The Waste Land Themes

The main themes in The Waste Land are postwar social disintegration, modern disillusionment, and the potential for regeneration.

  • Postwar social disintegration: The poem’s multiple speakers lament the many deaths and losses following World War I.
  • Modern disillusionment: In the wake of the Great War, religion and other traditional forms of consolation seem paltry, and it seems impossible for society to go on as it had before.
  • The potential for regeneration: Though the poem is, as a whole, dark and cataclysmic, the motifs of water and resurrection serve to offer some small hope.

Themes

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In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot reflects on Europe, especially England, after World War I. Bringing in many classical and non-Western literary and cultural allusions while writing in a modernist style, Eliot offers an emotional and intellectual critique of the endangered state of contemporary civilization.

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Postwar Social Disintegration

While Eliot's work has universal appeal on many levels, it is closely tied to the situation of the "lost generation" of adults who came of age in the 1910s. Those who survived the Great War, both military and civilians, remained affected by their experiences. London is encased in a "brown fog."

In the poem's first section, Eliot writes, "I had not thought death had undone so many" and "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." In the second section, similar ideas are expressed regarding Albert, one soldier returning home after leaving the service who "wants a good time." The poem's speaker often seems near despair, concentrating on the destructive forces that have laid waste to civilization, such as the massive killings that left countless dead to be buried.

Modern Disillusionment

Along with broad social issues, Eliot's multiple speakers bring in numerous personal reflections and memories. These emphasize the individual effects of the larger situation and convey the difficulty of maintaining individual hope while surrounded by greater devastation. Eliot often exposes this disconnect by the juxtaposition of images and myths traditionally associated with life and rebirth—spring, flowers, birds, rivers, and so forth—with their unfortunate counterparts in modernity. For example, the poem begins,

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land . . .

This opening is generally understood to refer to Chaucer's prologue to The Canterbury Tales, which presents April in a different (and more familiar) light: as the beginning of spring, growth, blossoming, and sweetness. Eliot's incarnation, however, has shifted the vision; it has become "cruel" to grow live things from dead ground—as in a land marred by the Great War and all its futile and horrifying death.

Throughout the poem, such images and allusions serve to reveal the disillusioned state of the world in modernity, particularly the...

(The entire section contains 601 words.)

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