Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Various Passing Characters
There are no named characters in the poem. It describes a destitute part of town which is described as dirty and poverty-stricken. It makes mention of passing characters, such as "ancient women" who move through empty lots gathering fuel and a cab horse that stands on a street corner, stamping. Other implied characters include the owners of "muddy feet" who move through these dirty streets, and the metonymic "hands" which are raising shades in the rooms beyond the streets.
Part of the point of this poem is that it could describe any neighborhood suffering in this run-down way at this time. Eliot deliberately does not name any of the characters, because he does not want to suggest that they are anyone in particular. On the contrary, anybody reading might recognize a neighborhood like this one, which is "grimy" and inhabited by many dirty and faceless people who are "suffering." Small details, such as the lamps being lit and the image of the cab horse standing on its own, lend atmosphere to the scene described: we can imagine that it is not a wealthy neighborhood, smelling as it does of beer and still having gas lamps and horses where others of the time would have motor cars and electricity. This is a world which would have been familiar to many in the urban environment.
It might be assumed that the speaker is Eliot himself, or that the voice is informed by Eliot's own. The speaker is intrigued by what he describes, which he perceives to be something "infinitely suffering" and extremely gentle. The speaker seems to have great sympathy for those who inhabit the scenes he is describing, but he seems to be apart from them somehow. He is familiar with what he sees, but he does not belong to it.
If it is interpreted as a specific person, we can assume that the "you" character is female—the speaker seems to imagine what is inside her head as she removed "papers" from her hair upon waking. We can infer that she is working-class, part of the desolation, because her feet are "yellow" on the soles, as if dirty, and her hands are "soiled." Her soul is "constituted" of "sordid images," but although she is part of this world, she is thinking of another—she has a "vision" of a world beyond the one she is part of. "You," however, can also be interpreted as being the poem's reader. It is likely that "you," in this case, is both; the reader is implicated in the poem's world as much as any of its anonymous characters.