Characterisation in the Poem The Waste Land

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      New Concepts of Identity: The Waste Land is a poem that is organized around new concepts of identity and new modes of characterization. In his earlier poems, as in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the protagonist's conscious self is mechanical, constructed, dead; but it has, as its one last sign of vitality, sudden, momentary access to a buried libidinal life, accesses that only deepen the split between unconsciousness and self-regarding consciousness. The buried self is, in The Waste Land, extended in time through unconscious racial memory. When the upper-class lady, aware of inner vacancy, asks: "What shall I do now? What shall I do? What shall we do tomorrow? What shall we ever do?" The protagonist answers by describing the routine of their life:

The hot water at ten.
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess.
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.


On the surface his answer confirms her sense of vacancy; we shall fill our lives, he is saying, with meaningless routines. But there is also a positive implications, deriving from the poem's underlying patterns, that these routines are unconscious repetitions of ancient rituals. The morning bath recalls of purification and re-birth through water. The game of chess recalls not only the game played in Middleton's Women Beware Women while destiny works itself out behind the door, but also all the games, including the Tarot cards, by which men have tried to foresee and manipulate destiny while waiting for its inevitable arrival. It is the consciousness of the poem blending imperceptibly with the protagonist's consciousness that makes us aware of what the protagonist can only know unconsciously.
The Waste Land

      On the surface his answer confirms her sense of vacancy; we shall fill our lives, he is saying, with meaningless routines. But there is also a positive implication, deriving from the poem's underlying patterns, that these routines are unconscious repetitions of ancient rituals. The morning bath recalls purification and re-birth through water. The game of chess recalls not only the game played in Middleton's Women Beware, Women, while destiny works itself out behind the door, but also all the games, including the Tarot cards, by which men have tried to foresee and manipulate destiny while waiting for its inevitable arrival. It is the consciousness of the poem blending imperceptibly with the protagonist's consciousness that makes us aware of what the protagonist can only know unconsciously.

      Living the Buried Life: The characters here are, in spite of themselves, living their buried life; but they do this not only through personal, but also through racial memory, through unconsciously making rituals even when they think they have abolished all rituals. Similarly, the personal libidinal associations of music and hyacinths in Portrait of a Lady become in The Waste Land unconscious memories of ancient rituals and myths. The poem's awareness makes us remember consciously what the protagonist, in recalling the Hyacinth garden, remembers unconsciously that Hyacinth was a fertility god.

      The Mythical Method: When Eliot, in reviewing Ulysses, said that Joyce had discovered in the "continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity" a way of giving shape and significance to modern "futility and anarchy, he surely had in mind his own method in The Waste Land. This "mythical method", as Eliot called it, allows the writer to the naturalistic, to portray modern chaos, while suggesting through psychological naturalism a continuing buried life that rises irrepressibly into those shapes which express the primal meeting of mind with nature. The mythical method gives a doubleness of language to parallel our doubleness (doubleness between the apparent and buried) of consciousness and self-hood. This doubleness of language reaches a climax at the end of Part 1, The Burial of the Dead which deals with the sprouting of seeds and tubers in spring. In one of the poem's most powerful passages, the protagonist recognizes an old acquaintance; and just as in Prufrock we are to infer the small talk at the party, so here we are to infer an ordinary conversation about gardening. But the language tells us what is unconsciously transpiring:

There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying:
You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

      The shocking substitution of "corpse" for "seed" reminds us that corpses are a kind of seed, and that this truth was symbolized in the old vegetation rituals. We find gardening satisfying because we unconsciously repeat the ritual by which gods were killed and buried in order that they might sprout anew as vegetation. Even more surprising is the connection of Stetson with the ships at Mylae - the naval battle where the Carthaginians or Phoenicians were defeated by the Romans. The passage is a haunting recognition scene in which conscious recognition derives from unconscious recognition of another life. The protagonist unconsciously recognizes his fellow gardener as also a fellow sailor and Phoenician; for they are devotees of rebirth, and it was the Phoenician sailor who carried the Mysteries or vegetation cults around the Mediterranean.

