The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” deals with many of the emotions facing the disillusioned survivors of World War I. The poem is heavily interested in the isolating result of the War, as well as other themes such as death, rebirth, and emotional trauma. Written in five parts, the narration of the poem quickly shifts from story to story, weaving in numerous allusions to texts mostly situated within the Western Canon. The fragmented nature of these allusions and quotations is intentionally difficult for the reader to comprehend; when read without footnotes, very few modern scholars would catch every reference. This fragmentation gives the text a chaotic feel, which mirrors the chaotic, uncontrollable character of War. For instance, in the second part of the poem, titled “A Game of Chess”, the narration skips abruptly from mentioning the ancient female characters of Cleopatra, Dido and Philomel to a conversation between a shell-shocked man and his girlfriend: “Above the antique mantel was displayed / As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene / The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king / So rudely forced… Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair / Spread out in fiery points / Glowed into words, Then would be savagely still” (97-110). The quick switch from subject to subject leaves the reader feeling somewhat lost and confused while he/she struggles to catch up with the new characters. It is not until the two characters begin a dialogue that the reader is given any sort of indication of who these people are or what their role is within the poem. Eliot’s switch from stories of antiquity to stories of traumatized soldiers and wives indicates the general desire after WWI to create a new history in face of the devastating aftereffects of the loss of so many young men.

Furthermore, the fragmentation in the poem plays into the general theme of isolation within the text. The reader himself/herself feels wholly removed from the action because of the jumpy nature of the narration, which mimics the isolating feeling that pervaded the lives of those who lost loved ones during the War as well as the soldiers who managed to survive. While this is present throughout much of the text, it is quite explicit in the final section: “…I have heard the key / Turn in the door once and turn once only / We think of the key, each in his prison / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison…” (411-4). This quotation evokes the isolating nature of grief after the War. While the War itself was initially thought of unifying, the process of emotional trauma is incredibly personal and isolating; because each person much go through the grieving process due to differences in personal loss, it is hard to comfort anyone because it is impossible to understand how they feel. This quotation sums up the image of an entire nation in a sort of prison of trauma– but each person is locked in his/her own cell.


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