Themes in The Waste Land
The Waste Land, at first glance, can often be mistakenly perceived as fragmented and scattered and having no coherent pattern or meaning between the five short poems. T.S. Eliot’s creative style of writing creates this impression, as there is no specific narrator or protagonist throughout the poems and chooses instead to allow several different voices to tell of their personal experiences. However, when the poems are read in relation to each other, while trying to understand the historical context at the time, the five contrasting poems somehow seem to suddenly morph together with brighter clarity and deeper meaning. T.S. Eliot expertly uses several themes and motifs in these poems to help illustrate the kind of society that existed immediately following WWI. By analyzing three of the most prevalent themes presented in The Waste Land, such as, lust, death, and fragmentation, one can better visualize and comprehend what society was like in the eyes of T.S. Eliot during this time.
The theme of lust can be found in several parts of The Waste Land, especially in the poem, The Fire Sermon. In the Fire Sermon, it starts off by describing the river Thames and how it is devoid of Nymphs, garbage, and of all life in the river. It then describes a rat crawling up onto the vegetation and across the bones and bodies of people on the ground. This is quite a grisly scene. It then describes the shocking scene of a young sailor, described as a carbuncle, who violates a young typist and has a sexual encounter with her. This scene is almost described as rape as it describes the young men caressing the typist even though she has no desire to engage in this encounter with this man, but makes no objection. T.S. Eliot uses this scene to perhaps make a point on the sexuality of London during his time and how sexuality had become devoid of “life” or “purpose” and had changed for sexual fulfillment only. This scene can be related with the river scene and how the river had been stripped of all of its purity and glory and had been replaced with rats, death, and pus and disease. Perhaps T.S. Eliot believed that his world had become a world of lust, rather than a world filled with purity of love and with the purpose of creating life. This point is furthered by examining the Game of Chess poem, where it describes a wealthy woman named Lil, who describes her frustration to her friends about her husband’s sexual appetite and how she has to take birth control pills that make her sick. Again, the theme of sterility and the theme of lust are prevalent in this section. Instead of choosing to have children, she takes the birth control pills to appease her husband’s sexual appetite and her husband even gives her money to fix her teeth, to make her more physically appealing. This again reflects T.S. Eliot’s view on how the world has become devoid of the true meaning of sexuality and how it had been stained by the sin of lust.
The theme of death is also very prevalent in several parts of The Waste Land. The book begins with the poem The Burial of The Dead, which describes four people that share their personal experiences while being surrounded by the death. While it describes these ghastly scenes of death and destruction, it also arouses the contradictory theme of life and of rebirth. One scene in particular presents this idea as it describes Eliot’s encounter with his deceased friend Stetson. Eliot inquires Stetson if the “corpse he had planted last year had sprouted this year and if it will bloom this year”. Eliot presents the idea of new life and meaning from death in this small section and perhaps has references to Christ dying and being resurrected again. It also describes, April as being the “cruelest month” as it brings “lilies out of the dead ground” and bringing back painful memories. This idea is also presented in the shortest poem of The Waste Land, which is Death by Water. It briefly describes a drowned man named Phlebas and how the waves of the sea dragged him down to the bottom. Water is often seen as a source of life and of vitality and ironically, the water drags this poor man to his death. This idea of death and rebirth is perfectly understandable at this time due to the recent destruction and loss of life during World War I. However, through the death and the destruction of the war, there is still the hope of new life and a new beginning for London. It is probable that he was hoping for a renewal in the values and the strength of the people of London.
The theme of fragmentation is also found in many parts of The Waste Land. The whole entire book in itself if very fragmented, being separated by five different poems that are completely contrasting. Inside each poem, the main speaker is constantly changing and new ideas are being constantly presented, making it quite difficult to keep track of what is exactly happening. T.S. Eliot also alludes to ancient Greek mythology several times in his poems without giving any background or explanation and relates their experiences with the characters in the poem. This fragmentation accurately describes the state of society that T.S. Eliot lived in immediately following World War I. This was a country torn apart due to the massive loss of life and resources. The country in itself was quite literally, “fragmented” and “broken apart”. T.S. Eliot helps us as the readers better come to understand this concept by the genius structure of his book, without explicitly telling his readers what he is intending to do.
In conclusion, T.S. Eliot presents the themes of lust, death, life, and fragmentation in these poems in order to help us readers better visualize and understand what war torn London was like during his time. Rather than blatantly describing to his readers what it was like, he gives the readers a more complex and visual approach with stories and references alluding to Greek Mythology and ancient archetypes. Although this approach is quite vigorous and intimidating to many readers, when properly studied and thought out, the true meaning and imagery of The Waste Land becomes even more potent and clearer to the reader and that much more meaningful and precious.
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