The Waste Land : summary

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The Waste Land is a notable literary work by T. S. Eliot. A complete discussion of this literary work is given, which will help you enhance your literary skills and prepare for the exam. Read the main text, key info, Summary, Themes, Characters, Literary Devices, Quotations, Notes, to various questions of The Waste Land.


The term ‘wasteland’ refers to the symbolic representation of modern civilization’s spiritual and social degradation. The poem contains the post-World War I world, full of desolation, fragmentation, and barrenness. Eliot uses various mythologies, literary allusions, and historical allusions to draw a modern, unfertile society. The wasteland is a metaphor for a society that is out of its purpose and becomes disconnected from the past. It draws a world that has lost its connection and understanding among its people. Overall, the poem serves the ill features of the modern 20th century and its people.

The Burial of The Dead

The title of the first section refers to the dual burial: (a) burial of the dead fertility and (b) burial of the English Church. The people of the wasteland are spiritually empty and do not want any change in this position. Regeneration is a painful notion for them. They cannot enjoy the month of April, which signifies the spring season and rebirth, because it reminds them about their moral and spiritual decay. Rather, they are fond of winter, which symbolizes death and decay, as they can enjoy their merriment during this period. If we go through this section, we can find several topics to interpret, which are as follows:

  • Modern baseless society: Through his spokesman and protagonist, Tiresias, Eliot has presented the nature of a modern man. He loves a German girl without a connection with her family, society, or country. She represents the true, baseless modern woman. When they spend their time in Munich, they are caught up by the summer rain. They take shelter under the trees, neglecting the purifying power of the rain.
  • Spiritual Wasteland: The stone, trees, and the sun depicted in the poem represent the spiritual wasteland. There is no shelter in the street from the sun’s heat but the red rock, which symbolizes the Christian church. That means only the church can shelter men. The modern wasteland is the same as the wasteland of the Bible. If Christ could regenerate the then-wasteland, he can do so now. That is why we must follow the path of true religion.
  • Obstacles to gaining spiritualism: Here, the poet describes two obstacles. One is sex: Sex is a dominant feature of the modern age. Once, sex was a matter of human development, but now it has no moral or social regulations. Eliot provides two results of guilty love, which are misery and death. To put it clearly, the poet also gives two examples of love: (a) It is from Wagner’s opera, a story by Tristan and Isolde. (B) It is the story of the Hyacinth girl. The second obstacle is gambling, which is a kind of game that befools a man, as we know. Madame Sosostris is a character who has 78 cards. She predicts the future of his followers by using these cards. She also fears the police.
  • The artificial city: London has been shown as an unreal city. People here have a lack of faith. They go to work at the London Bridge at nine o’clock, indicating Christ’s crucifixion time. That means when trade starts, religion goes out.
  • Zero hope for rebirth: The protagonist, Tiresias, meets a person, namely Stetson, who has fought with him in the war. He asks whether his plants have bloomed or not, which he has planted in his garden. He also warns to keep it safe from the dog, which may spoil it or reduce the chance of rebirth. This idea bears no hope for the resurrection because if the dog digs it up, there may be a chance of rebirth for the plants.

A Game of Chess

The story of a game of chess has been borrowed from Middleton’s play ‘Women Beware Women’, where this game is used to hide the molestation of a young girl by a nobleman. In this story, the poet wants to show the failure of modern men in sexual relationships. This section contains two scenes:

  • In scene one, the lady in the situation is waiting for her lover. Her room is gorgeous and well-decorated. The paintings and artwork inside it indicate the ancient story of love and rape. The painting remembers the story of Philomela, whom a barbarous king rudely raped. She even cries today, but no one listens to her cries. Indeed, her cries are a protest against the whole rapist family of all time. When the lover of the lady appears, she denies spending time with him. Rather, she wishes to go out for a walk. This lady is the true representation of a modern woman. She is used to taking a hot water bath at 10 a.m. and goes to play a game of chess at the nearby club at 4 p.m.
  • Scene two is the story of a couple: Lil and Albert. After four years, it is time to come home for Albert from the Army. Now, Lil’s lady friend suggests that she decorate herself colorfully so that her husband finds her attractive. Otherwise, there are many charming women in the city with whom her husband may spend his private time. Lil is getting old and losing her beauty as she takes excessive abortion pills to stay free from being pregnant. She already has five children, and she is also unable to satisfy her husband. Her female friend suggests that she not take the pill to please her husband and give birth to children.

