“The Heart Shuts”: ‘Contusion’ by Sylvia Plath

“Colour floods to the spot, dull purple.

The rest of the body is all washed out,

The colour of pearl.

In a pit of rock

The sea sucks obsessively,

One hollow the whole sea’s pivot.

The size of a fly,

The doom mark

crawls down the wall.

The heart shuts,

The sea slides back,

The mirrors are sheeted”


“Contusion” (1965) is a short, but sharp poem that narrates the loss of oneself when the hopelessness of a depression makes way for self-hatred and suicide.  It is a poem devoid of vitality whilst being narrated against a backdrop of bleak despondency. For these reasons it is not surprising that Plath wrote this poem just weeks before her suicide in 1963. “Contusion” was published in Plath’s posthumous collection ‘Ariel’.

“Contusion” opens as a “dull purple” colour “floods” to a spot on the “washed out” body – presumably Plath’s – that is “the colour of pearl”; the lack of colour is indicative of the absence of life and with this Plath dramatises the ‘contusion’ to merge ideas of a physical death with the death of her inner-being, or soul. This despondent body becomes a physical representation of Plath’s decaying sense of being and the unrestrained or uncontrollable flooding of colour symbolises her sense of helplessness or the emptiness that she feels as her identity slips away from her and she falls evermore deeply into the abyss of depression: she is powerless to stop what is happening. There is no struggle; there is no fight and no attempt to seek rebirth or regeneration, just a bleak resignation to the future that awaits her. Death becomes associated with defeat, rather than a glorious rebirth.

In the next stanza, a “pit of rock” is sucked “obsessively” by the sea. Plath transforms herself from one inanimate form to another; and again, she is cold and lifeless in her rock form. On a deeper level, the rock symbolises the stability, solidity and permanence of Plath’s life, elements that are central to the identity of pre-suicidal Plath, but in her depressive state they are elements that are slowly diminishing and being sucked away from her. As the sea “sucks obsessively” it becomes a metaphor for the overpowering force that draws her inner-life away from her physical life; the depression that consumes her and her whole existence.  Death has claimed Plath and there is nothing vivid or exciting about it, she is alone and helpless.

The feeling of being alone and helpless in the dying moment is overwhelmed by the overpowering size of the other objects that she is subjected to. She becomes the “size of a fly” in her final moments, insignificant and inconsequential, but the fly is a “doom mark” that “crawls down the wall”. It is an omen that heralds Plath’s eventual suicide; a disastrous destiny that lays intent on claiming her. The flies descent is remnant of Plath sinking further into the “doom” that is her depression; she is a voice, an entity whose significance is under collapse.

The final stanza evocatively heralds Plath’s death, wherein she is completely cold and detached from the world around her, portraying images of closure and endings. Her “heart shuts”; all the energy and passion that have fuelled even her darkest moments and poems have dissolved and the “sea slides back”. She is no longer subject to the other and greater authority (depression) that slowly destroys her identity from the inside; it is a glorious moment of release for Plath, sadly one that culminates in the termination of her own life where  the “mirrors are sheeted”. The mirror marks the passage of time through its reflection of the ageing process, but times stops; she ceases to exist and the mirror cannot reflect.

“Contusion”, like the rest of the ‘Ariel’ poems, is a sad piece that narrates a hopeless defeat and desperate finality. Hope has completely fled and there is nothing left to say. Plath’s inner-being, or soul, has disintegrated and all that is left is a desire to leave the earthly world behind. 


About Jade Kostanczuk

I'm an English Literature graduate, an aspiring writer and bookworm

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