Literary Criticism

Girl Talk: The Code of Sylvia Plath’s “Cut”

Given her Swiftian bent in "Cut," Plath fantastically extrapolates Freud's castration complex and imagines the female anatomy in ludicrous male personas, each with its own abject place in history, while the poem serves, at once, as a celebration, social satire and lament about female gender.

  On March 21, 2018, Bonhams held an auction of some of the personal effects of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, among which was Plath’s copy of Irma S. Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking that the auction house advertised with the words “HEAVILY MARKED UP THROUGHOUT,” as if even here secrets about the Plath-Hughes relationship might be entombed within its pages. As many of us, Plath enjoyed cooking, though on the occasion of the poem “Cut” (composed on October 24, 1962, a month after Ted Hughes had abandoned her for Asia Wevill), she suffered a common domestic accident and found reason enough to write about it. “Cut” is not the tale of the tub, but the tale of the thumb, the top of which fell to the blade while Plath was slicing an onion.

  True. Plath’s letters report that it took two surgeries to treat her thumb. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that Plath had larger aspirations than composing artful diary entries, otherwise the poetry of Ariel (of which “Cut” is an integral part) would not be so preternaturally allusive and intellectually challenging and therefore give critics cause to respond from so many disparate vantage points. And yet, despite all that has been written about Plath, biographically and critically, despite the latest “unabridged” editions of her journals and letters, her riddles persist, whether in the sense of mystery that is central to her work or her suicide, or past efforts by her estate (in the person of Ted Hughes) to alter our perception of her legacy, we still feel that questions remain unanswered, that crucial pieces of information have been withheld from us. Thus, the sale of Plath’s copy of The Joy of Cooking and the hunt among the bric-a-brac of her life for clues.

 So it is with “Cut,” which is not only one of the most popular of Plath’s poems, but one of a number of Ariel‘s poems whose figuration remains analytically unresolved. Some commentaries have appraised the poem as a brilliant display of wit in the service of a slight, albeit amusing, biographical note, while others have found great complexity in psychological distillations where Plath labors under cognitive or emotional disabilities, whose causes are both personal and cultural, consequently leading the reader down the rabbit hole to textual psychoanalysis, semanalyse and Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection. Feminist readings, particularly Susan Van Dyne’s study of Plath’s drafts, have located the poem’s nucleus in the “culture’s revulsion at female blood, sexuality and domesticity.”[1] Still other analyses have sought to shed the bias that devolves from Plath’s life story (particularly her suicide) in order to unearth the meritorious socio-political dimensions of her work, where “Cut” seems to simultaneously comment on America’s disreputable history of war and racial hatred.[2] Although the temptation to engage in biographical and other transcriptions is all but overwhelming when reviewing Plath’s “confessional” work, we should always examine her poems first as novel literary expressions whose elements, as we explore them, reveal the strata and stratagems of their underlying themes.[3]

  Plath’s mode in “Cut” is allegorical and Swiftian, as we see these oddly chosen characters, all of whom are morally culpable, miniaturized for the ostensible purpose of serving up their heads to Plath’s razor sharp wit. Curiously (and quite deliberately, I believe), the severing of Plath’s thumb is not actually depicted.  We have, instead, its after effects, as the poem begins:

What a thrill —
My thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of a hinge

Of skin

The incongruity of Plath’s opening remark, “What a thrill” — which lacks any measure of alarm — suggests sarcasm, but the macabre detail (“A flap like a hat / Dead white / Then that red plush”) and the slapstick parade of gruesome thumb puppets that follows (from Pilgrim to Homunculus to Kamikaze to Saboteur to Ku Klux Klansman) complicate our emotional responses to the poem, a sure sign in Plath’s work that the discourse is chiefly ironic, not representational.[4] For added measure, much like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” the form of the poem and its sing-song rhythm and rhyme reinforce the irony in the text.

  In its first transfiguration, a bleeding thumb is a “little pilgrim” whose “scalp” has been “axed” by an “Indian,” while the slaying is reflected in the “turkey wattle / Carpet” that “rolls // Straight from the heart.” Here is the First Thanksgiving disemboweled — not the genial breaking of bread with our Native American brethren, but the truer account of the indigenous people’s uprising against their Puritan invaders. By the same token, Puritanism, particularly for its religious intolerance, strained morality and anti-feminist practices (e.g., the witchcraft trials and the persecution of proto-feminist Anne Hutchinson), is also being executed in effigy. This little pilgrim, therefore, is on the wrong side of history, as are the Redcoats, the Saboteur, the Kamikaze man, the Ku Klux Klansman and even – in light of the cold war politics of the 1950’s and 1960’s – the Russians (albeit in a feminine manifestation of Mother Russia with her “Babushka”).

