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Gender in The Wasteland: Critical Analysis of T.S. Eliot's Poetry

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The Wasteland is a text attacking the division of gender. There are five couples Eliot refers to in this poem; Marie and her cousin, the hyacinth girl and hyacinth boy, the bourgeois woman and her silent counterpart, the young man carbuncular and the typist, and finally Philomel and her husband. Eliot also refers to Tiresias who is not exactly a character but more of a spectator to all the stories and his equal, Madame Sosostris who is teller of the future. Critics who have discussed gender in The Waste Land include Phillip Sicker who expresses the idea of a female archetype in T.S Elliot’s The Waste land by emphasizing the importance of the three-woman condensed into the idea of one known as the ‘Belladonna’. Astrid Ennslin emphasized gender relationships in The Wasteland are based off mythic allusions, and Andrej Zavrl highlights on the idea of male hysteria and unruly desires. Through different scenarios the five couples showcase everything represented by women is completed by a man and everything represented by men is completed by woman. By writing The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot highlighted that the poem emphasizes a somber and gloomy time in which both men and women were negatively affected both sexually and spiritually.

Marie and the cousin

In the poem “Burial of the Dead”, the first couple is Marie and her cousin, and the poem opens with a reversal of the seasons in order to interpret life and death. This was done to emphasize Spring is the season of rebirth, and the rejuvenation of nature while the Winter season is cold and symbolizes death and hibernation. The change in months awakens memories for the narrator hidden deep inside. Eliot is juxtaposing the innocence of the childhood memories with the ugly things going on during pre – war Europe. Marie’s cousin is the one to save her from her fears when he is “taking her out on a sled” (Eliot 14) they go down the mountains, “in the mountains, there you feel free” (15) Marie trusted her cousin enough to “hold on tight” (16) and by trusting him she reaches a sense of freedom. Philip Sicker references how Marie is “mingling with memory and desire” (Sicker 2) which can be understood to be the theme of the entire poem. Marie is referenced to being like the hyacinth girl because she “unquestionably anticipates her” (2) because just like the hyacinth girl, Marie “stands sexually willing and eager with her hair wet and her arms full of flowers” (2). The memory of Marie and her childhood story is what became the faint memory of “lost sexual health which resides in cultural consciousness” (2). There are many Russian references in this poem thought to be about Marie Larisch who knew and met T.S. Eliot, had a interview with him about her past and Eliot chose to write about parts of her story in his poem. Marie is used emphasize the importance of memories and how this one memory was such a big part of her life especially thinking back to it when she was older.

The Hyacinth girl and the Hyacinth boy

A scene referencing ‘the hyacinth garden’ highlights a girl reminiscing to a boy, when a year ago “you gave me hyacinths” (Eliot 35) which symbolize sadness and sorrow; she references her and the young mans trip to the garden in the rain and how she thinks about the memory enriched in her mind because she treasures that night. Unfortunately for her he has no feeling from the night with her which is the opposite of what she wanted to hear. The boy gave the girl hyacinths because he wanted to end the relationship respectfully and the best way he possibly could. Giving her these flowers was his way of subtly explaining to her he has no feelings for her. The boy himself does not have any words to her the reader can see, but it is understood by the hyacinth girl he had nothing good to say when the poem says “ looking into the heart of light, the silence” (Eliot 42) it is emphasized the boy seems to care for her in regards to hurting her heart, he wants to keep this memory positive in respect to her feelings. In the traditional sense, the idea of ‘silence’ has been something women should follow because it meant they were inferior of men. In the poem we find the opposite where the boy chooses not to speak, because someone needed to stay silent and it was the male instead of the female. In the Wasteland “gender relationships are grounded in mythic allusions” (Ensslin 3) the memories and feelings this young woman was having was more of an allusion than reality. Her memories and thoughts seem to be sorrowful and upsetting while the young man whom she is referring to is deceiving by not speaking back to her. The last two lines of the poem “looking into the heart of light, the silence/ Waste and empty is the sea” (Eliot 41-42) encompass a lot of emotion and feeling because the boy is looking into the light which is supposed to be something brightening the path showing what way is needed to go, the ‘heart of light’ could mean ‘love’ and because he stays silent there is no love there, it has disappeared. The ‘heart of light’ and the ‘heart of love’ is empty and this could be argued as being like The Wasteland because no matter how strong or important love is, it has no place in the world when war is taking place.

