Thursday, 30 October 2014

Themes in 'The Waste Land'


‘The Waste Land’, a masterpiece of T.S. Eliot, is a long and complex poem about the psychological and cultural crisis that came with the loss of moral and cultural identity after the World War I. The critics have commented on the theme of this poem in different words:

‘vision of desolation and spiritual drought’. (F.R. Leavis);
‘the plight of the whole generation’. (I.A. Richards);
‘a sigh for the vanished glory of the past’. (Cleanth Brooks)
‘there is a life in death, a life of complete inactivity, listlessness and apathy’. (Spender)

There are only two master themes in the poem, which in turn, generate many sub-themes.


The first of these major themes is the disillusionment, which indicates in the current state of affairs of modern society, especially the post-World War I Europe in which he lived. He illustrates this pervasive sense of disillusionment in several ways, the most notable of which is reference to joyless sex, such as the example of Philomel, upon whom sex is forced.

          In fact, Eliot employs a litany of joyless sexual situations, including the rich couple who would rather play chess than have sex, and the poor couple for whom sex becomes a way only of pleasing the husband, and even then, only if the wife has a ‘nice set’ of teeth. There is no love in any of these unions, and in the case of the poor couple, the wife has started having abortions because she ‘nearly died of young George’, one of her children. This purposeful killing of new life is another way Eliot shows how people are disillusioned regarding sex and how pro-creative power in many cases is lost.

          But perhaps the most prominent example of meaningless sex comes during the scene between the typist and the clerk. Following this joyless sexual encounter, in which the man satisfies his lust, he leaves the woman, who is ‘hardly aware of her departed lover’. Her indifference shows in her simple actions:

                      She smoothes her hair with automatic hand
                        And puts a record on the gramophone.

          Further, loss of faith and moral values, monotony of life and useless wars in various parts of the world also add to the disillusionment of the modern man.

                        What is that sound high in the air
                        Murmur of maternal lamentation


The other major theme, restoration or rebirth, is the opposite of disillusionment. If modern society can somehow overcome its disillusionment, it will be restored back to a state in which life once again has meaning. This refers to the Fisher King myth from Weston’s book. The idea of restoration, in the form of resurrection, is not explored in detail until the final section, with the introduction of Christ. The final section begins with the talk of Christ’s betrayal and death and of ‘the shouting and the crying’ of Christ’s followers at his death. With Christ’s death, ‘we who were living are now dying’. Lost without their savior, Christians feel morally dead. But all hope is not lost, for Christ is resurrected, and joins his disciples on the road.

Further Eliot refers to one of the Hindu Upanishads, where in a period of doubt and confusion, men, gods and demons prayed to the creator. God answered their prayer through a divine thunder, which uttered one word thrice—Da, Da, Da. Each group gave its own interpretation. Men said ‘Da’ which means ‘Datta’ (to give), Demons said ‘Da’ which means ‘Dayadhvam’ (to sympathize), further the gods said ‘Da’ which means ‘Damyata’ (to control). According to Eliot all the three show the path of salvation for humanity.

Structure and Form of 'The Waste Land'


The critics have taken objection to the form of ‘The Waste Land’. Some are of the opinion that it is a group of separate poems loosely strung together. Others feel that it is a parade of the poet’s learning. Some critics understand that there is no story or movement in the poem. The poet keeps beating about the bush without reaching any conclusion. However, on a careful study of the poem it has been found that there is a thin and subtle thread which runs throughout the poem and gives it a sort of unity. This pertains to the evils of civilization and how civilization can be saved.

Tiresias, The Unifying Link

Tiresias, the protagonist, imparts a sense of unity to the poem as a whole. Through the stream of consciousness method Tiresias reflects on the past and the present, and sees a lot of resemblances between them.

Film Technique-Montage

Eliot follows the film technique in representing scenes from the ancient world and modern life. He builds up a sequence of pictures from the parts of a scene, rather than giving a scene from beginning to end. He also recalls previous scenes from memory. This is called Montage in technical language.

Spiral Structure

Some critics feel that the structure of the poem is circular; the argument does not progress and it ends where it began. Helen Gardner however writes. ‘We are not, however, moving in a circle but on a spiral up and down’. The theme is one and the same i.e. the evils of civilization. Sometimes the poet takes up one point and then takes up the next and reverses to the first point again. However, there is some kind of forward movement. In the beginning, the poet refers to the desert and rock but at the end there are cloud and the hope of rain.

Use Of Myths / Parallelism

Eliot’s vast scholarship is reflected in literary allusions, symbols and myths. He deliberately chooses the mythical method for obvious advantages. It helps in concretizing parallelism between past and present. Secondly, it bridges the gulf between the crises in human history and civilization. It gives a sense of the continuity of time and human consciousness. Eliot mentions a number of wastelands which are so much alike; the Biblical wasteland, the wasteland of King Oedipus, the wasteland of King Fisher, and the modern wasteland. The root cause of these wastelands, their barrenness and desolation was loss of moral values and sexual perversion. The way to regeneration and salvation is given by Eliot in the last section in the words of the Thunder.

