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Portrayal of Women in T. S. Eliot’s Poems with Special Reference to the Themes of Oppression, Satire and Myth: Analysis of The Waste Land

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Abstract There is a gap of over ninety years between the advent of T. S. Eliot as a major poet and the literature of our own time. An approach to Eliot at the end of twentieth Century might lead one to believe that Eliot is now out dated, that he belongs to the twenties and that the intellectual, emotional and spiritual tendencies of that period were different from our own. But it would be helpful to remember that relevance of Eliot’s poetry goes back to 15th – 16th centuries and forward to the 21st century and even beyond. The position of the women faced drastic changes but the real question remains the same. T S Eliot tried in his poetry to showcase the brutal relationship between men and women. In order to accentuate the subjugation felt by women, he took the help of satire and myth. In this paper an attempt has been made to show the oppression of women with Eliot’s use of satire and myth.

After having read and analyzed Eliot’s The Waste Land, it can be said that Eliot has been one of the most daring and fearless authors of the twentieth century. Eliot has been used to seeing women like slaved not just of their own husbands but also slaves of the torturous and maltreating society. These appear to be the main reasons why this work appears to be very expressive on the author’s views on the issues regarding gender and sexuality.

The Waste Land is dominated primarily by women, both contemporary and mythical, who illustrate the brutal relationship between men and women. This intensely personal relationship, however, is similar to the relationship of the individual and society; like the individual, the women must make the decision to either speak out against their oppressors or keep silent and accept their circumstances. Either option places women at risk of further subjugation. In this way, The Waste Land acts as the backdrop to a crippled social world populated by subjugated individuals struggling to find their voice. Eliot portrays the female voice as the struggle against the ruined communication that characterizes the modern world. Contemporary and mythical characters converge in the poem, revealing the ineffectiveness of communication in a world where power barriers exist between the sexes.T S Eliot used the methods of juxtaposing mythical women from Ovid’s Metamorphoses against the contemporary characters from The Waste Land. African American author Zora Neale Hurston once said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it” (Hurston). T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land explores the role of the voice in the midst of this chaos in an attempt to illustrate the struggle for personal identity against the wave of modern oppressions. The Waste Land is, in large part, about a general social and cultural breakdown; this breakdown takes its shape in ruined communication and infertile human relationships. Eliot situates this breakdown primarily around women: most of the characters in the narrative are women, and the majority of the allusions made throughout reference women and their relationship to men. These brutal relationships between men and women parallel the relationship between the individual and society; like the individual, the women must make the decision to speak out against their male oppressors or keep silent and accept their circumstances. Either option places the women at risk of consequential wrongs and subjugation.

In Ovid’s retelling of the myth, Philomela is raped by her brother-in-law, King Tereus, and when she threatens to tell all who will listen about this crime he has committed against her, he is moved to cut out her tongue. The “change” comes when, after serving Tereus a feast made of his own son, Philomela and her sister escape his rage as if on wings; and indeed, they each have been transformed into nightingales. (VI.966-8). Frequently Ovid uses metamorphosis as a mark of punishment; however, in the myth of Philomela, it acts as a restoration of her purity. Eliot’s use and placement of this image suggests that he intentionally framed the moment of her change (rather than her assault) within this room: Above the antique mantel was displayed As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene The change of Philomela, by the barbarous king 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. (97-103)

In ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ (1920) Eliot portrays Sweeney in terms of animal imagery. Sweeney is portrayed as totally devoid of human attributes. The word “Nightingales” is now used for a woman who is a prostitute, a fallen woman. But this word is associated with the Greek myth according to which Philomela after having been raped by her sister’s husband, who cut her tongue so that she could not reveal his evil deed, was changed into a singing bird. Sweeney’s murder is a purely cold blooded murder to get same feeling of excitement out of it. But the last stanza which concludes the whole atmosphere is an example of the fusion of levity and seriousness.

The nightingales are singing near

The convent of the sacred Heart

And sang within the bloody wood

When Agamemnon cried aloud

And let their liquid sifting fall

To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud

Sweeney is about to murder and nightingales are singing and excreting. They are the witness of such acts in the past when Agamemnon was put to death by his wife. Here, Eliot has used the device of parallelism which stresses a point in common between the past and the present. During Agamemnon’s murder they were singing and excreting and now to they are doing the same. The image of the nightingales excreting and staining the shroud covering the dead body Agamemnon is an example of Eliotian mixture of levity and seriousness. The seriousness of the past is ridiculed by using ‘their liquid sifting fall/To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud’.

Eliot was gifted with the quality of juxtaposing and telescoping the past and the present and underscoring the timeless quality of the myth. The mythical method is characterized by the devices of parallelism and contrast which stress at once the point in common between the past and the present and the ways in which they are demonstrably unlike each other.

Humor and satire are, before the nineteenth century, almost interchangeable terms. The literature before the nineteenth century has no conscious humor apart from satire. In the present age humor is mingled with satire. If a humorist tries to write verse without any aim or moral, it can be pretty to look at, but in reality, valueless. At certain moments the humorist in Eliot plays the part of a satirist who can purge his readers mind; partly dramatically, partly simply, and sometimes in a sharp and pungent manner of speech which arouses hatred or laughter or indignation. The intermingling of satire and humour can be seen in the poems of T S Eliot’s Poems whenever he described the females in his poems.

Eliot. “When Eliot’s poems appeared during the war, they were read, as an odd kind of vers de society; only gradually was it discovered that this slender volume was to have the effect, as Wyndham Lewis described it, of the little musk that scents a whole room.