This section tells us that marriage is a matter of sex maintaining discipline and regulations, not excessive sexual relationships. However, modern people hanker after this tendency most, so they are barren and desolate.

The Fire Sermon

This title has been derived from the sermon of Lord Buddha, where he says that the whole world is on fire: the fire of hatred, the fire of delusion, the fire of lamentation and misery, and so on. This section teaches us that lust destroys life and that one can overcome lust only through misery and pain. This idea is against the modern concept of sexual life without any social regulation. Let us analyze the section.

  • Vulgarization of commerce and the mechanical sexual life of a typist girl: Tiresias explains the condition of the Thames. It is autumn, and the rich merchants pollute the river with their waste left out after their picnic. The river is now like a desert. The pollution of the river indicates the spiritual degeneration of modern man. In the unreal city of London, the protagonist only hears the crowds and the sounds of the vehicles, which is a call to the girl by her lover. Here, we also enjoy the sexual attitude of modern people. Mr. Eugenides, the trade person, is looking for a hotel where he can meet his lusty desires. In the evening, the typist girl returns from his office, finishes her dinner, and feels tired and bored. However, when his lover arrives and wants to get intimated physically, she agrees despite her unwillingness. Even she seems happy after having sex. In the river Thames, the protagonist sees sexual scenery, oil, and tar. Here, we find the rape story of the Thames girls. The first daughter visits Richmond and is molested by a man. The second daughter is assaulted at Moorgate by a man who later repents of his misdeed. The girl has no regression, as it is a part of her life. The last one is raped at Margate Sands. She has a poor background. Her family has no claim regarding this matter.

To conclude this section, lust, and rape bring corruption and decay to modern society. This practice prevails in all classes of society.

Death By Water

In this division, the poet represents water as a tool for purification and regeneration. Eliot uses two references to develop his idea, including Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and the Egyptian god of fertility. Here, the poet tells the story of Phlebas, a young, handsome sailor who is drowned after a boring trading career. He gets no chance for purification as he does not follow spiritual values. The young sailor represents modern people.

What The Thunder Said

In this section, the poet speaks for the liberation of society from desolation. This last and longest part of the poem represents a chaotic world full of destruction and despair. Here, we see illustrations of war, references to biblical stories, and allusions to Hindu mythology. This division starts with mentioning the term ‘thunderstorm,’ which can renew the natural elements. The section then sifts to the story of ‘Fisher King,’ an Arthurian legend who is represented as a symbol of spiritual and physical decay. The king, as well as his troops, molest women, which makes the king impotent and unable to rule his kingdom, resulting in making his kingdom barren and desolate. The king’s wound is metaphorical of the barrenness of his kingdom.

The resurrection of the king and his kingdom depends on a knight’s successful journey to Chapel Perilous. This dangerous place must be navigated if he wants to search for the Holy Grail, a sacred object that embodies divine grace. The knight’s journey represents a quest for spiritual redemption and enlightenment. The reference to “Christ’s disciples to Emmaus” is a biblical account in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 24:13–35). It describes the journey of two disciples who first confront the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus but cannot recognize him. Eliot uses this biblical story to explain a sense of lost faith and spiritual blindness in the modern world. The disciples’ inability to recognize Jesus is the same as the spiritual blindness and lack of connection of the modern people in the wasteland. The poet ends the poem by describing an event in ancient Indian history when people were entrapped by drought and famine. They seek divine help, and God replies to them in thunder.

Eliot prescribes three remedies to reconstruct the human heart from the Upanishads: ‘ Da, Da, Da.’ The first ‘Da’ means Datta (‘to give’). We have to sacrifice more than enjoy, as our martyrs do. The second ‘Da’ (Dayadhavam) is for sympathy. We must have sympathized with our fellow citizens. The last ‘Da’ (Damyata) refers to self-control.’ The author finishes the poem with a sense of hope and rebirth. Eliot terminates the poem by repeating the Sanskrit word “Shantih” three times, which is from the Hindu faith, and ends each Upanishad, meaning “The peace which passeth all understanding.”