Irony And Contrast

Eliot pinpoints the distortion of values in the modern age through ironic contrasts too. The banks of the river Thames were once full of nymphs, but now they are full of young girls for having a good time with their lovers. In the past the loss of virginity led to suicide. Goldsmith’s heroine in ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’ contemplates death after seduction. But the typist girl after having sex with her lover stretches her hands to play a gramophone record, as if nothing had happened.


Use of symbols adds to the clarity and significance of the poem. The recurrent mythical symbols are taken from the cycles of seasons. ‘Winter’ stands for death, ‘spring’ for rebirth, ‘drought’ for spiritual barrenness, ‘rain’ for spiritual rebirth and productivity. Eliot uses his own personal symbols in very meaningful way. ‘Dog’ is a symbol of human conscience. ‘Red Rock’ stands for Christian Church which offers a place of refuge for the lost soul of man.

Poetic Shorthand

Eliot compresses his ideas and impressions through poetic shorthand. It is device which brings together places and events, and history and legends through the use of words and lines written by writers of different countries and times.

After all human experience is practically one and the same throughout the ages. The use of quotations and allusions from different books is a part of the poetic shorthand used by Eliot.

To conclude, the poem has a pattern and purpose. Through literature and history, Eliot has shown how period of spiritual barrenness and decadence have been followed by the periods of rebirth and regeneration. He offers a comprehensive solution to the problems of the modern age by combining the wisdom of the East and the West.

Issues in 'The Waste Land'


Undoubtedly, ‘The Waste Land’ is a social document of our times, a poem which throws light on the problems, perplexities and disintegration of modern civilization. This integration is due to several reasons as mentioned below.

Sexual Perversion

Today, sex has been perverted from its proper function and is utilized for animal pleasure and monetary benefits. It has, therefore, become a source of degeneration and disease and a hurdle in man’s spiritual progress as well. Easy sexual relationships are found among all sections of society. Eliot cites the instances of German princess and the Lady of Situations. Further he mentions the story of Lil and the experiences of the three daughters of Thames. The typist girl has no emotional involvement in the sex act. She takes it as she would take as aspirin to get over a tension or a headache. Eliot sums up the story of the European lust through the words of St. Augustine:

                     To Catharge then I came
                        Burning burning burning burning

Loss Of Spiritual Values

          The poet questions Stetson about the corpse which he had planted in his garden last year. Had it bloomed this year? He further advises him to keep the dog away from the corpse as he may dig it up. The dog is the symbol of conscience which is likely to awaken humanity to its spiritual decay. The idea behind the corpse and the dog is that without faith and conscience man cannot be reborn. The dog may also refer to modern scientific philosophies which are outwardly beneficial to human beings but are really harmful for spiritual life. Man is not only the body but also soul and these philosophies neglect the soul. 

Lack Of Human Relationship

          People have become self-centered and egoistic. There is no sentiment of sympathy and compassion.

                     We think of the key, each in his prison
                        Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison

          Each one of us thinks individually of the method of breaking out of his own cell. He is thereby inflating the ego. The ego isolates one individual from another and thereby prevents united action to come out of prison. The word Dayadhvam (to sympathize) is one of the secrets of man’s spiritual rebirth. We must give up our ego and isolation and work for the good of humanity. This will bring spiritual satisfaction.  

Mental Tension And Monotonous Routine Of Life

          Modern psychologists have shown that majority of people are abnormal. They suffer various types of mental illness on account of the worries and anxiety and challenges of the modern life. The fashionable society woman called Lady of Situation, is bored with her own life and has become extremely neurotic. Her lover, too, suffers from mental exhaustion. He says:

                     I think we are in rat’s alley
                        Where the dead men lost their bones

For the ordinary man and woman, a dead and meaningless routine is mentioned by the poet as:

                     The hot water at ten
                        And if rains, a closer car at four
                        And we shall play a game of chess

Politics And Wars

          An important cause of the disintegration of modern civilization is the enormous power wielded by politicians. They have the power to make war against other countries, without consulting their own people. By their own actions, they can bring untold miseries to their countrymen.

Millions of people were affected by war directly and indirectly.

                     What is that sound high in the air
                        Murmur of maternal lamentation

          So, Eliot has given a very clear picture of the disintegration of the European society after the First World War. But it may be noted that the decay of civilization is a part of the history of the mankind. Eliot draws upon the example of ancient history of Europe and India and shows how resurrection and rebirth is possible even today. The mythical method of Prajapati—Da Da Da suggests the unfailing remedy of the ills of modern world.