  As the carpet of “turkey wattle” is rolled out, Plath says, “I step on it” (with a mixture of joy and defiance it seems), unexpectedly hailing the bloodletting with her “bottle / Of pink fizz.” This surreal depiction (i.e., the transfiguration of blood and guts into a carpet that the poet can step on and celebrate) is another indication of the presence of allegory and symbol. The “celebration,” however, is bitter sweet and ironic, dislocating our traditional associations with blood and mortality as the cast of characters proliferates, becoming even more miniaturized and pointedly historical. Thus, blood cells are a “million soldiers . . . / Redcoats, every one // Which side are they on?” Like the Thanksgiving holiday before it, another holiday, Independence Day, is implied by “Redcoats,” while the question “Whose side are they on?” rhetorically posits that these blood cells might not be British after all, but instead turncoats for whom Independence Day or the Revolutionary War seem appropriate to mark with blood, albeit acerbically.

  In a parody of the heroic apostrophe (“O my / Homunculus”), Plath melodramatically invokes her thumb as the embryonic, miniature man of Paracelsus’ fantasy and Goethe’s Faust. “Homunculus” in Latin means “little man,” which alchemists believed could be created by incubating male sperm inside a suitable mammal (a cow, ewe, horse or monkey), plainly in derogation of a woman’s natural role as mother. In the context of the poem’s progress, “little pilgrim,” having traveled the ocean of life, has been elevated to mythical level. Summoning Homunculus in the figure of her foreshortened phallic thumb, Plath proclaims, “I am ill / I have taken a pill to kill // The thin / Papery feeling,” and we naturally assume that the pill is an analgesic or pain-killer, even though “thin papery feeling” gives us pause with its unscientific writerly nomenclature — a linguistic choice that, as discussed below, is calculated to achieve the ironic dichotomy of the poem’s discourse.

  As Plath casts the bandaged thumb in the role of “Saboteur” and “Kamikaze man,” wearing a “Gauze Ku Klux Klan Babushka,” it is as if all these characters’ heads have been on the chopping block. Together they represent terrorists, suicide bombers, and racists, all male and universally condemnable for their heinous acts against humanity. But, like opera buffa, we tend to look past the ominous aspects implied by their histories and instead become entranced by the absurd scenario that Plath has spontaneously created by rendering her thumb in these guises, while seeming to wink at us as she makes these clever connections. And that is because, at least insofar as the poem is concerned, whatever these bloody personages represent in real life — inter alia, America’s legacy of war, violence and racism — they are used primarily by Plath as satirical masks in what is at bottom an ironic allegory about gender and society’s conception of women.

  In the penultimate stanza the poem breaks from its lighter figurative play to delve into more serious matter (“when / The balled / Pulp of your heart / Confronts its small / Mill of silence”) before concluding with this wry, enigmatic ending:

How you jump –
Trepanned veteran,
Dirty girl,
Thumb stump.

These last three epithets parallel those that preceded them, but they have a decidedly edgy, even louche character. What are we to make of this ending?

  In the Plath canon, particularly Ariel, when female personas oppose the obdurate cultural bias that in all respects prefers the masculine over the feminine, a dynamically agonistic forum, often populated with literary, historical and culturally coded references, is created for playing out that contest, as in “The Detective,” “The Jailer,” “Purdah,” “Fever 103º,” “Daddy” and “Getting There.” Given the androcentric orientation of twentieth century British and American poetry in particular, when female poets (and “feminine” attitudes as a whole) were acidly scorned by the preeminent literary lights (Eliot, Pound, Williams, Stevens, Lawrence, Auden, Lowell, and Berryman),[6] the average reader would likely follow the text’s references to “little pilgrim,” “Homunculus,” “Saboteur,” “Kamikaze man” and “Trepanned veteran” and apply their customary meanings and figurative implications without a second thought. Indeed, “Cut” was initially considered a “playful poem” about a “culinary mishap” in the kitchen, where a woman usually was and presumably should be, doing womanly things, where error and making light of it (Oh, silly me) was the norm. Such a reading was in line with a nearly universal conception of the “weaker sex,” the one that also required a panoply of therapies (“I am ill / I have taken a pill”) for biological and psychological conditions that too often were assumed to limit their involvement in everyday life outside the home. [Even the expression, “thin / Papery feeling,” sarcastically pretends the speaker is not capable of a more sophisticated or scientific term like “nausea” (although Plath intends more than this) and would have given Plath’s contemporaries a subtle whiff of the inferior domestic worker who is about to turn the tables.] It followed that a female’s status in life was only partial when compared to the nearly complete male, who fell short only because he could not reproduce without a woman–a role that, not incidentally, Homunculus threatened to usurp. Plath counts on the traditional androcentric orientation of the average reader in order to surreptitiously talk to her fellow feminists.

