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5. Violence and Patriarchy in Sylvia Plaths Cut: A close reading.

In Cut Plath splices images that work in binary opposition to establish a conflict within the poem
between the domestic and the masculine, and between the imperial and the native. Plath portrays
violent, colonial, genocidal, masculine imagery as a macrocosm of patriarchal repression of women in
the domestic sphere. The speaker de-aligns herself from her cultural heritage as an American of
European descent to associate herself with the oppressed agent of the poem, the Native American.
This essay will argue that in doing so Plath conflates the domestic servitude of women within the
privileged, white, middle class patriarchal system with the repression of native peoples and their
culture by imperial powers in their conquest of the New World.

The establishing image of the poem is one of a woman cutting her thumb whilst chopping onions. The
injury is disproportionate for the mere act of cutting an onion, the thumb left hanging by a flap,
permeating the image with violent sinister overtones. The thumb flap is compared both, to the
strongly feminine image of a white hat with a red plush and a pilgrim who has been scalped by an
Indian. By juxtaposing these images Plath superimposes the violent masculine imperialist sphere onto
the traditionally feminine domestic sphere. The effect of this is to disturb the tranquillity of the
domestic space with the violence of the patriarchal system, imbuing the domestic image of cutting
onions with the violence inherent to the repressive act of relegating women to domestic servitude.
The cut thumb itself is gendered as male, having a turkey wattle; a sexually dimorphic appendage
specific to male birds and also being referred to as a homunculus, a term used to denote a miniature
but fully formed man. The thumb becomes a phallic symbol and the cutting of the thumb, which is
never convincingly accidental, becomes an amputation or decapitation of the male part of the speaker,
an attempt to become a more integrated feminine being via the act of self-mutilation. The wound
concretises the real abstraction of systemic patriarchal violence; placing the knife at a remove from
the domestic sphere as a tool of servitude and realising its symbolic violence. The self-mutilation also

subverts the traditional role of the male as a protector of the domestic sphere placing the male instead
in a repressive role.

Plath portrays the letting of blood, which is represented by British Redcoat soldiers run[ning] out of
[the] gap of the wound, as a celebration, a divorce from the repressive history of the patriarchal,
imperialist British Empire in America and the genocide of the Native Americans. 1 The pool of blood
gathering on the floor is likened to a carpet roll, a red carpet that Plath steps onto with a bottle of
pink fizz.2 This celebratory divorce from the white colonial power of the British Empire, which was
in decline in the 1960s, allows the speaker to align herself with the Native American, transforming
the injured thumb from a scalped pilgrim to a trepanned veteran. 3 4
The practice of trepanning on the living was performed for the escape or entrance of spirits or to
acquire rondelles (the disks of bone obtained from the cutting of circular holes in the skulls) which
would have been used for charms, amulets, or talismans. 5 The image of the trepanned veteran in
Cut therefore represents a transformation from the figure of the invasive pilgrim, who has
deservedly been rebuffed, to the distinguished native who has been afforded a sense of spiritual
freedom through a controlled incision to the head, or to the top of the thumb in this case.
The implication of the incision being deliberate, places the act in the territory of self-harm, a theme
that is alluded to in the title of the poem. However by placing the act of self mutilation in the realm of
1Sylvia Plath, 'Cut', in Ariel, ed. by Ted Hughes, (London: Faber & Faber, 1999),
pp. 15-6 (p. 15). Lines 17-20
2 Cut Lines. 12-16
3 Cut Lines. 9-10
4 Cut Line. 38
5 University of Illinois in Chicago, 'Why Was it Done?' in Trepanation, An Ancient
Surgery, (2003) <
%20An%20Ancient%20Surgery.htm> [accessed 07/04/2014] (para. 7).

the spiritual, the speaker is able to take ownership of the injury and gain relief or a thrill 6 from it that
allows them a sense of fulfilment. In this way the incision becomes a surgical act that leads to a
process of healing from the injuries inflicted by the violence of the repressive male patriarchy.

