Womanhood in Wartime’s Wasteland
He’ll want to know what you done with the money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bare to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army for four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.
Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME. (T S Eliot, The Waste Land, 38-39)
These lines from Eliot break several stereotypes many artists and authors use to represent women in WWI. Specifically, Eliot does not buy into woman’s sexual unfaithfulness, cosmopolitan lifestyle, or their wildness the way that some war authors do, and in fact often directly contradicts these ideals. In the above passage, men find themselves portrayed as the unfaithful ones in relationships, who leave their wives when they find themselves dissatisfied sexually or even with their wife’s appearance. Interestingly, this way of portraying men appears quite different from most descriptions of WWI relationships. Many authors often portray women as the unfaithful ones in this time period. When the men leave to fight in war, women get the unique opportunity to “run wild.” Many believe that women took the opportunity to become sexually promiscuous in wartime. Through Eliot’s poem, the reader learns that this idea of women’s behaviors does not always hold true. The poem breaks these stereotypes by turning the tables on the men, making them the ones with the opportunities to cheat and portraying them as prone to infidelity.
Similarly, the tone in this passage provides another way for the reader to notice the effect of war on women, not as a positive one, as some authors argue, but as bleak and despairing. First, the women speak in a heavy dialect, not making use of proper English, allowing the reader to associate them with a lower class. Also, the reader finds these women in a bar, at closing time, something the bartender’s interjection of “Hurry up please, it’s time,” refuses to let the reader forget. Their presence at a pub, so late at night, and their discussion of frank sexuality seem masculine, or at least not what one typically considers “lady-like.” It appears that Eliot believes that war de-feminizes women to some degree, and because of the absence of men in their lives, these women portray a sense of masculinity, perhaps as a way to make up for the male companionship they miss. This idea seems off to a reader, who sympathizes with the hopelessness the women feel.
Some propaganda in this period suggests that women experience little hardship and often lead lives of leisure during the wartime. Yet the women of this poem speak in somber tones, and discuss serious, painful subjects; certainly enjoying neither wartime nor it’s aftermath. They experience what many British citizens felt at this moment in history: a post-wartime sense of disillusionment. The war ended, yet big problems still exist throughout the country. Even the title of this poem, The Waste Land, plays on this idea. The country experienced bombings that destroyed the land, a generation of men was “lost” in battle, and those that returned, returned shattered. Eliot disagrees with the age-old idea that “war is glorious,” and he shows this through the disillusioned sense these women find in themselves, drinking in a bar, lacking the comforts of men.
Once more portraying the idea of the limited number of men, these two women discuss the willingness that other woman feel to meet soldier’s sexual desires. Eliot portrays men as desiring sex because of their somewhat forced celibacy in wartime. Albert, in particular, presumably endured the absence of sex for four years, and now wants to find his wife willing to meet his needs. The suggestion that the persona of the poem may “make a move” on her friend, Lil’s husband, hints toward the fact that many men did not return home because they died in battle, leaving single women desperate for companionship. This shortage of men resulted in a shortage of potential husbands for the women on the home front. The two women in the above passage discuss their friend Lil’s haggard appearance and her estrangement from her husband. The fact that others cannot bear to look at her also disproves the notion that during the war, women were fashionable, kept up their appearance, and were hygienically better off than the soldiers. This illustrates another way that Eliot hints on the masculine roles that women took on because of the war. That people cannot stand to lay eyes upon her proves that she is no longer a sexual object, or desirable by men. Her friends gossip about her appearance, proving her looks problematic to society. This again shows that women’s experience of the war as anything but glorious: it too was dirty, miserable, and hopeless.
As mentioned briefly before, the bartender continuously interjects into the conversation between the women with “hurry up its time.” This further portrays the idea of disillusionment. For a country that literally needs to start from the ground up, what should it do with the concept of time? For many soldiers, time ran out on the battlefield, and they found themselves left behind. For those in mourning over these losses, time seems cruel, just continuous moments that they endure without the departed. The reminder of time from the bartender represents a reminder of what the women have lost because of the war, and the bleakness of the future. These women try to ignore the constant reminders from the bar tender because they do not want to go back home to reminders of what they have lost. The bar represents a chance to escape for these women, not a place to go flirt with men and run wild. Again Eliot invalidates the idea of war as a fun sort of adventure for women.
These lines of Eliot’s The Waste Land serves to discredit believes that some hold in regards to women in WWI. Other authors portray them as uninvolved and unaffected by the war, yet Eliot shows they suffered in their own rights. Eliot’s women worry about finding and keeping a husband, having enough money to get by, and whether or not to trust their friends. They too suffered loss at the hands of war, and their futures look as bleak as those of males. This poem becomes an opportunity for the reader to see women of WWI in quite a contradictory light than they are often portrayed.
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