 Simon Gaunt makes two important points with respect to irony and sex in literary expression:

  First, irony is an ideal vehicle for sexual innuendo. In most cultures it is to a greater or lesser extent taboo to designate a sexual organ or act explicitly, depending on the context. When social decorum is being observed, for whatever reason, and sexual acts or organs are designated implicitly, irony will probably ensue. This is because the allusion must retain its ambiguity if it is to be socially acceptable, communicating two different levels of meaning.

  Secondly, a definition of irony which allows for a divergence between literal and intended meaning invites comparison with definitions of metaphor or allegory, both of which allow one thing to be said and quite another to be meant. The distinction between irony and other types of figurative speech lies not in formal differences, for metaphor, allegory, metonymy and synecdoche can all be used ironically, but in the ironist’s intentions.

  Since everyone has an equal opportunity to understand an ironist’s intended meaning, he does not set out to mislead any one member of his audience. But, as the intended meaning must be inferred, in some cases some people will fail to grasp it. In all the examples of irony from Guilhem’s poems discussed thus far, it is possible to imagine a listener or reader taking him literally and being duped by the pretended meanings: most meanings, pretended and real, remain possible. The ironist is implicitly dividing his audience into two groups: the initiated and the uninitiated. In Muecke’s words: “a sense of irony depends for its material upon a lack of sense of irony in others, much as skepticism depends upon credulity.”[5]

   As Van Dyne observed, we are surprised at the sudden appearance of “Dirty girl” in the penultimate line. This is, after all, a woman’s thumb that is the subject of the poem, even though it plays multiple masculine roles and doubtlessly takes on added figurative significance when freighted with Freudian connotations as a classic phallic symbol, as we have already noted in the figures of “little pilgrim” and “Homunculus.” Van Dyne tells us that the poem came forth in largely unedited drafts, but that Plath reworked the ending several times before settling on “Dirty girl.”[7] A “dirty girl” is, among other things, a girl or woman who “talks dirty,” a slut, and one soiled by menstrual or hymenal blood. Therefore, when “dirty girl” is combined with the rakish insinuations of “trepanned veteran” and “thumb stump,” the references are to the vulva (another “cut”) where blood is associated with the menstrual cycle as well as the loss of virginity. But, even more than these, the emphasis on “girl,” as dramatically contrasted to all the previous male personages, is intended to evoke all the negative associations with the female gender.

  The profane subtext of “Cut,” once revealed, causes us to revisit the poem through Freud’s castration complex,[8] which is likely the figurative germ that gave rise to the poem. Freud’s androcentricism conceived female sexual identity only in terms of its male counterpart, just as women’s place in history is traditionally perceived only with reference to the acts of men. Given her Swiftian bent in “Cut,” Plath fantastically extrapolates Freud’s castration complex and imagines the female anatomy in ludicrous male personas, each with its own abject place in history, while the poem serves, at once, as a celebration, social satire and lament about female gender.

