Alan Paton’s story “The Waste Land,” which presents modern social decay in South Africa, alludes to T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland,” which offered a social critique of England some forty years earlier. The figurative language that Paton employs includes symbolism, imagery, personification, and simile.
The waste land itself is a symbol of society’s generally bad state, including the wasted human potential of the young men who have turned to crime. Related symbols of the social ills and possible ways out of it include metaphors of an island and the sea. A metaphor is a direct comparison of unlike things for effect. The bus which could save the terrified man is an “island,” and the dangers all around him are the “sea of perils.”
Paton also uses simile, a comparison of unlike things for effect using like or as. The narrator, voicing the man’s thoughts, says that his pounding “heart was like a wild thing in his breast.” The young men who pursue him “were gasping like drowned men.” This comparison also connects with the sea symbolism.
Another type of figurative language is personification, the attribution of human characteristics to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract concepts. The fleeing man perceives items in the waste land as actively assaulting him. The pieces of iron seem as if they have hands. One piece “caught him by the leg,” and others “tore at his clothes and flesh” and “held him.”