      Faceless and Nameless Character: In The Waste Land, the buried life manifests itself through the unconscious memory of characters from the past. There is already some reaching toward this method in Prufrock. Where Prufrock consciously thinks he might have been John the Baptist Lazarus, and Hamlet. But the emphasis is on the ironical disparity between these legendary figures and Prufrock's actual character or lack of character. Prufrock does not in fact fulfill the destinies of these legendary figures. In The Waste Land, however, the speakers do in spite of themselves unconsciously fulfill destinies laid out in myth: and their unconscious identification with the legendary figures who have already walked through these destinies gives them the only substantial identity they have.

      Compared to the character in The Waste Land, Prufrock, for all his lack of vitality, has the sharp external delineation of character as in Henry James. He has a name, a social milieu to which he genuinely belongs, a face. Prufrock has a clear idea of himself. The characters in The Waste Land, however, are nameless, faceless, isolated, and have no clear idea of themselves. All they have is a sense of loss and a neural itch, a restless, inchoate desire to recover what has been lost. But in this very minimum of restless aliveness they repeat the pattern of the Quest. And it is the archetypal Quest pattern, as manifested in the Grail legend, that gives whatever form there is to the protagonist's movement through the poem.

      Role of the Central Consciousness: We would not know what to make of the characters were it not for the intrusion of a central consciousness that assimilates them to characters of the past. This is done through the double language of the Stetson passage. The same purpose is accomplished in Part II through shifting references. Part II opens with an opulently old-fashioned blank-verse-style description, not so much of a lady as of her luxurious surroundings. The chair she sits in reminds us of Cleopatra's "burnished throne" and the stately room of Dido's palace, while a picture recalls the rape of Philomela. The shifting references suggest that the lady is seductive, but that she is also, like Cleopatra with Anthony and Dido with Aeneas, one of those who is in the end violated and abandoned by a man. The theme of violation takes over; for the picture shows Philomela's change, after her rape, into a nightingle whose wordless cry rings down through the ages:

So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
"Jug Jug" to dirty ears.

      The nightingale's voice, the story's meaning, is inviolable; but the violation of innocence in the waste land goes on.

      Lack of communication: When the lady finally speaks, she utters twentieth-century words that her prototypes of the past would not have understood: "My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me." We gather from the passage that the lady is rich, that her house is filled with mementos of the past which she understands only as frightening ghosts, that the protagonist to whom she speaks is her lover, and that he has in some special modern sense violated her. The violation would seem to lie in his inability to communicate with her:

Speak to me why do you never speak. Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.

      Significant archetypes: The modern situation is unprecedented and meaningless; therein lies the poem's negative impulse. But, deep down, these people are repeating an ancient drama with ancient meanings; therein lies the poem's positive impulse. The shifting references to various ladies of the past evoke the archetype that subsumes them - the archetype already revealed in Part I, where the protagonist has his fortune told by Madame Sosostris. "Here", she said pulling a card from the ancient Tarot deck, "is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks, The Lady of Situations." Because all the ladies referred to are Belladonna, we understand the character of our modern rich lady and the character - in the abrupt shift to a London pub - of the working-class Belladonna who tells a friend of her efforts to steal away the husband of another friend, another Belladonna, who has ruined her health and looks with abortion pills. Beneath the meaningless surface, the underlying tale tells again of violation in the desert-violation of innocence, sex fertility.

      Tiresias as the Protagonist: Among the other Tarot cards named is "the one-eyed merchant", he turns up in Part III as the Smyrna merchant who makes the protagonist a homo-sexual proposition. Eliot in a note explains his method of characterization: "Just as a one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem." The figures either on the Tarot cards, or in some cases frankly imagined by Eliot to be on them, provide the archetypes from which the nameless, face-less modern characters derive identity. Tiresias, not a Tarot figure but the blind hermaphroditic prophet of Greek mythology, appears only once in the Part III episode about another violated Belladonna, the typist whose mechanical fornication with a clerk leaves her neither a sense of sin nor a memory of pleasure.

