The Theme of The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

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       The basic theme of The Waste Land is the disillusionment of the post-war generation and sterility of the modern man. The critics have commented on the theme 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" (Stephen Spender).

Undoubtedly, The Waste land is full of diagnosis of the malady of our time. The disintegration of the modern civilization is due to several cause which are mentioned by Eliot in this poem.
The Waste Land

      Undoubtedly, The Wasteland is full of diagnoses of the malady of our time. The disintegration of modern civilization is due to several causes which are mentioned by T. S. Eliot in this poem. These are (i) sexual-perverting (ii) loss of faith and moral values (iii) lack of human relationship (iv) commercialization of life (v) mental tension (vi) politics and wars. But at the core is the Christian doctrine of re-birth through prayer and suffering. Cleanth Brooks writes in this connection: "The Christian material is at the center, but the poet never deals with it directly. The theme of resurrection is made on the surface in terms of the fertility rites."

      The various ancient myths are utilized to reinforce the idea of regeneration through suffering and death.

Sexual perversion:

      According to Eliot, sex is an important aspect of life. It is an expression of love and means of procreation. 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. It has also led to the erosion of moral values and become a hurdle in man's spiritual progress. Easy sexual relationship is found in all sections of the society. Eliot cites the instance of a German princess in the first part of the poem. This is the parallel to the love affairs of Queen Elizabeth with the Earl of Leicester in oar the Tudor period. There is also another instance of freedom of sex in high society. Eliot mentions it in the career of the lady of the situation. In the second part of the poem, the perversion of sex, prevails among the lower access of society. Eliot mentions the story of Lil and the experience of three daug relationships between the typist girl and her boyfriend. In the poem, three daughters of Thames. Another example is that of mechanical sex another example is a homosexual relationship exemplified by Mr. Eugenides. Eliot sums up the story of European lust through the line of The Fire Sermon:

"To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning"

      He means that the whole of Europe is being destroyed by the fire of sexuality.

Loss of Faith and Moral Values:

      In ancient times, the source of inspiration for life and achievement was faith. People really believed in Christian values. Tradition increases the importance of moral conduct. Elderly people were respected. Character and saintliness were regarded as important assets. Moreover, important than money and position were character and achievement. Today the values have changed. Money is the god of modern people. Older people are hated. Christians go to the church as a matter of routine. There is a gulf between profession and practice. Hypocrisy is at a premium. Flattery is more important than merit. The result is that Christian faith and compassion are no longer regarded as objects of life. This has resulted in general deterioration of standard of life and yard-sticks of reputation:

"And upside down in air were towers

Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours

And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells."

Lack of Human Relationships:

      In older times, people believed in intimate human relationships. There was the joint family system, under which resources were cooled and the needs of all were supplied. Today there is the fashion of nocular families. In olden times there were certain loyalties to the community and loyalty to the nation. Such loyalties no longer exist. People have become self-centered and egoistic. There is no sentiment of sympathy and compassion for the members of distant families and the community. Each one thinks only of his own interest and how he can gain at the expense of others. Exploitation is the order of the day. Eliot mentions it in the last Section. As the poet feels that we are like Coriolanus and the embodiment of selfishness. Each one is imprisoned in his own self. We have lost the key to human sympathy and brotherhood:

"We think of the key, each in his prison

Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison"

Mental Tension:

      Modern psychologists have shown that the majority of people are abnormal. They suffer various types of mental illness on account of the worries and anxiety and challenges of modern life. When a man is unable to face a challenging situation, he feels tense and frustration. Similarly, sex, too, becomes a source of tension and despair. In the second section entitled A Game of Chess the poet deals with sex intrigues and sex perversions. The fashionable society-woman called the 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 rats alley

Where the dead men lost their bones."

      Similarly, Lil has lost her interest in life. She is unable to hold her husband who wants more and more of sex. Her abortion has ruined her health. She feels physically and mentally broken, i.e., she looks so antique:

"It's them pills I took, to bring it off, she said,

(She's had five already, and nearly died of young George.)

The Chemist said it would be all right, out I've never been the same"

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

"The hot water at then.

And if it rains, a closer car at four.

And we shall play a game of chess,

Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door"

      People do not know to kill time. This, too, is a source of tension.

Politics and War:

      An important cause of 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 action, they can bring untold miseries to their countrymen. Millions of people were affected by war directly and indirectly. They had to wander as refugees in search of food and shelter. Their lamentation filled both plains and hills:

"What is that sound high in the air

Murmur of maternal lamentation

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth

Ringed by the flat horizon only"

      New political movements like October Revolution in 1917, shook the very foundations of European civilization. The communist killed lot of people and brought in a new system of government under Lenin. This kind of godless organization (communism) affected the faith of many Christian nations. All these events put together, shook entire Europe, thereby disturbing the prevailing value system.


      Undoubtedly, Eliot has given a very clear picture of spiritual chaos of European society after the First World War. But it may be noted that the decay of civilization is a part of the history of mankind. Crisis of the past quarter of the twentieth century was not a new event in the history of civilization. Such crises have occurred in the past and have formed a part of human culture. Eliot presents the present chaos and relation to similar periods in the history of man and brings about relationship between the past and the present through the employment of the mythical method. The resembling contrast between the past and the present shows that the modern dilemma is a part of the universal and historic dilemma, namely the survival of human culture and civilization. In the past, suffering and penance were instrumental in restoring man to regeneration and health. Similarly, the present civilization can be saved by the same method. Eliot draws upon the example of the ancient history of Europe and India and shows how resurrection and re-birth are possible even today. The mythical method of Prajapati - Da Da Da suggests an unfailing remedy to the ills of the modern world.

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