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.

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