Why did T.S Eliot choose Marie and Madame Sosostris as figures in "The Waste Land", and what does each allude to?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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In T.S. Eliot's seminal work The Waste Land, which is interpreted by Eliot and critics as a treatise against the waste and devastation of World War I, the two women Marie and Madame Sosostris are introduced in part one "Burial of the Dead." Marie is a German woman who engages in Alpine sledding. Most significantly, Marie says that when in the mountains, presumably sledding, one feels free. This is important on two levels. First, sledding is a pursuit of leisure for some, for others a competitive sport, that, in either case, gives enjoyment and health, plus it is a worthwhile pursuit that gives meaning to life. This idea relates strongly to Eliot's ultimate message in The Waste Land, that of mourning the devastation of Earth--the death of the surface of Earth--and Earth's fruit of life spanning from vegetation to human, by the ravaging war. The mountains--especially the Alpine mountains, a strong symbol for always-neutral Switzerland--were not part of the war fronts and therefore were not devastated and wasted. Second, Marie's statement that in the mountains one feels free spurs cognitive registration of the antithetical idea that in the lowlands, out of the mountains, one does not feel free--the lowlands are where the war fronts were and where the devastation--the death of the surface of Earth--is.

Madame Sosostris is a fortune teller whom Eliot connects with the Sailor Tarot card. her name is interesting for the fact that it embodies two iterations of the Mores Code distress signal "SOS." The -tris suffix appended is a variation of the suffix -trix (also spelled -trice) that is affixed to Latin loanwords to signify a feminine agent corresponding to the masculine agenting suffix -tor. This is to say that Madame Sosostris is an agent specializing in sending the distress call "SOS." Of what distress does she call? The Sailor Tarot card, or, as Eliot says, "the drowned Phoenician Sailor," is Eliot's symbol for death, which has spread from the war fronts to the cities. The "Unreal City," with crowds flowing along London Bridge, immediately follows Madame Sosostris and represents what critics identify as the walking dead, being those who are spiritually dead because of World War I even though they were not among the counted and buried casualties of the war. The floods of people on the London Bridge of the Unreal City may also be the spiritual remains of the buried casualties of the war since in the next passage Eliot introduces Stetson of whom he asks if the corpse he had planted in his garden had "begun to sprout?" Madame Sosostris's distress call is for the walking living-dead and walking dead-dead. Juxtapose this with Marie and the statement emerges that freedom can--and could--only be had where there was no war.

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