Eliot’s use of Symbolism in The Waste Land

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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.


What symbols are used by Eliot in the poem ‘The Waste Land’?


Comment on Eliot’s use of symbolism in The Waste Land.


Show how The Waste Land is a fabric of myth and symbolism.

‘The Waste Land’ (1922) by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) is a celebrated modernist poem formed in a fragmented structure with rich symbolism. The poem upholds modern men’s post-World War spiritual desolation. Eliot utilizes numerous symbols throughout the poem to show its thematic depth. 

The Waste Land: The title is a central symbol of the modern world’s barren and desolate state. It displays the spiritual, emotional, and cultural barrenness resulting from the devastation of the War. The wasteland represents an image of a fragmented and broken society that lacks unity and meaning.

Water: Water is a recurring symbol in this poem, which is the representation of both life and death. It mirrors the double nature of existence, where water can bring both resurrection and destruction. In the earlier part, water stands for drowning and fear of death, and in the later section, it signifies hope and the possibility of renewal. For instance:

“April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.”

In this case, the “spring rain” represents the hope for rebirth, yet it just fosters “dull roots,” implying that the regeneration is partial or impossible.

The Fisher King: The Fisher King is a mythical figure representing a barren land’s wounded or impotent ruler. In ‘The Waste Land,’ the Fisher King symbolizes modern society’s impotence and spiritual decay. He symbolizes the lost connection between the spiritual and the material world.

The Tarot: The image of the hanged man in the Tarot Cards symbolizes sacrifice and spiritual transformation. Madame Sosostris is a character with 78 tarot cards. She tells the future of his followers by using these cards. She also fears the police standing for human hypocrisy. We find the following excerpt about her in the poem.

“Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,

Had a bad cold, nevertheless

Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,

With a wicked pack of cards.”

Unreal City: This phrase from ‘The Burial of the Dead’ is a description of London. The local people need more faith. They gather for work at London Bridge at nine o’clock, representing the hour of Christ’s crucifixion, indicating that religion ends when trade begins.

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

The Chapel Perilous: The term chapel perilous originated from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). It is a place for an encounter where the wicked witch Hellawes fails to delight Sir Lancelot. In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot symbolized it to show spiritual crisis and uncertainty.

The Thunder: Thunder, or the voice of the gods or divine forces, is a powerful symbol in the poem. The final section, ‘What the Thunder Said,’ symbolizes hope and renewal, bringing rain and potential redemption to the wasteland. According to the Indian legend of thunder, God replied in thunders once people were trapped by drought and famine and desired divine help.

Finally, in ‘The Waste Land,’ T.S. Eliot combines various symbols and detailed imagery to illustrate the spiritual and emotional desolation of the modern world. Eliot uses this tiny part of his rich symbols to show the readers the fragility of life, the costs of conflict, and the desire for spiritual rebirth amid modernity’s wasteland.