      The central consciousness, which intruded through the double language of the Stetson passage and the cultural memory of Part II, introductory passage, now takes on the name of Tiresias: "I, Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs/Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest." After the scene has been enacted, Tiresias interjects.

(And I Tiresias have force suffered all:
Enacted on this same divan or bed:
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)

      Again we are enabled to understand the contrast between the passionate auspicious fornications of the past and this modern perfunctory performance. Again we are reminded that this scene is nevertheless a re-enactment. Sexual union was used in the fertility ceremonies to promote by sympathetic magic the fertility of the soil. But modern sexuality is sterile. Through the Tiresias consciousness in him, the protagonist repeatedly finds an underlying ancient pattern but also sees that in the modern situation the pattern does not come to the pre-ordained conclusion. This gives a direction to his Quest to complete the pattern by restoring fertility. It is a sign of their connection that Tiresias appears as a stand in for the protagonist in just the scene the protagonist can only have imagined.

      Merging Identities: To say that all the characters meet in Tiresias is to suggest that archetypal identities emerge from larger archetypes, in the way smaller Chinese boxes emerge from larger. The Smyrna merchant, identified with the Tarot one-eyed merchant, propositions the protagonist, who is identified with the Phoenician Sailor. Yet we are told that the one-eyed merchant melt into the Phoenician Sailor: so that the protagonist really stands on both sides of the proposition. In the same way the protagonist is identified with the Quester of the Grail legend, who sets out to find the Grail and thus cure the ailing Fisher King and restore fertility to the waste land. The protagonist is the Question in much as he moves through the episodes of the poem to arrive at the Perilous Chapel. But in the following lines from Part I, he is the Fisher King, whose illness is in some Grail romances assigned to the King's brother or father:

While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gas house
Musing upon the king my brother's wreck
And on the king my father's death before him.

      He is also, according to the method of shifting references-Prince Ferdinand, Hamlet, Claudius: all of whom have to do with dead kings who in turn recall the murdered kings of vegetation ritual. All this combines with the modern industrial setting to portray the modern moment with modern voices and collapse them into timeless archetypes. At the end of the poem, the protagonist is both Quester and Fisher King, he is the Fisher King questing for a cure: "I sat upon the shore/Fishing, With the arid plain behind me.

      Projections of Consciousness: Since the protagonist plays at one and the same time both active and passive roles, we must understand all the characters as aspects or projections of his consciousness - that the poem is essentially a monodrama. It is difficult to say just where the various characters melt into the protagonist and where the protagonist melts into the poet. We have to distinguish the scenes in which the protagonist himself plays a part - the recollection of the Hyacinth garden, the visit to Madame Sosostris, the meeting with Stetson, the scene with the rich Belladonna-from the scenes in the pub and at the typist's. The protagonist's consciousness emerges from the collective consciousness of the time, as another nameless, faceless modern voice. The protagonist has no character in the old-fashioned sense; for he acquires delineation or identity not through individualization, but through making connections with ancient archetypes.

      The Changing Self: The point is that Eliot introduces a new method of characterization deriving from the reaction against the nineteenth-century belief in the individual as the one reality you could be sure of. Eliot's nameless, faceless voices derive from the twentieth-century sense that the self, if it exists at all, is changing and discontinuous and that its unity is as problematical as its freedom from external conditions. In The Waste Land, and in his earlier poems, Eliot is preoccupied with the mechanical, automatic quality of existence. In the former, he says of the clerk: Exploring hands encounter no defense", and of the typist afterward, She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,/And puts a record on the gramophone." The solution, toward which he had been finding his way through the early poems, is the breaking out from and enlargement of self through arche-typalization.

      The Making of an Identity: Once we see that The Waste Land dramatizes the making of an identity, that the Quest is for personal order that leads to cultural order and cultural order that leads to personal order, then the poem turns out more positive than we used to think it. The protagonist's projective imagination, which sees or creates the connections among the characters, sees in them a memory of and yearning for a communal identity, and that communal identity is expressed through the mythical figures in the poem, most notably the figures of the Tarot cards.

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