 In this way, “Cut” communicates two levels of meaning in the type of ironic sexual expression that Gaunt identified, where it is possible for the poem to speak literally on one level while intending more intimate revelations sub rosa. As such, “little pilgrim,” “scalp,” “Homunculus,” “Redcoats,” “gap,” “Trepanned veteran” and “Thumb stump” are coded references to distinctive aspects of female sexuality masked as male figures. [At this point it should be clear why an onion, which has the feminine attributes of layers of fleshy leaves that conceal a “terminal bud,” would not have served Plath’s purposes.] “Little pilgrim / The Indian’s axed your scalp” and “O my / Homunculus” are sarcastic addresses to the author’s own clitoris. As to blood cells as “Redcoats” and the rhetorical question, “Whose side are they on?”– the question, laden with irony, is not whether they are British or Americans, but on which side of the sexual divide they identify with, male or female. “Kamikaze man” sardonically describes the vulva dressed with a sanitary napkin, in other words, a “Gauze Ku Klux Klan Babushka,” and “Saboteur” implies women’s fabled history of using sex to bring about the world’s woe (as Eve, Helen of Troy, Circe, Delilah, and similar homewrecking personages). A “trepanned veteran” is code for a vagina of “easy virtue” and the woman who possesses one. Yet, the epithets that Plath directs at herself (and by extension all women) do not, as Van Dyne believes, unmask “the misogyny within” — rather, Plath’s Swiftian irony and the secret code (entre nous) of the poem’s discourse immunizes her from that indictment. Instead, it is the very nature of the poem to effectively unmask the misogyny in the history of androcentric culture by illustrating how interchangeable that history is with its conception of women. In this way, the central theme of “Cut” also runs through “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Purdah,” “Fever 103º,” and “Gulliver,” among others.

  Given this development it doesn’t take much more to determine that “pill” likely refers to the new age drugs that were intended to address women’s biological and psychological needs in the mid-twentieth century, principally those that relieved menstrual cramping, controlled birth, or treated depression and stress.[9] In the substrata of “Cut,” though, the pill also represents the female poet’s metaphorical means of escape from being marginalized on the pages of literary history. It is an act of self-defense, an inoculation of sorts, intended “to kill” the unnatural and fictive state of being (“thin / Papery feeling”) fostered by the historical diminishment of women, which is one of several senses of the word “cut” the poem imports.

  From this perspective the poem’s conclusion makes more sense. Though an intentionally primitive portrait, the intensely symbolic “balled pulp of the heart” generally suggests the organ responsible for life and love; but, in terms of its confrontation with “its small mill of silence” (or the “silence mill”), we find the pathos of submissiveness (“How you jump”). The underlying metaphors (“pulp” and “mill”) allude to the process for manufacturing paper, therefore we can tie “pulp” back to the “thin / Papery feeling” to see the reciprocating metaphorical play; but in this formulation the vital feminine reality, albeit ironically rendered as lowly “pulp,” has been historically reduced by the silence mill to a fictive and unreal “thin papery feeling.” The “mill of silence” is inherent (“its”); and being “small” it likely stands for an ingrained mechanism, even at a cellular level, for cultural oppression, where women were compelled — at least before the latest flowering of women’s liberation and the “#MeToo” movement — to have “The Courage of Shutting Up” (a poem written on October 2, 1962, three weeks before “Cut,” and originally titled “The Courage of Quietness”):

No, the tongue, too, has been put by,
Hung up in the library with the engravings of Rangoon
And the fox heads, the otter heads, the heads of dead rabbits.
It is a marvelous object—
The things it has pierced in its time.

A day before writing “The Courage of Shutting Up,” Plath wrote “The Detective,” her most dramatic statement on dead-end domesticity and the silencing of women, which includes this stanza:

It is a case of vaporization.
The mouth first, its absence reported
In the second year. It had been insatiable
And in punishment was hung out like brown fruit
To wrinkle and dry.

This cultural silencing was cultivated from the earliest times and was still pronounced during Plath’s lifetime when in 1955, for example, Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson addressed her graduating class, consisting of many of the brightest, best educated women in the nation, and extolled the virtues of marriage and motherhood as linchpins of American life (an ethos Plath later satirized in the “The Applicant”).[10] Incremental and insidious, the “small mill of silence” caused many women to wear masks (often male guises in professional and business environments) and to communicate in the ironic form of double entendre that is the code of “Cut.” Plath’s resistance makes her poetry the prototype for écriture féminine, as Liz Yorke observed:

[Plath’s] illicit poetry repeatedly brings to consciousness what fifties’ and sixties’ respectability would have wished silenced, excluded and suppressed. We find in this poetry the compulsive intensities, the fragmentations and splits, the insistent aggressions, the hatred and complaint of the woman who radically refuses to hold back on her grievances. She refuses to be the silenced hysteric — to be the woman having nothing to say, the woman whose suffering never reaches language.[11]