The bourgeois woman and the silent counterpart

In the poem “A Game of Chess” a woman and her husband are having relationship issues, the women is referred to as “the bourgeois woman” and man himself has no voice and no power in the story. It can be understood Eliot wanted to highlight the female image with an insufficient male voice. The bourgeois woman is dependent on the voiceless male and like many women, she is moved by jewels and perfumes “in vials of ivory and colored glass/ powdered, or liquid – troubled, confused/ And drowned the sense in odors…” (Eliot 86 – 89). The perfumes represent not being able to trust own senses and obtaining an altered reality because “strange synthetic perfumes” (Eliot 87) explain the belief of an allusion. Man can develop certain scents, and this can be the same for everyone because it can be destroyed, and it can emphasize the destruction in men by the way women react to it.

The bourgeois woman appears to be traumatized after her monologue because “her nerves are bad tonight” and she never seems to know “what he is thinking about” (Eliot 111). It is justified this couple has communication problems and they have never solved them so it can be understood even though they are together they do not have a serious relationship and they relate more as friend than lovers. The woman continuously tries to communicate with her lover, but he decides to stay silent which after a certain point the woman starts threatening to “rush out as I am, walk the street/ With my hair down” (Eliot 132-133). She is emphasizing her physical and mental state being caused by his actions. Their relationship does not seem to be working and he does not understand her or take her seriously. The relationship is continuously stuck in a loop, stuck in the same spot every time, which she tries to argue by saying “what shall we do tomorrow/ What shall we ever do” (Eliot 133-134) because she wants things to change and get better but he refuses to answer and acknowledge the problem. The female characters Eliot chose are still “humble in spirit” (Ennslin 10) and they represent what a true woman should be even though in his earlier works Eliot regularly saw women as “threatening figures who torment and castrate men” (Zavrl 2). The game of chess is argued to be a metaphor for the relationship because it is a game of two people and men and women are understood to be on equal sides and they need to figure out what is best for the both. The title is meant to emphasize the male and female friendship and being forced to live the way nature intended by playing by the rules.

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Philomel and her husband

The next part of the poem focuses on Philomel and her husband and the traditional gender roles The Wasteland faces in many of the characters. There is a lack of communication between Philomel and her husband Albert because he is absent in their conversations. Albert wants to find another woman to be with. Philomel’s friend tries to imply Albert “can’t bear to look at Lil” (Eliot 146) because she is not pretty enough for him and he is losing interest and if she does not do anything about it then “there are others that will” (Eliot 149). It can be understood the friend is someone who believes a woman needs a man in order to be happy. Philomel is ‘the nightingale’ because she “fills the air with inviolable voice” (Sicker 5) because ever since she took the abortion pills she has never been the same and her body is exhausted and it has been nothing but a victim to her husbands requests. She was “poisoned with abortion pills, not only as a violated and abandoned virgin” (Sicker 8) but also by being pulled by her husbands’ lust. Philomels friend does not seem to support her marriage when she says “what you get married for if you don’t want children” (Eliot 164) and in doing so Philomel realizes she cannot have both marriage and freedom because she cannot have a husband and have her body to herself. While Philomel “adorns her wall and is a pathetic victim” she is also “Cirque, a temptress or sorceress who fills her chamber with strange potions and intoxicating perfumes” (Sicker 7). Each woman Eliot references is both “Victim and seductress” (8) and the poem “is about a sexual failure which signifies a modern failure” (1) which is associated with the “archetypal male, the Fisher King” (1). The Fisher King is referenced in the poem as many different avatars and eventually serves a purpose for the women. Philomel does not feel comfortable with the way her life has been going and she wants things to change whether it be with her husband or not.

The typist and the young man carbuncular

In the poem “The Fire Sermon” there is another couple who has a sexual encounter but has no communication with each other. Both are described by their occupations and not their names. The young man carbuncular is “a small agent’s clerk” which can be argued as ironic because of the way he is dedicated to his job but seems to only live at the typist’s house on certain occasions. The typist herself is the symbol of a sexual experience because she continuously repeats this task but there is no source or beginning of it. The typist’s firnification with young man carbuncular is nothing but “a series of mechanical gestures and dull responses; she does not even appear to possess a real sexual appetite” (Sicker 10). It can be implicated Eliot “has radically simplified and consolidated his female archetype, stripped her of motive, memory and desire until she is definable only as a mechanical impulse” (Sicker 10) and it is what can be understood as being the typist because after a certain point she had no feelings or emotions anymore and just kept the young man carbuncular because he was free and he was around. The mechanical behavior especially regarding the sex and relationships between both sexes can be understood to be present for both and always will be. Eliot seems to enjoy using a female voice and keeping the male silent even though it is not normal in many literary works.

