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Critical Analysis of The Waste Land: Use of Societal Criticism by T.S. Eliot

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T.S. Eliot, in his notes on The Waste Land, mentions that “Tiresias…is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest” (Eliot 70). Essentialy, all the characters in his poem, all the sexes, merge into the figure of Tiresias; he is the “substance of the poem” (70). Eliot uses two apparent methods of connecting characters to Tiresias ¬¬–– prognostication and genderfluidity. He takes characters that superficially do not seem to align with Tiresias and relates them to his figure through one or both of these aspects. Similarly, all these scenes hold some type of subversion of expectation that points to criticism of a society that he deems a bleak wasteland. We see this right away in the epigraph, where the Sibyl, granted immortality and connected to Tiresias through prophetic power, unexpectedly wants only to die because of the treatment she receives at the hands of her civilization. Incumbent in this is some criticism of the Ancient Greeks, whose gods offer the regrettably restricting reward of immortality, and whose people incarcerate their bridge to the divine. In effect, Eliot uses the amorphous figure of Tiresias to connect disparate characters and scenes, and through some type of distortion, their incumbent criticisms of a society that he depicts as a bleak wasteland.

An obvious depiction of the Tiresias figure lies in the Madame Sosostris scene, in which Eliot immediately describes her as a “famous clairvoyante” (Eliot 43), similar to Tiresias with the prophetic power he holds in his sphere. However, the narrator seems to discredit her authority almost instantly. He remarks that she “had a bad cold” (44) and sees her tarot cards as “wicked” (46). First, the idea of a fortune-teller, someone that is supposed to hold some preternatural ability beyond the reach of humanity, being afflicted with a cold is almost paradoxical. A woman of her supposed ability should not be afflicted by such triviality. Further, when a person is affected by a cold, they release unpleasant pathogens with every breath. We can almost picture Madame Sosostris spreading her virus in the act of her fortune-telling. Her augury can be interpreted as infected with the same viral load as her exhalation. Her words spread hazard in the same way her breath does. Similarly, her tarot cards, her tools of prognostication, are seen as “wicked” in their very nature, perhaps a further hint that likewise her fortune will hold the same sinister weight. And it very much does. Sosostris speaks of death with her “drowned Phoenician Sailor” decayed to the point of a skeletal body with pearls for eyes. She speaks of hanging and again of death by water. Further, following her monologue we experience about 15 lines of such with the march of the dead over London Bridge. Truly, her “wicked pack of cards” precedes wicked happenings in death and destruction. Even the linking of Sosostris’ two describers provokes feelings of unease. We see words like “cold” and “wicked” attached to her; these are words that typically would not accompany a normal woman. They provoke an unnatural atmosphere, a glimpse of the demonic. Nevertheless, her predictions do hold weight in the poem. We experience a recapitulation of the tarot cards when they come to life in later sections and a fulfillment of death on the bridge with the eventual fall of London Bridge.

However, her predictions coming to fruition should not be seen as proof of validity, but of the danger incumbent in this type of activity. As stated earlier, Sosostris is almost immediately discredited through her “cold”. Eliot again seems to discredit her in the notes, this time mentioning that he is “not familiar with the exact constitution of” (page 68) her cards. To Eliot, the supernatural force of the Tarot cards is insignificant, so much so that he feels free to stray from their very predicting power, that is the card itself. Perhaps the most telling demerit to the character of Madame Sosostris lies in her very name. Brian Diemert, a literary scholar, notes that the name “Sosostris” is an allusion to Huxley’s Crome Yellow, in which “the decidedly unreligious Mr. Scogan dresses as ‘Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana’’ (Diemert 175). This Scogan character is seen as a distortion of religion in the novel, and at the same time holds some type of gender fluidity. Eliot seems to take inspiration from this. As a result, we can begin to understand the character of Sosostris in the same way. Madame Sosostris, namesake of Huxley’s character, holds the same genderfluidity that Scogan has due to her association with the hermaphroditic Tiresias. Similarly, her reliance on the “wicked” Tarot cards signifies her association with the occult and subversion of accepted religious mores; she is “decidedly unreligious” in the same way that Scogan is. As a result, this scene serves as a symbol of “the degenerate spirituality of the Waste Land’s inhabitants” (Diemert 175). Herein lies Eliot’s criticism. He takes this image of a fortune-teller and perverts it along with everything that accompanies, so much so that nothing she foretells can be taken as truth, not even the physical image she presents. He discredits her authority, gives her a predilection for violence. And just like Madame Sosostris has turned away from religion and to inauspicious destruction, so too has Eliot’s society. Diemert mentions that in the years prior to publication of the poem, there seemed to be an uptick in interest in the occult, so much so that such news was increasingly making its way into the papers. Eliot, a devout Catholic, certainly would be revulsed by such happenings. Couple this with a post-war sentiment in which the very destruction witnessed called the existence of God into question, an increasing acceptance of Darwin’s theory, and the beginning of a gradual turn from organized religion, it is no stretch of the imagination to suppose that Eliot saw the very breakdown of society’s moral fabric in these anti-religious inklings. Eliot sees the same “degenerate spirituality” in both his Waste Land and his quotidian. In this sense, the scene contributes to the bleakness of the poem’s world along with our own. Importantly, Eliot leaves us with a warning here, and that is that “one must be so careful these days” (Eliot 59) in order to avoid descending into the immorality he sees increasing with the cracking of religiosity. In all, we are introduced to Madame Sosostris through the figure of Tiresias, and Eliot’s criticism of society can be understood through the perversion of her form and the destruction she brings about by her very nature.