  Read in this light, the feminist content of “Cut” may well explain the poem’s dedication to Susan O’Neill Roe, the 22-year old children’s nurse of whom Plath was exceptionally fond — as if telling Roe (and all young women), “this is what you are up against.” If Plath intended some other subtext we must find more persuasive ways to explain the presence of these Swiftian miniatures and the poem’s discourse as a whole, which is the clever code that replicates the sort of “girl talk” that was common during Plath’s years as a teenager and young woman. Nowadays, partly because of liberalizing trends that have given women a public forum (at least in developed countries of the Western world), the code has been largely abandoned for the more direct forms of sexual repartee heard through every popular media outlet.

 Though Plath’s writings predate Kristeva’s, it is still possible to apply the latter’s theory of abjection to this reading, not only to identify the invasive aspects of the “other” (the execrable reified) that produce the psychological agons with which all women personally struggled (and still struggle) consciously or unconsciously, but also to view its primary manifestations from the opposite side, as a cultural disability that actively hobbled women and made them a subservient class. Accordingly, we cannot discount the psychological effect of the events of Plath’s personal life on the composition of “Cut,”  because her conflicted relationship with Hughes — in which, as a poet, she was commonly perceived as playing second fiddle to him — clearly harmonizes with the poem’s primary theme. Yet it would be ill-advised to argue that the considerable poetic craft brought to bear on “Cut” was merely an incidental byproduct of a “confessional” moment. Indeed, Plath’s journals and letters demonstrate that the androcentric nature of culture and her ultimate desire to be free of it occupied her private thoughts for much of her life.

 Significantly, Plath does not play the victim in “Cut,” but is secretly the turncoat and crafty saboteur, a role she plays in different guises in many of the poems written from September through November, 1962. More than a commentary on the culture’s revulsion at female blood, sexuality, and domesticity,” “Cut” is a veiled, but no less penetrating, indictment of the historical and systematized marginalization of women. Indeed, since Eve women have been the target of misguided science and disgraceful social behavior which, at its worst, included actual or virtual slavery and deprivations of other civil rights. In 1962, Plath stood out as a trail blazer among writers, male and female, for when Plath wrote “Cut” the publication of The Feminine Mystique by fellow Smith alumna Betty Friedan was yet 4 months away, Our Bodies Ourselves by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective still another 10 years in the future, and the modern feminist movement stirring but nascent. Years later, Judith Butler would take the full measure of the cultural construction of sex, gender and sexuality, all of which Plath’s writings anticipate. Therefore, “What a thrill / My thumb instead of an onion,” might well be taken for Plath’s exasperation at being deprived of a woman’s right to a unique sexual identity and, from a literary perspective, a separate and uniquely feminine figurative schema.

  Coded sexual expression was common among certain oppressed groups (e.g., racial minorities, women, LGBT and artists) primarily because sexual content was driven underground by the predominance of repressive religious and political regimes. We can only note with embarrassment the history of private and public forms of conduct and speech, including the performance and publication of many artworks, that have been (and in many parts of the world still are) criminally prosecuted and socially punished because of their sexual content. Plath’s satirical discourse on gender and its strategically selected sample of historical symbols, which largely represent the bloodshed and conquest of our checkered past, accommodate a samizdat that ultimately speaks for the life-giving feminine virtues that oppose that very history.


[1] Commentaries on “Cut” distinguish themselves by either grossly undervaluing the aesthetic achievements of the poem [Anne Stevenson called “Cut” a “playful poem” in Bitter Fame [(Viking 1989), 27)], or by fabulously overstating its psychological posture, often grafting Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection into the analysis. Kristeva’s thesis (in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez [Columbia Univ. Press 1982]) was broadly employed as a method of literary analysis in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath [Virago 1991] by Jacqueline Rose, who examined Plath’s legacy with the kind of penetrating global intelligence that is rarely seen. Notwithstanding her brilliance, however, I believe Rose erred in her application of abjection theory to, in effect, psychoanalyze Plath’s work. As Susan Bassnet notes, “Only by accepting that Sylvia Plath’s writings are filled with contradictions is a dialectical relationship with each other can we move beyond the dead-end ‘reading to find out the truth’ kind of process.” The phenomenon of abjection has many delivery points on both cultural and personal levels, which makes Plath a psychological moving target. At best, one can examine each poem or story on its own terms, and even then one has to be very careful about how one goes about the analysis.