The British Redcoat image also alludes to the turbulent relationship Plath had with her British
husband Ted Hughes and the masculine domination he possibly represented in the domestic sphere.
In using the image of the blood, the life force, being represented by the British Redcoat, Plath
acknowledges her historical role as a privileged, middle class woman of European descent in the
repression of Native American peoples. Images of luxury form an uncomfortable counterpoint to the
imagery of violence in the poem. The red carpet being used as a metaphor for the blood gives the
violence a sense of celebrity, which may relate to Plaths destructively competitive relationship with
Hughes as a poet. Plath lived in the shadow of Hughes work, her most proclaimed work Ariel only
coming to prominence after being published posthumously.
The pink fizz forms a grotesque image when combined with the backdrop of the bloody carpet. This
creates an uneasy sense of wealth, which derives from the colonial exploitation of the New World and
is a facet of the violence itself, the fizz presumably stained pink by the blood of the wound. The
luxury of the pink fizz is implicitly linked back to the idea of colonisation by the rhyme between
bottle and turkey wattle, the turkey being a symbol of Thanksgiving, when Americans traditionally
consume roast turkey to celebrate the collaboration between the early pilgrims and the Native
Americans.78 The Native Americans welcoming the patrimony of the white man eventually leads to
the genocide of their people and their confinement to reservations. The confinement of the Native
Americans to the space of the reservation as part of patriarchal colonisation, has operated historically
in a similar manner to the confinement of the speaker to the domestic space, under familial patriarchy.
6 Cut Line. 1
7 Cut Line. 15
8 Cut Line. 11

This link subverts the positive imagery of the turkey investing it with a sense of exploitation and
deceit and aligning it with the theme of patriarchal violence in Cut.
Later in the poem this unease with wealth is alluded to in the lines I am ill/ I have taken a pill to kill/
the thin/ Papery feeling.9 The thin papery feeling is the feel of money; the need to kill the feeling of
desire to assuage the guilt of a wealth afforded by being part of a bourgeois white cultural elite, which
has supplanted the culture and tradition of the Native American peoples.

In another violent patriarchal image the Ku Klux Klan/ Babushka, an amalgamation of the hood
worn by Klansmen and the traditional headscarf worn by women in Eastern Europe is an image that
alludes to Plaths mixed identity as an American and a European immigrant, her father being of
German-Polish origin and her mother of Austrian descent. 10 The association of her Polish roots with
the image implicates the father figure in the masculine violence of the Ku Klux Klan image. The
conflation of a father figure with violent patriarchy is a motif that is recurrent in Ariel, particularly in
poems like Daddy where a father figure is associated with violent fascism. In this way the babushka
becomes at once a masculine and feminine image. This acts to imbue the feminine with masculine
power of the blood that is soaking it that has already been associated with the masculine violence of
the Redcoat soldiers.

Plaths correlation of domestic, patriarchal repression with imperialist repression seeks to establish a
precedent of violent feminist insurrection. The self-mutilation of Cut operates not as a cry for help
but as a statement of violent intent against the patriarchal system. The poem calls for the revolutionary
destruction of the upholders of the violent patriarchy, an insurgency in which the transition from being
a scalped pilgrim, a facet of the imperialist system, to a trepanned veteran who has achieved
9 Cut Lines. 23-24
10 Cut Lines. 30-31

spiritual fulfilment can only happen by violent means. Plath plays on the clich of the Indian brave
removing the heart of their vanquished foe. She asserts that the historically violent male figures
exemplified by the kamikaze man and the Ku Klux Klan[sman] must be muted in the pulp[ing] of
their hearts by the balled fist of the native/feminist amalgamation. 11 Only by these means can women
take control of the cardiac system the lifeblood that was previously the reserve of the patriarchal
The image of cutting an onion, from which the poem stems, connotes that patriarchal repression and
the wider repressive forces that subjugate women are rooted in the domestic sphere. The poem sets
out the premise of a state of embattlement over the division of labour within the family unit. The act
of mutilating the hand is the rejection of the menial labour that the speaker is relegated to doing by the
gendering of roles. The poem performs a violent, bloody confrontation with the husbands and fathers
who sustain the entrenched imperialist patriarchy, in which the only kind of emancipation the speaker
feels able to achieve is the taking control of her body via the act of self-harm.

Plath, Sylvia, 'Cut', in Ariel, ed. by Ted Hughes, (London: Faber & Faber, 1999).
University of Illinois in Chicago, 'Why Was it Done?' in Trepanation, An Ancient
Surgery, (2003) <
%20An%20Ancient%20Surgery.htm> [accessed 07/04/2014]

11 Cut lines 28-34