Study Guide

The Waste Land

by T. S. Eliot

The Waste Land Themes

Themes

Disillusionment
There are only two master themes in the poem, which in turn, generate many sub-themes. The first of these major themes is disillusionment, which Eliot indicates is the current state of affairs in modern society, especially the post–World War I Europe in which he lived. He illustrates this pervasive sense of disillusionment in several ways, the most notable of which are references to fertility rituals and joyless sex. First Eliot draws on the types of fertility legends discussed in Weston’s and Frazer’s books. For example, in the beginning of the first section, he uses an extended image of a decomposing corpse lying underground in winter, which “kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow, feeding / a little life with dried tubers.” A tuber is the fleshy part of an underground stem, but here it is human flesh, feeding new plants. Human society is so disillusioned that it has undergone a moral death, an idea on which Eliot plays throughout the poem. In fact, in the second stanza Eliot offers a contrast to the first stanza, which at least offers “a little life.” In the second stanza, however, the land is all “stony rubbish,” where roots and branches do not grow, and “the dead tree gives no shelter,” and there is “no sound of water.”

Eliot also expresses disillusionment through episodes of joyless sex, such as through the example of Philomel, upon whom sex is forced. In fact Eliot employs a litany of joyless sexual situations, including the rich couple who would rather play chess than have sex, and the poor couple for whom sex becomes a way only of pleasing the husband, and even then, only if the wife has “a nice set” of teeth....

(The entire section is 696 words.)