The union of the sexes – Tiresias

The most important person in the whole poem is Tiresias, he is discussed as being the union of the sexes. Tiresias is “the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest… all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem” (Eliot 218). The plural of both men and women is condensed into a single woman and a single man and both are unified in Tiresias. In Eliot’s steps to reduce certain ideas from his poem he “merged the archetypal male and female, the self – castrating Fisher King and the masturbating belladonna, in the figure of double sexed Tiresias” (Sicker 11). Eliot did not want to give one gender priority over the other one and instead universalized the two and formed Tiresias who was both genders and his portrayal of one or the other never occurred and instead was blurred. Tiresias never had a voice in any of the poems because he was more of an onlooker, he wandered the world of the living and the world of the dead in order to try and understand how to help the gender issues. The Wasteland deals with the “notions of gender and sexuality and particularly the expression of desire” (Zavrl 2) and the way it is solved the best way is to have a person who is gender neutral help. By avoiding the dilemma of having powerful women and the way Eliot wanted to represent men, Eliot prefers not to “attach gender to bodies at all” (3) and this helps in avoiding the issues of the sexual differences between either gender especially when trying to make gender ambiguous. In The Fire Sermon Tiresias is both male and female and he is caught between two lives, “old man with wrinkled female breasts” (Eliot 219) he spent years as a female and he spent years as a female and he can understood what it means to live like both. He had been regenerated and he had been reborn by living two lives. Like Tiresias, everyone should develop some part of personality of both genders inside of them so it can be understood on how to live both genders.

Madame Sosotri and Tiresias

Even though Tiresias’s job was to unite the sexes, his female counterpart is understood to be Madame Sosotri and just like him she can tell the future and knows when all of the characters in The Wasteland are going to be destroyed and ultimately knows all of their fates before they do. Through the poem, Eliot shifts from gender to gender in order to emphasize both genders can perform the acts of the other. Tiresias and Madame Sosotri work together, so because Tiresias is blind, Madame Sosotri can use her tarot card readings and they can help one another. If something were to happen to the other, they can work together because they come together as one and they gain the strength needed to complete one another. If every woman is ideally one woman and woman is inside Tiresias, then it can mean Madame Sosotri is the only woman and this logic can be applied to every other couple this poem talks about. This can be the same with man because Tiresias is simply one man, he is every man in the poem; the hyacinth boy, the bourgeois woman’s husband, the young man carbuncular etc. the men in The Wasteland follow basic male instincts and are unable to communicate with one another. Madame Sosotri’s foretelling of the future emphasize the change in the genders and the symbolism by this is seen when she says “here is the one – eyed merchant, and this card/ Which is blank, is something he carries on his back/ Which I am forbidden to see” (Eliot 52-44). The blankness of the card symbolizes a door opening to the future for the couples in The Wasteland and letting them choose what happens in their lives because right now their future is unknown. The blank card is the perfect thing to show how no one knows what is going to happen in the future.


It can be emphasized through this paper Eliot never wanted to mistreat the female sex, he wanted to explain how both genders can become one and work together. He wanted to highlight the themes of resurrection and rebirth through the stories of the five couples. The traditional gender roles of the male and female are always being subject to judgement by the other gender and through communication all of the couples work on understanding the other and not automatically assuming the worst based on societies ‘rules. Both genders share the same problem with the lack of communication and through examination and understanding, both man and woman try to understand one another and the idea of being one.

Works Cited

  1. Eliot, T. S. (Thomas Stearns), 1888-1965. The Waste Land: and Other Poems. London:
  2. Faber and Faber, 1999.
  3. Ennslin, Astrid. “Women in Wasteland – Gendered deserts in T.S. Eliot and Shelley Jackson.” Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 14, no. 3, 2005, 1-13
  4. Sicker, Philip. “The Belladonna: Eliot’s Female Archetype in The Waste Land.” Twentieth
  5. Century Literature, vol. 30, no. 4, 1984, pp. 420–431.
  6. Zavrl, Andrej. “Sexing The Waste Land : Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.” Acta Neophilologica, vol. 38, no. 1-2, 2005, pp. 71–82.

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Gender in The Wasteland: Critical Analysis of T.S. Eliot’s Poetry. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from
“Gender in The Wasteland: Critical Analysis of T.S. Eliot’s Poetry.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
Gender in The Wasteland: Critical Analysis of T.S. Eliot’s Poetry. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 3 Feb. 2023].
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