"The Waste Land" Themes

The main themes in "The Waste Land" by Alan Paton are fear, social breakdown, and poverty and violence.

  • Fear: The protagonist's fear dominates this short story, driving him to act in ways he normally would not and creating a tense, suspense-filled atmosphere.
  • Social breakdown: Mirroring apartheid-era South Africa, this story depicts a dysfunctional society in which the social bonds between family, friends, and strangers have been corrupted.
  • Poverty and violence: Desperation turns to violence as the normally law-abiding protagonist attempts to escape the men who would hurt him to steal his hard-earned wages.

Themes

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Last Updated on April 14, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 930

Fear

“The Waste Land” is a story which pulses with fear. From the moment he leaves the safety of the well-lit bus, the protagonist is afraid of what he will find in the darkness, and his gut-deep anxiety when he spies a group of young men waiting for him is conveyed very effectively to the reader. When the protagonist flees into the waste land, his fear becomes even more visceral. As his heart pounds and his breath shortens, it seems that he is afraid not only of the gang itself, but of the dark waste land and what it represents. 

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On one hand, the waste land appears to the protagonist as his only option for escape—and in that sense, it serves as a source of refuge. However, the waste land is also terrifying to the protagonist, filled with twists and turns and dark, looming shapes. The protagonist’s fear of the waste land is so intense that, at times, he forgets himself—as when he becomes entangled in barbed wire and shouts irrationally for help, though this might draw his pursuers directly to him. While the waste land is the backdrop for much of the action of the story, it also seems to represent something darker, a place where normal morality, logic, and behavior are subverted by fear and the desire to survive. 

Fear ultimately drives the behavior of the protagonist just as much as poverty does. Indeed, it is likely his fear of being robbed or attacked that drove him to carry the stick in the first place. The protagonist is presented as a honest, ordinary, working-class man, but his extreme fear alters his mental state, leaving him willing to kill.

Social breakdown

This brief story depicts a society that has fallen so far into disrepair that the social bonds that should exist between members of that society have disappeared. Common norms of decency and morality have fallen to the wayside, likely as a result of fear, poverty, and division. Only the strongest can survive in this society, and “The Waste Land” suggests that such an environment can erode even the strongest bonds, including those of friendship and family.

We see the evidence of social dysfunction most clearly at the end of the story, after Freddy has been killed. While the protagonist of the story briefly experiences horror at having killed his own son, it is not a paralyzing horror. After a moment’s contemplation, he simply gets up and leaves the waste land. He does not attempt to seek help or try to bring his son’s body with him; he simply leaves it there among the trash. Likewise, Freddy’s friends seem entirely unaffected by his death. Not wanting to involve the police and incriminate themselves, they carelessly toss Freddy’s body under a truck, perhaps never to be found. Freddy himself demonstrates a similar type of amorality by, presumably, informing his friends that his father would be paid that day and helping to arrange the attack on him. 

Ultimately, all the relationships depicted in “The Waste Land'' are in utter disrepair, suggesting a society which is in breakdown, one in which members of a society feel no obligations toward one another. When read as a commentary on South Africa during apartheid, the story illustrates how the violence, poverty, and crime created by an oppressive regime deteriorates the social fabric of a society.

Poverty and Violence

An overarching theme of Alan Paton’s “The Waste Land” is the connection between poverty and violence. Written in 1961, “The Waste Land” depicts a lawless scene in an unspecified city, though it’s likely that, as with Paton’s other works, the story takes place in or is inspired by apartheid-era South Africa.

Very early in the story, the protagonist thinks about a purse filled with wages that he is carrying against his thigh, aware that being in the possession of any amount of money makes him vulnerable. Because he lives in poverty, this money is very important to him, but because the criminal gang also lives in poverty, the money is important to them as well. Money and the lack of it is presumably what drives the criminal gang to violence, and it is likely the fear of this violence that causes the protagonist to carry a heavy stick with him when he is walking home with his wages. The characters’ respective actions suggest that extreme poverty can create a desperate environment where violence is not only possible, but even expected.

It is notable too that the only actual act of violence committed in the story is committed defensively by the protagonist when he kills a member of the criminal gang (who turns out to be his son, Freddy). The protagonist’s poverty, then, is not only part and parcel of this society in which criminal gangs roam in search of victims; it also turns him, an ordinary, law-abiding citizen, to violence. 

The protagonist worries that the criminal gang will not be inclined to show “mercy,” yet in his rage at the injustice of the situation, it is ultimately the protagonist himself who shows no mercy. His poverty, and his experience of living in poverty, seem to have left the protagonist hardened, and when he discovers that he has killed his own son at the end of the story, the protagonist does not break down. Instead, after a moment’s pause, he simply stands up and leaves the waste land and his son’s body behind, suggesting that this sort of tragedy is simply a part of life here.

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