In his lecture, “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry” [The Portable Jung (Penguin Books 1971), 301 ff], Carl Jung held that psychological analysis, when applied to a work of art, was inherently flawed: “In order to do justice to a work of art, analytical psychology must rid itself entirely of medical prejudice; for a work of art is not a disease, and consequently requires a different approach from the medical one.” Ibid. 308. As to the personal origins of the art, they “have as much or as little to do with the work of art as the soil with the plant that springs from it.” Ibid. 308. Certainly, we can understand the “plant’s peculiarities by getting to know its habitat,” but “nobody will maintain that everything essential has been discovered about the plant itself.” Ibid. 308-309. Thus, “the question of aetiology in medicine is quite out of place in dealing with a work of art, just because a work of art is not a human being, but is something supra-personal. . . . Indeed, the special significance of a true work of art resides in the fact that it has escaped from the limitations of the personal and has soared beyond the personal concerns of its creator.” Ibid. 309

Sue Vice’s essay, “Sylvia Plath: Ariel” [in A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry (Blackwell Publishing 2001), ed. Neil Roberts], recounts previous commentaries by Robert L. Stilwell, who saw “Cut” as a puzzling “circular string of uncontrolled conceits” [in Linda Wagner-Martin’s Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath (G.K. Hall 1984), 45], and Edward Larrissy, who observed a disjunction between the persona’s body and her subjectivity: “the speaker describes this domestic incident with a detachment that unnervingly – for the reader – echoes the injury” [in Reading Twentieth Century Poetry: The Language of Gender and Objects (Blackwell Publishers 1990), 137]. As wayward as these reviews are, Vice herself goes astray by interpreting  the poem through the “bodily discourse of abjection” (relying on both Kristeva and Rose). Given the apparent lure of Kristeva’s psychological approach, a dedicated textual analysis becomes subordinate to Vice’s thesis. In the end her appraisal of the poem is not too different from those she disapproves of: “The boundaries of sense, mortality and grammar all bleed unnervingly into one another, and the abjection which is the poem’s subject cannot be prevented from affecting the reader too.”

Here I hasten to distinguish between the Kristeva-oriented critics who employ psychological theory as an appliqué, and the opposite act of taking Freud’s castration complex, with which Plath was well familiar, and showing that Plath developed it as a figurative device to demonstrate how female identity has been diminished (“cut”) throughout history.  Abjection certainly does have an application as a diagnostic tool, but to single out Plath’s poetry as Exhibit “A” injudiciously reduces its fine literary attributes to a critique to which all modern poetry would surely fall.

Rather, a more fruitful point of departure is Kristeva’s exploration of a structural relationship between Stephen Mallarmé’s poetry and mathematics in “Towards a Semiology of Paragrams” [in The Tel Quel Reader, eds. Patrick Ffrench and Roland-François Lack, trans. Roland-François Lack (New York: Routledge, 1998), 25 et seq.], where she calls poetry one of the few inherently subversive discourses and “the only infinity code,” in which words, among other things, do not follow commonly understood semiological or grammatical relationships. To the extent that language involves usages that represent a “code,” poetic language is “a sub-code of the total code.”  The subversive discourse of “Cut” is intentionally coded in order to satirize androcentric attitudes about female gender, social class, and psychology.

In Revising Life: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel Poems (University of North Carolina Press 1993), Susan Van Dyne’s singular examination of Plath’s early drafts has much to say about the making of Ariel, including “Cut.” Van Dyne’s analysis of the poem borders on revelation but quickly falls apart when she too easily makes Plath the fall girl: “What is strangely disquieting for a female reader is that this final naming (“dirty girl”) is itself a form of self-sabotage; we are pained by the alienation it produces and represents for us, by the evidence that the female speaker has internalized her culture’s revulsion at blood, sexuality and domesticity. After all these male masquerades, the ebullient wit and rhyming agility of her performance, the woman writer who is confined to the role of scullery maid” — by which Van Dyne means Plath’s role as a homemaker – “rewounds herself by unmasking the misogyny within.” Ibid. 148 (parenthetical matter supplied). This, of course, unfortunately underplays the Swiftian irony that immunizes Plath from Van Dyne’s indictment.