The satirical humour in “Aunt Helen” is identified when the lady is addressed by the observer as ‘my maiden aunt’. The observer starts giving the details in the next lines and the focus shifts from ‘Aunt Helen’ to ‘Miss Helen Slingsby’ and her world Miss Helen controlled the life around her very mechanically. In her entire life she was cared for by servants to the number of four’. In the presence of the mistress servants hide the frustration and boredom behind the masks of efficiency. Shortly after the death of the mistress they change their conduct. This is presented through the strokes of humour.

And the footman sat upon the dining-table

Holding the second house maid on his knees

Who had always been so careful while he mistress lived.

Eliot presents how the mask of seriousness and gravity was attached with the faces of servants during their mistress’s presence which was broken after the death of their mistress. Eliot makes a satirical effort to project the duplicity of the modern world in a blend of seriousness and levity. Eliot’s interest tends towards the satiric use of bathos:

Now when she died there was silence in heaven and silence at her end of the street.

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Here, the humour is no larger a laughing humour. It is at best a chuckle. We are left with a comic examination of from on the one hand and of language on the other, which is essentially a matter of form also.

In the poem “Cousin Nancy” the observer simply announces its subject as “Miss Nancy Ellicott.” The name begins with the characterization and the surname particularly ringing with new England efficiency and power. But this voice is less intent on characterization than on satire. Nancy is the representative of the new England efficiency and power. She

Strode across the hills and broke them,

rode across the hills and broke them-

The barren new England hills.-

Riding to hounds

Over the cow-pasture.

The observer undercuts the character of Nancy while describing her striding across the new England hill to break them. The seriousness of her effort soon vanishes, as the obstancles she “broke” are said to be “barren” and then executed when the site where she rode to hounds is revealed to be a cow-pasture. The new American modes are satirised when she tries to break the hills that seemed changeless. It makes no positive gains for her. The human beings are running an endless race purpose lessly. Literary values are mocked here when :

Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked

And danced all the modern dances;

And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,

But they knew that it was modern.

The structure of The Waste Land is built of contrast of which the most obvious and ironical dramatic scenes from modern life are set against : the memories of the myths related in from Ritual to Romance and The Golden Bough and supported by the suggestions evoked by Eliot’s vast store of literary reminiscences. The free usage of mythological gods and heroes is intended to illustrate the innocence and purity of the ancients. Metaphors are also profusely employed to underline the sense of experience and desire of the modern man whose life is always self-centred. The myths and metaphors, which are intended to expose the difference between the virtues of the ancients and the vices of the modern are blended together expertly to enlarge and emphasize the message of hope even in the life of the Waste Lander who is desperate and dissolute.

Madam Sosostris’ figure is reproduced by Eliot in a different manner which is intended to create humour. The original myth has been changed and perverted according to the modern norms which clearly suggests Eliot’s intention to provoke humour. According to Miss Weston’s book From Ritual to Romance the Tarot cards were originally used to determine the event of the highest importance to the people, the rising of the waters. Madam Sosostris is engaged merely in vulgar fortune-telling and is one item in a generally vulgar civilization. The contrast is obvious in provoking humour.

There are lines in the poem which are suggestive of the modern thinking of looking beautiful in order to attract the attention of the opposite sex:

O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter

And on her daughter

They wash their feet in soda-water.

The act of washing feet in soda water becomes a butt of laughter as it is touched with impropriety. In Sanskrit literature Anaucitya or impropriety is considered to be the distinctive feature of ridiculous according to Abhinavagupta. In his opinion, anything can become an object of laughter when it is touched with impropriety. He says even tears become ridiculous when they are not natural.

Eliot has changed the real story with an exaggerated scene. In ancient days there was another sort of foot washing, the sound of the children singing in the dome heard at the ceremony of the foot washing which precedes the restoration of the wounded Anfortas (the fisher king) by parzival and the taking away of the curse from the Waste Land. The act of washing of feet by the children in the grail legend which resulted in the restoration of the wounded Anfortas and the lifting of the curse from the land is again is contrast with that of washing feet with soda water by Mrs. Porter and her daughter to look fairer so that they could attract more men.

Lyndall Gordon suggests that in real life women were often the recipients of Eliot’s poetic confessions: the women in his life possessed more of him than his poetry (401); in “The Waste Land,” women instead become the medium of confession, demonstrating the harsh reality of the modern world. The poem acts as an exploration of contemporary relationships between the sexes. Placed alongside the tales of mythical women out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, these human relationships take on new elements of devastation. Contrasted against the heroic voices of Ovid’s women, Eliot’s contemporary women come up short, afflicted with the modern condition of apathy. As a result the oppression of their identity overtakes them, rendering them victims to control. So too becomes the individual in society. Like the typist, they keep silent and accept their circumstances and use their voice only to concede the situation. Sometimes they are the rebels like Philomela and takes revenge. In the portrayal of women Eliot uses myth and satire, characterized by the devices of parallelism and contrast. After having read and analyzed Eliot’s poems, it can be said that Eliot has been one of the most daring and fearless authors of the twentieth century. Very deftly he depicted the most sensitive issues on morality and sexuality. His ability to package his words in a stirring manner has also influenced his poetry, drama, and critical ideas. But above all this, what appears appealing in this work was the explicit representation of the reality on women’s roles. Thus, it can be said that Eliot’s poems serves as an appropriate example of a piece of literature which presents the punishing and painful realities of women’s life during the twentieth century, as well as twentieth century.

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Portrayal of Women in T. S. Eliot’s Poems with Special Reference to the Themes of Oppression, Satire and Myth: Analysis of The Waste Land. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 24, 2023, from
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