Sylvia Plath | Critical Essay by R. J. Spendal

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Sylvia Plath.
This section contains 2,281 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by R. J. Spendal

SOURCE: "Sylvia Plath's 'Cut,'" in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 6, 1975, pp. 128-34.

In the following essay, Spendal discusses the significance of color symbolism, historical reference, and Plath's use of physical ailment as a metaphor for psychological injury in the poem "Cut."

In several of her poems Sylvia Plath turns familiar bodily ills into metaphors of psychic affliction. Work like "The Eye-mote," "Fever 103°," "Paralytic," and "Amnesiac" are only incidentally concerned with the pathological states suggested by their titles. The ostensible problem in each case is a figure for a more subtle and profound malady, a disturbance of the will to live. This is also the strategy in "Cut," one of the most memorable and carefully crafted of the Ariel poems. On the literal level Plath's subject is a cut thumb; figuratively, it is the deeper disunity of a mind divided in its attitude toward death.

The vehicle for this psychological concern is the speaker's uncertain response to her injury. The initial reaction is a sort of manic exuberance which moves her to extol the cut as "a thrill." Subsequently, pain and nausea prompt a more sober statement: "I am ill." To emphasize the disparity between these moods Plath divides the poem into two equal parts. The "thrill" section extends through the first five stanzas, the "ill" section through the last five. The mathematical neatness of this arrangement is reinforced by links between corresponding stanzas in each section. The end-words "thrill," "onion," and "gone" in stanza one are matched by the end-words "on," "ill," and "kill" in stanza six; "skin" in two by "thin" in seven; "heart" in four by the same word in nine; "run" and "one" in five by "jump" and "stump" in ten. There appear to be no such links between stanzas three and eight. A tenuous parallel of another sort involves the etymology of "wattle," which Plath uses in stanza three in the phrase "turkey wattle." The word derives from the Old English watel, cognate with waetla, a bandage for a wound, and in stanza eight the speaker applies a bandage to her thumb. A more substantial connection rests on the appearance in each stanza of a similar conflict. The lines "Little pilgrim, / The Indian's axed your scalp" in stanza three depict the hostility between white man and red man. The phrase "Gauze Ku Klux Klan / Babushka," used in stanza eight to describe the bandage, suggests another struggle between white and red. The Klan is associated with white supremacy and white robes, while "Babushka," a Russian word, is a reminder of "Red" in the sense of a Communist. The phrase implies not only the Cold War rivalry between the USA and the USSR, but also the narrower, more intense hostility between the KKK and all things un-American.

Anyone who has experienced a sudden, severe cut will acknowledge the truth of the speaker's movement from fascination to distress. Yet verisimilitude is here only a means to an end: it conveys a related, more profound movement in which death is first celebrated (section one) and then rejected (section two). This deeper theme is articulated primarily at the level of imagery. Among the swiftly unfolding and brilliantly interrelated figures of section one are: a metaphoric death in which the thumb, imaged as a pilgrim, is "scalped" (II. 9-10); a pilgrim-Indian-turkey figure suggesting Thanks-giving (9-11); a red carpet of blood (11-14); a bottle of pink antiseptic which becomes champagne for a "celebration" (15-17); and a Redcoat metaphor recalling the War of Independence (18-20). This figurative sequence begins with a death and goes on to convey a sense of feverish jubilation. Death looms as a VIP for whom one rolls out the red carpet, and when the speaker herself steps on it (14) we are aware that the prospect of dying has come to dominate her thoughts. The advent of Death becomes an occasion of thanksgiving and is heralded with champagne and merriment. He promises release, a new state of freedom from what Plath in "Ariel" calls the "Dead hands, dead stringencies" of life.

