer, calmer image.  However, their romp then has frightening effects, with pans falling from the shelves due to the father’s drunken stumbling.

The meter of the poem is mostly iambic pentameter, moving with the rhythm of a song.  However, there are a few irregularities in the meter which make the reader actually feel and hear the father’s stumbling.  The rhythm of the poem is lighthearted, like a waltz itself, and ironically contrasts with the abuse told of in the poem.  Moving like the swinging beat of a waltz, the poem’s images swing back and forth between comforting and disturbing, finally swinging out of control into a flurry of alarming emotions.  

   The abuse in the relationship between the father and the son is clearly seen in the word choice and rhyme of the poem.  The author uses harsh and painful verbs to convey the violence and pain the father both intentionally and unintentionally brings upon his child.  The father’s belt buckle "scrapes" his son’s ear (12)and his hand "beats" upon his son’s head (13)during their waltz.  In reference to the effect of alcohol upon the father, the author rhymes such words as "breath"(1) and "death" (3)—a dark and anguished rhyme with underlying implications of danger and violence.  The author also rhymesthe words "knuckle" and "buckle," which are both images of abuse — both the knuckles of the hand and the belt are commonly used in the mistreatment of children.

The abuse is seen aswell in the images the speaker gives of the father stumbling andoff-balance during the waltz.  "We romped until the pans / Slid from the kitchen shelf" (5-6)gives an image of the father stumbling around, bumping into the kitchen shelves, dragging his son along.  In lines 13 and14the speaker tells of scraping his ear on his father’s belt buckle every time his father misses a step.  Violence is also implied with "the hand that held my wrist," (9) which entails the father being forceful, and the father’s battered knuckle in line 10,a sign of previous violence or abuse.  On the other hand, withphrases such as "I hung on like death" (3) and "Still clinging to your shirt" (16), Roethke conveys images of ason longing for his father’s affection, not wanting to let go.  Continuing with the duality and contrasts, the authoralso implies in those lines that the child had no choice but to hang on.  Writing as an adult, the speaker now acknowledges the abuse he mistook for love as a child.  

   The author uses stirring imagery that appeals to all five senses of the reader throughout the poem.  "The whiskey on your breath" (1) invokes both the sense of smell and the sense of taste.  The reader can hear the pans sliding from the kitchen shelves (5-6),feel the child’s ear scrape his father’s belt buckle and the father’s hand beating time on the son’s head (12)(13), and see the mother’s frown as she watches her husband and son dance and roughhouse in the kitchen (7-8). This vivid imagery draws the reader into the poem, until the reader feels he or she is actually a participant in the actions taking place.

Roethke uses a great deal of satire and dark humor in "MyPapa’s Waltz."  The mother disapprovingly looks on while her kitchen is made a mess of by her boisterous husband (5-8).  After passing the time drinking, the father roughhouses with his son, almost playfully, while the mother looks on annoyed.  The reader almost laughs imagining a large man stumbling about the kitchen with his small son in hand and his wife frowning in the corner.  A dark, comical sense is also perceived with the lighthearted, bouncy beat of a waltz revealing an account of a horrid thing such as domestic abuse.  

   Roethke uses contrasts to force the reader to question manythings—the line between playful roughhousing and abuse, the linebetween fun and carelessness.  The author uses sets ofopposites to further open the reader’s mind—playfulness and violence and love and fear.  The duality seen in the poem demonstrates the duality in the speaker’s emotions and recollections of his father.  The poem is written by an adult recollecting abuse he mistook for love or did not acknowledge or comprehend as a child.   The speaker conveys both a sense of love and fear of his father throughout the poem.  The writing tools used by the author, such as rhyme, imagery, and tone aid in conveying the speaker’s emotions and memories, terrors and loves, recognitions and denials.