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Just like the Madame Sosostris scene has this ambiguity in gender by association with Tiresias and the Huxley character, so too will the “mechanical”, border-line rape scene in Book III. However, this time we will explicitly see both genders of Tiresias interacting. First, Eliot quite conveniently informs us of this coming paradigm directly with the words of Tiresias himself: “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives, / Old man with wrinkled female breasts” (218-219). On the surface, this excerpt informs the reader of the myth that surrounds Tiresias, that his gender was reversed several times through divine intercession. The phrase “throbbing between lives” is especially important here, as it holds more than just the idea of Tiresias switching between genders in life. It alerts us to his prominent role in the next scene, in which the typist and clerk interact. With this phrase in mind, we can begin to see Tiresias emulate both the man and woman in the scene, the typist and clerk; he will “throb” between them. This reading is confirmed with his monologue after the intercourse, where Tiresias says that he has “foresuffered all enacted on this same divan or bed” (244). This is not just an acknowledgement of his role previously in both sides of an ordeal like this, but an affirmation that he is present in both characters. We can find evidence for this in more of Tiresias’ speech, in which he connects himself to both characters. We see the “typist home at teatime” (222) preparing in some way for the coming man. Similarly, we see Tiresias “too [awaiting] the expected guest” (230). Next, Tiresias describes the clerk’s actions after the affair, and in this we see the man “[grope] his way, finding the stairs unlit…” (248). The clerk almost appears blind in the aftermath as he clumsily “gropes his way” out of the room in the same way that we might imagine the old, blind Tiresias would. Also, the stairs are quite literally “unlit”; he physically cannot see, much like Tiresias. Lastly, with this in mind, the phrase “exploring hands” (240) now evokes the very same imagery. We can almost picture the carbuncular man clumsily groping the woman with his “exploring hands” in the same manner a blind Tiresias would acquaint himself with his surroundings. Clearly, the amorphous figure of Tiresias, physically prominent in this scene, contains both aggressor and victim in the interaction.

Eliot bases this scene specifically on the genderfluidity of Tiresias, which originates from Greek mythos. There are many variations of the occurrence, but the one that Eliot seems to draw inspiration is a Roman retelling centering on a disagreement between Juno and Jupiter. The two gods are arguing over which gender enjoys the act of sex more. They call on Tiresias, a human who has experienced the act from both sides, for his opinion, and he asserts that females derive greater pleasure from intercourse. This response angers Juno, as she interprets it as ribald and a wholesale derision of the female sex, thus she blinds Tiresias. William Dunstan, a Classics scholar, offers this in regard to the implications of the scene: “Ancient Greek writers interpret the myth to mean that women possess bestial drives and lack self-control, their unfortunate natures necessitating male domination” (Dunstan 4199). Greek and Roman scholars would see Juno’s action as befitting of a woman; her rash and vindictive decision to blind Tiresias is due to her “bestial” nature and her “[lack of] self-control”, the very same reasons she enjoys sex more than her male counterpart, and also the rationale for reinforcement of a patriarchal society. Interestingly, Eliot seems to reverse this trope with his sexual depiction. In Eliot’s scene, it is the male that acts bestially as he “assaults” (239) the woman, and it is the male who derives more pleasure from the act, as the female only responds with “indifference” (241), “glad” when the deed is finally “over” (252). Similarly, this reversal of expectation continues in the aftermath of the scene. Instead of the typist lashing out in response to the affront, as Juno does, she just calmly walks around her room, fixes her hair, and listens to some music. She acts anything but “bestially”. Eliot depicts this mechanical, one-way sexual act that calls upon ancient and still-ingrained ideas of male subjugation of women. However, he subverts the expected paradigm by reversing the roles. This subversion is a means to discredit the ingrained thought, thus we can conclude that he intends to overturn the idea of “male domination” by this same stroke. He was writing at a time when women’s suffrage was not completely incorporated in Britain, and women certainly did not enjoy the same liberties that men did. I am not saying that T.S. Eliot is some feminist icon, but he did interact closely in literary circles with women, like Virginia Woolf, and he undoubtedly witnessed them being discredited for the mere fact of their sex. It seems likely that he took some exception to this aspect of society, saw it as contributing to his perception of a “waste land”, and thus he sets out to criticize the principle through his subversion of the myth in his retelling.

Critics have long interpreted The Waste Land as some type of societal criticism in which Eliot points out the gloominess present in his realm. In his notes, Eliot describes Tiresias as this connecting figure in the poem. Interestingly, Eliot repeatedly presents some type of notion in these Tiresias scenes and proceeds to undermine it for the purpose of rebuking some societal principle. As a result, we can begin to understand Tiresias’ role as not only connecting these disparate scenes, but also connecting the criticisms concomitant with them. Tiresias, the “substance of the poem” (Eliot 70), is the thread that links these disparate condemnations.

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Critical Analysis of The Waste Land: Use of Societal Criticism by T.S. Eliot. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-the-waste-land-use-of-societal-criticism-by-t-s-eliot/
“Critical Analysis of The Waste Land: Use of Societal Criticism by T.S. Eliot.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-the-waste-land-use-of-societal-criticism-by-t-s-eliot/
Critical Analysis of The Waste Land: Use of Societal Criticism by T.S. Eliot. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-the-waste-land-use-of-societal-criticism-by-t-s-eliot/> [Accessed 2 Feb. 2023].
Critical Analysis of The Waste Land: Use of Societal Criticism by T.S. Eliot [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 2]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/critical-analysis-of-the-waste-land-use-of-societal-criticism-by-t-s-eliot/
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