Why does the protagonist say, "People, arise! The world is dead" at the end of "The Waste Land," and what does it mean?

The protagonist of "The Waste Land" by Alan Paton says, "People, arise! The world is dead" as a result of his anguish and despair at having just killed his own son during an attack by a gang. The author writes that this is an idiom that the protagonist utters in his own language, and so besides being an expression of despair, it may have a further meaning particular to the protagonist's language.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the short story "The Waste Land" by Alan Paton, a man misses a bus on a dark road at night. He sees young men around him and fears for his life because he has his salary with him, and he knows that his assailants will not hesitate to kill him to get it. On one side of the road is a convent, but the door is barred, and so he cannot go there for safety. On the other side of the road is a wasteland of wire, iron, and old cars, and he flees into this area to try to escape. After getting injured on some of the wreckage, he hits one of his assailants on the head with a stick and then hides under a truck.

While he is under the truck, he hears the young men talking. It seems that one of his attackers is his son Freddy. They eventually find Freddy dead on the ground. He is the man that his father hit with a stick. They hide Freddy's body by throwing it under the truck, where it ends up right next to his father, the man who has killed him. The man rolls away from his dead son and says, "in the idiom of his own language, 'People, arise! The world is dead.'" He then gets up and walks away.

This short story is in the nature of a parable. It illustrates the decay and decadence of humankind. When the man is confronted by the young men, the door of the convent is closed to him; in other words, he cannot find safety in religion. He must flee into a waste land comprised of the castoff refuse of society. The land has become so corrupt that even his own son is part of a gang that is arrayed against him.

The author Paton was South African, and he wrote against apartheid when it was still the law of the land. Although the location of the story is never mentioned, readers might assume that it takes place in South Africa during apartheid and that this political evil has led to the situation in the story.

An idiom is an expression peculiar to a particular language that cannot be made clear from the meanings of the words it contains. Since Paton writes that what the man says is an idiom in his own language, we cannot interpret definitively what it means. He says, "People, arise!" but he is alone; there are no people around him. Clearly, though, "The world is dead" is an expression of despair. After all, he has just been attacked by and has killed his own son in self-defense. He is venting his anguish from the depths of his soul.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial