Write a note on symbolism in 'The Waste Land'?

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Payal Khullar eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Symbolism is a very powerful literary technique which makes use of symbols, which means presenting something (usually simplistic, physical, material and concrete) that represents something else (spiritual, much deeper, immaterial, even invisible sometimes). Because of the complex use of symbolism in The Waste land by Eliot, the work has been subjected to different interpretations by different people, and considered incomprehensible sometimes. Needless to say that in such a case, controversies arise and the probability of wrongly interpreting the symbols and the whole of the work itself increases. To elucidate symbolism, we need to uncover the hidden meanings.

In The Waste Land, Eliot makes use of old myths and legends to draw symbols from. I will mention only a few randomly selected ones. Spring and winter denote the birth and death cycles, or growth and decay, for example. Fire is used for explosive passions, spiritual revelation and cleansing, etc. Fisher king’s barren land and impotency represent emptiness and spiritual sterility in the life of the modern men. Then there are biblical symbols like the tree, the dry bones, the rock, the legend of the quest for the Holy Grail, the Hanged man etc.

The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide

In the above lines, the oil and tar present in the river symbolizes the dirt and filth in the modern life.

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell

Water has a very complicated symbolism, where once it is shown to be life giving and something that invokes fertility, it is also shown to be a symbol of death via drowning.

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

The wet Hyacinth girl represents sexuality and corruption. She is not a representator of innocence now.

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she...

Then there is Madame Sosostris, who is not able to do justice with the tarot cards, which are supposed to be a powerful science of fortune telling in the past, and so this hints for unreliability and a weak future.


Winter kept us warm, covering 
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Contrary to the earlier view, winter is shown to bear dried tubers, or symbolizes a hope for life in the future.

April is the cruellest month, breeding...

April, which is the month of happiness and growth (as we see in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales) is referred to as a cruel month. The whole of the text is full of such symbols and parallels.