In The Other Sylvia Plath (Pearson Education Ltd. 2001), Tracy Brain partially subscribes to the Kristeva model when the self “‘weary of fruitless attempts to identify with something on the outside, finds the impossible within; when it finds that the impossible constitutes its very being’ (quoting Kristeva). This seems like a good description of what happens to the speaker in ‘Cut’ when she discovers that the Redcoats aren’t coming but have been there all along, inside her very self (or finger, as it were).” But, Brain says, “the poem does not comply perfectly with Kristeva’s notion of abjection, which has it that abjection is ‘directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside . . . It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated’ (quoting Kristeva). For a brief instant, the speaker of “Cut” does absorb what is different from her. . . yet the position is not maintained for long.” Ibid. 76. Brain examines the dusty trail of the poem’s historical events and their reference to American vs. British nationality, again finding abjection on the border of the Russian Babushka, and concludes with Van Dyne’s observations on Plath’s choice of “Dirty girl” over “pearly girl” and “pale amputee, determining that “Plath opted for mixed, indeterminate gender. Male or female, the thumb is castrated, a ‘stump’ whose transgression have left it, like the speaker, and, ultimately, like Sylvia Plath’s reader, unsure of the borders not just of skin and gender, but also of country.Ibid. 77-78 (parenthetical matter and emphasis supplied).

[2] See, e.g., Deborah Nelson, Pursuing Privacy in Cold War America (Columbia University Press 2002), 77; see also Nelson, “Plath, history and politics,” The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath ed. Jo Gill (Cambridge Univ. Press 2006), 27 (Plath  transforms a culinary mishap into a lesson in American history); Susan B. Rosenbaum, Professing Sincerity: Modern Lyric Poetry, Commercial Culture, and the Crisis in Reading (Univ. of Virginia Press 2007), 140-143 (The poem is “a literary meditation on war and American history” and hence a confrontation with “the desire to define clear moral ‘sides’ and assign clear origins of violence”); Renée Curry, White Women Writing White: H. D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath and Whiteness [Greenwood Press 2000] 166, 2, 126–128  (finds the realization of the author’s whiteness gives rise to an awareness of her culpability for racial oppression).

[3] I confess that I can make no distinction between Sylvia Plath the poet and the speaker in “Cut,” because her letters reveal that she really did cut her thumb and because I have also found the poem to be a highly personal and political statement on gender. I do, however, treat the author’s virtual thumb as a figurative device that is made to serve certain literary purposes in a way that an onion might not.

[4] When Plath dislocates normative emotional responses, for example, those associated with motherhood in “Morning Song,” where Plath seems oddly detached in the passage: “I’m no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind’s hand,” we know the figuration is ironic, as the child figured in the poem is not her own flesh and blood child (as most critics have thought), but the poem itself (which is the “Morning Song”). [Plath follows a very old tradition of figuratively treating her poems as children and repeats it in, e.g., “Barren Woman,” “Thalidomide,” “Childless Woman,” and “Child.”]  In “Cut” the figurative elements are in the nature of allegory and satire, hence ironic, and therefore should not to be taken at face value or otherwise relied upon for proof of, e.g., the author’s confusion with respect to nationality or her psychological conflict with the “other,” as some critics have imprudently applied Kristeva’s theory of abjection. Plath’s purposes in “Cut” reveal that she sees cultural history all too clearly.

[5] Simon Gaunt, Troubadours and Irony (Cambridge Univ. Press 1989), 22 (emphasis supplied).

[6] See, e.g., Christina Britzolakis, Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning (Oxford Univ. Press 1999), 69, 71:

Modernism defined itself in opposition to the economic and popular power of women’s writing which had dominated the literary market since the nineteenth century. The surgical-sculptural ideals of Hulmean poetics are inseparable from the attempt to demarcate literature from mass culture, and its debilitating ‘feminine’ influence. T.S. Eliiot’s theory of ‘impersonality’, propounded in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, constructs, as Sanda Gilbert and Susan Gubar put it, ‘an implicitly masculine aesthetic of hard, abstract learned verse that is opposed to the soft, effusive, personal verse supposedly written by women and Romantics” (citing Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Guber, No Man’s Land (Yale Univ. Press 1988), i. 154).