A small but important detail here is the reference to antiseptic, indicating that the speaker has not wholly given over the will to live. The impulse to die is strong and clearly dominant, but it is not uncontested. In a similar way section two will depict, at least initially, a qualified repudiation of death, with the speaker's hesitancy appearing most clearly in her pejorative characterization of the bandage, a salubrious measure, as a "Gauze Ku Klux Klan / Babushka." The complexity of response here is supported by Plath's ambiguous use of white and red throughout the poem. White has conventional associations with death, as in the phrase "Dead white" (7); the color is implicit in the references to onion (2), pilgrim (9), paper (26), gauze (30), and the KKK (30). Red, the color of blood and life, appears in "red plush" (8) and "Redcoats" (20) and is implied by the references to Indian (10), turkey wattle (11), pink fizz (16), and babushka (31). Plath uses white and red as irreconcilable opposites in "Lesbos" when the speaker, referring to her child, says: "Why she is schizophrenic, / Her face red and white, a panic" (10-11). However, in "Cut" the color symbolism, like the speaker's state of mind, is not constant. The white gauze dressing conserves life, while Indians, Redcoats, and Communists are, from an American standpoint, inimical to life.

With section two a general reversal is evident in the speaker's outlook. Addressing the "Redcoats" of her blood as they rush from the wound, she wonders: "Whose side are they on?" (21). As an American living in England Plath might well be confused in her allegiance, but the real point here is the perception that death (loss of blood) may be a perfidious benefactor. This suspicion dominates the imagery of section two where, for the most part, the figures of section one are reversed. Thus the pilgrim-thumb, slain earlier, is resurrected here as a "Homunculus" (23). The homunculus was an alchemically created man, a sort of primitive test tube baby produced from a recipe of human semen, horse manure, and blood. Its appearance here indicates that a life impulse has unaccountably taken shape where before death held sway. And the metaphor serves other purposes as well. For complete development the homunculus required a daily feeding of human blood; thus the hurt thumb has now become the locus for incoming rather than outgoing blood. In section one blood was always escaping, as in lines 11-13 and 18-20. This deathly exodus is reversed in section two, first by the homunculus and later in the phrase "balled / Pulp of your heart" (33-34), which suggests a life-preserving consolidation of the heart's strength and contrasts especially with the flat "carpet" of blood that "rolls" / Straight from the heart" in section one. It may also be significant that in the most complete formula for the creation of a homunculus, that by Paracelsus (1493–1541), the key time periods are based on the number forty: forty days for gestation, forty weeks for nurture. "Cut" has forty lines, indicating perhaps that the resurgence of the speaker's will to live derives from the marvelous transformation of a baser, more sordid impulse toward suicide. (The homunculus itself issued from dung.) Plath often arranges the length of her works to suit thematic ends. The twenty chapters of The Bell Jar support Esther's escape from madness at age twenty. Interestingly, the speaker in "Cut" escapes the pull of death at line twenty.

The speaker's renewed interest in life is further suggested by her statement: "I have taken a pill to kill / The thin / Papery feeling" (24-26). This "slaying" pointedly contrasts with the scalping of the pilgrim-thumb in section one. That killing loosened the speaker's hold on life, this undoes death itself. In Plath's verse paper is part of an image-group based on flatness as a symbol of sterility and death. Paper signifies a severely atrophied, dangerously thin life state, a condition very near extinction. The speaker has been attracted by such a state for twenty lines, but now she takes steps to "kill" it. This action, together with the subsequent dressing of the wound (29-32), ensures the continued existence of the vitality symbolized by the homunculus. Death makes a final assault, only to suffer defeat, in the following passage, which is based on an extension of the paper metaphor: "… and when / The balled / Pulp of your heart / Confronts its small / Mill of silence / How you jump—" (32-37). The homunculus (now mature?) refuses to let its heart fail and instead leaps back toward life. The heart will remain compact and rounded instead of becoming papery thin in the "Mill" of death. "Pulp," derived from the Latin for "flesh," will not be processed into paper, since the speaker has already tried to eradicate her "Papery feeling." The motive for this crucial "jump" is unexpressed, but the speaker's espousal of life seems instinctive. We might recall that in "Tulips" another persona, half in love with easeful death, is hauled unwillingly back toward health by an irrepressible life force symbolized by the flowers. (In many ways "Tulips" is the double of "Cut": both poems have a binary structure, a red and white color pattern, and a concern with the opposing claims of death and life.)

