Sylvia Plath: Poems

Sylvia Plath: Poems Summary and Analysis of "Cut"


"Cut" is spoken by a woman who has just cut her thumb while slicing an onion.

Her excitable tone begins immediately - she says it is a "thrill" that the top of her thumb is almost gone except for a hinge of skin, which flaps like a "hat." Because it is pale white with a bit of red, the cut thumb looks like a little pilgrim that has been scalped by an Indian. Her "turkey wattle" blood rolls onto the carpet, and she steps on it. Though she holds the thumb, it behaves like a bottle of "pink fizz."

She considers this to be a celebration. From the cut, the blood rolls out like a million little soldiers; they are like the "redcoats" from the Revolutionary War. She does not know whose side they are on, and laments to her "homunculus" (a little man) that she is ill. She took a painkiller, hoping to get rid of the "papery feeling," but feels sad about it.

She calls the wound both a "Saboteur" and the "Kamikaze man" as she notices the blood staining the white "Ku Klux Klan" gauze with which she has dressed it. The wound's "pulp" has been silenced, like a "Trepanned veteran" (a veteran whose skull has been wounded or operated on) and a "dirty girl."


Written on October 24th, 1962, around the same time Plath was writing "Lady Lazarus," "Cut" is a short, darkly humorous, and mildly disturbing poem. It was included in Ariel. Ostensibly, it is about a real-life incident in which Plath accidentally almost cut her thumb off while chopping an onion. While the sense of "thrill" is ambiguous - is she excited or shocked? - there is no doubt that the poem employs significant emotion, energy, drama, especially as compared to "Contusion," another poem about bodily energy. The body in "Cut" is very much alive and engaged, and the imagery reflects this vivacity - Plath uses words like "red plush," "pink fizz," "stain," "Redcoats," and "pulp".

Plath's feelings about the cut shift throughout the poem. She begins by experiencing a "thrill," and grows fascinated by the wounded thumb, which takes on the role of a scalped pilgrim, a bottle of pink soda, and redcoats. The blood continues to flow despite the pressure she employs, and her emotions follow suit, as she remains profuse in description. However, she soon begins to feel physically ill, and takes a painkiller to get rid of her "thin / Papery feeling." Once she reaches this stage, the thumb becomes a more dangerous figure – a Saboteur, a Kamikaze man (a Japanese suicide bomber in WWII), a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a Babushka, a trepanned veteran, and a dirty girl. What bridges both responses to the thumb is a sense of detachment from the member. In all these images, she is seeing the thumb as something apart from her, something she observes rather than experiences. This theme resonates with the common theme in her poetry of a separation between body and mind.

Some critics have posited that the poem is about her husband. Ted Hughes's affair with Assia Wevill had just become public, and Plath was utterly distraught. In one letter, she referred to Ted as a "little man," which is precisely what a homunculus is. In this interpretation, the thumb becomes a phallic symbol, and the cut a representation of castration. She is possibly fantasizing about attacking him. Similarly, the mention of trepanning - early brain surgery - could be understood as an insult at his intelligence.

The poem can also be understood as a feminist expression. After all, the red flow of blood evokes the feminine body, as well as an outpouring of creativity. "Cut" was dedicated to Susan O'Neill Roe, Plath's nurse/nanny and a close friend during the period of her single motherhood. Her dedication is interesting because her relationship with Roe was so distinct from the violence of the images. However, the connection makes sense when one realizes that the violent figures she mentions – a saboteur, a member of the KKK, a veteran - are all male. Looked at this way, the poem revels in contrast.

Finally, the poem can be understood as a political allusion to the Cuban Missile Crisis and other contemporary political dramas. Firstly, there are many references to American history - the pilgrim and the Indian, the KKK, and the redcoats - while a "Babushka" is a Russian item. All of the American images involve a period of war or conflict as well. Secondly, the poem was written on the day that Khrushchev refused President Kennedy's demand that the Russian missiles be removed from Cuba. The unceasing flow of blood - and the ambivalent glee that the speaker explores - could be a response to a world progressively more consumed by potential destruction, and unsure how to process it.