*      *      *

By the 1950s, modernist antisentimentality had acquired, through the influence of the New Critics, something of the status of an orthodoxy. . . . As Adrienne Rich, Plath’s contemporary (and a poet she saw as her closest rival), points out in her 1971 essay ‘When We Dead Awaken’, women poets of the 1950’s had to apprentice themselves to authoritative male models if they wanted to be taken seriously as poets (citing Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing As Re-Vision,” in On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978 [London: Virago 1980]).

See also, Alan Sinfield, Literature, Politics and Culture in Post-War Britain (Athlone Press 1997), 230-262.

[7] Van Dyne, 147-148:

In the draft, Plath played with ‘(pale amputee)’ and ‘(pearly) girl,’ neither of which delivers the same cultural punch to the solar plexus. Plath pretends in ‘Cut’ to counter a reckless waste of blood by an extravagant display of poetic energy, yet in this final unveiling she recognizes that the sexual bleeding that makes maternity possible also makes assertions of control, mastery, and secure identity more problematic.

As counterpoint to Van Dyne’s comment, the clitoral references, “pale amputee” and “pearly girl,” were relatively much weaker than the highly figurative “Dirty girl,” which imports sluttishness and captures the louche character of the poem’s ending in a way that was more fitting with “Trepanned veteran” and “Thumb stump.” Plath’s choice was a “cultural punch to the solar plexus,” as Van Dyne characterizes it. It is unfortunate, however, that Van Dyne’s examination of “Cut” is otherwise devoted to matters that steer her away from a closer reading of the text.

[8] Sigmund Freud, The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (W.W. Norton & Co. 1989), 664-665:

The female sex, too, develops an Oedipus complex, a super-ego and a latency period. May we also attribute a phallic organization and a castration complex to it? The answer is in the affirmative, but these things cannot be the same as they are in boys. . . . The little girl’s clitoris behaves just like a penis to begin with; but, when she makes a comparison with a playfellow of the other sex, she perceives that she has ‘come off badly’ and she feels this as a wrong done to her and as a ground for inferiority. For a while still she consoles herself with the expectation that later on, when she grows older, she will acquire just as big an appendage as the boy’s. Here, the masculinity complex of women branches off. A female child, however, does not understand her lack of a penis as being a sex character; she explains it by assuming that at some earlier date she had possessed an equally large organ and had then lost it by castration. She seems not to extend this inference from herself to other, adult females, but, entirely on the lines of the phallic phase, to regard them as possessing large and complete—that is to say, male—genitals. The essential difference thus comes about that the girl accepts castration as an accomplished fact, where the boy fears the possibility of its occurrence.

My critique on “Cut” argues that Plath satirizes Freud’s castration complex as much as she relies upon the cognizance of his views by the culture at large. Although Plath incorporated Freudian elements into her poems, Freud’s views of female sexuality were ultimately an unsustainable artifice, too confining and androcentric, as we see in the Ariel poems following Plath’s estrangement from Ted Hughes.

[9] Homeopathic and herbal remedies for dysmenorrhea have existed for a long time. In the Victorian age, painkillers in the form of pills and potions, including opium, were administered. Patented medications like Midol, and Tylenol were the modern means of treatment by 1961. The birth control pill was introduced in the U.K. in 1961 and first prescribed to married women only, but its use spread quickly and widely in just a few years.  Antidepressants were introduced in the U.K. and U.S. in the 1950’s. Prior to his own death, Ted Hughes stated that he believed that the antidepressant medication that Plath has been taking was the procuring cause of her suicide.

[10] Nelson, “Plath, history and politics,” 29-31. Alan Sinfield makes a similar point about the respective roles of father and mother in Britain:

The dominant psychological notions were Freudian (or one variant thereof). In the 1950’s, despite evidence of other kinds of family structure in Europe and other parts of the world, Freudians made the ideology of domesticity appear natural. In Britain this attitude appeared in popular works by John Bowlby (Child Care and the Growth of Love, 1953) and D.W. Winnicott (The Child and the Family, 1957 — based on radio talks of 1944-45). Both studies insisted on the crucial role of the mother.

Op cit. at 232.

[11] Liz Yorke, Impertinent Voices: Subversive Strategies in Contemporary Women’s Poetry (London: Routledge 1991), 51.

© 2019 Steven M. Critelli All rights reserved.

1 comment on “Girl Talk: The Code of Sylvia Plath’s “Cut”

  1. Pingback: Girl Talk: The Code of Sylvia Plath’s “Cut” – Diary of an American

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