The movement away from death also accounts for the description of the thumb as a "Saboteur" (27) and a "Kamikaze" (28). No longer celebrated as a thrill, the hurt is now disparaged for having been a subverter of the speaker's will to live and an inducement to suicide. These references are part of Plath's broadest strategy for conveying the speaker's new mood, a strategy involving the disposition of the poem's martial imagery. This imagery is related to the war between death and life in the speaker's mind, but it also depicts a change of mood. Plath manages this by having the military figures in section one move forward in time and those in section two move backward. The progression from pilgrims and Indians to the War of Independence in section one is a movement from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. But the sequence from saboteur to Kamikaze to KKK to Communism in section two moves in reverse. Saboteur suggests the Cold War intrigue of the 1950's; Kamikaze is a reference to World War II; the Klan reached its peak in the 1920's; and "Babushka" recalls the Russian Revolution of 1917. The point of this carefully arranged time-reversal is that it shows the speaker backing out of her earlier celebration of death. The same idea is conveyed in a like manner by another figurative sequence, the largest continuous metaphor in section two, that involving paper. This figure moves from "thin / Papery feeling" (25-26) to "Pulp" (34) to "Mill" (36) to "stump" (40), exactly reversing the process by which paper is produced. The normal order would be: tree, mill, pulp, paper. Section two thus depicts paper, i.e., death, in the process of being decreated. Its influence begins to wane with the sudden advent of the homunculus (2), the life force which inexplicably issues from death.

The final three lines of the poem present a concluding sequence of figures in which the thumb is addressed as: "Trepanned veteran, / Dirty girl, / Thumb stump" (38-40). With this incantatory series of three figures the exorcism of death is completed. Like the earlier paper sequence, these metaphors are arranged regressively. A scarred veteran is a hardened soldier, a successful killer. A girl is significantly less threatening because of her sex, age, and smaller size; and a stump is smaller still, with even less capacity for harm. The sequence thus depicts a gradual diminishment in size and power, a progressive erosion of threat. We see that the thumb as a lure to self-violence has lost its potency and become harmless, simply a "Thumb stump." Concomitantly, the speaker's imagination is reined back to life and reality as it abandons metaphor in favor of literal truth. The hurt thumb is only figuratively a soldier with a head wound, but the phrase "Dirty girl" is half true: we know that the gauze dressing is stained and tarnished (29-32). Finally, the last line may be read as wholly true and literal, since the primary meaning of "stump," according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, is "the part remaining of an amputated or broken-off limb or portion of the body." The truth, which the speaker now admits, is that her thumb is simply an incomplete but living member of her hand. Plath's strategy here is not without literary precedent. In Chaucer's Book of the Duchess (c. 1369), for example, the excessive and debilitating grief of the Black Knight cannot be assuaged until he drops all metaphorical references to the death of his lady and admits simply: "She ys ded!" As the speaker in "Cut" comes back to the weight of primary noon she too regains a measure of inner stability and calm. No longer is she, either physically or emotionally, "ill."

Surprisingly, "Cut" has been faulted by a respected critic for its "structural incoherence," and even sympathetic readers are uncertain about the formal integrity of Plath's torrent of metaphors. Robert Boyers, for example, defends the poem's seeming lack of design by arguing that it "works out its meanings on a level that wholly transcends simple logic." My analysis has shown, I hope, that such a strained defense is unnecessary. Closely read, the poem is both logical and coherent. In "Cut" Plath rigorously orders structure and imagery to present a psychological drama: the displacement of an impulse toward suicide by the renewed claims of life.

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This section contains 2,281 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by R. J. Spendal
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