The motif of decay in "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

17 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Themes which contribute to the motif of decay
2.1. The theme of death in The Burial of the Dead
2.2 The theme of memory in The Burial of the Dead
2.3. The theme of sexuality in The Game of Chess
2.4 ”The thematic refrain” in The Fire Sermon and Death by Water
The theme of apocalypse in the What the Thunder Said

3. Techniques which contribute to the expression of the motif of decay
3.1. The creation of images
3.2. The use of irony and paradox
3.3 The role of the speaker in the poem

4. To the issue of the intentional fallacy

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

In the epigraph to The Waste Land the Sybil, a woman with prophetic abilities, looks at the future and proclaims that the only thing she wants is to die. Her pessimism about the future is the first indication of the idea which develops into the central theme of the poem: the decay of the human civilization.

In this paper I am going to concentrate on interpretation of the motif of decay and its meanings in The Waste Land. The poem was published in 1922 and appears to be a typical literary example of Modern poetry. That’s why I decided to adopt the New Critical perspective for my paper. New Criticism is the literary theory which dominated in the early 20th century and was used especially for interpretations of poetry. In this paper I will refer to the main statements of the New Critical theory described by I. A. Richards.[1]

The New Criticical approach states that every literary text is autonomous. Historical context and biography of the author are irrelevant for the understanding of the meaning of the text. The meaning of the text has to be found in the text itself. Hence, the New Critical approach is based on the close reading of the text.

An important assumption of the New Critical perspective is the belief that “every meaning is ambiguous”[2] and has more than one possible interpretation. In order to understand the meaning of the poetic text, the reader has to resolve the ambiguities.

The New Critical theory argues that every literary text is complex. The text has a central theme, which unifies all other themes. Other themes should contribute to the central theme.

In my paper I see the motif of decay as the central theme of the poem and want to show in what way other themes are related to each other to form the main idea of the poem - the breakup of the civilization.

Following the methods of the New Criticism, I will restrict myself to interpretation of the images which appear in the text, without paying attention to the historical, religious, social background of the poem.

Since the New Critical approach implies the close reading of the text, I am going to work, for the most part, with the text itself (rather than with secondary sources) and go through the parts of the poem, pursuing three following issues:

- to describe the main themes, which are raised in the five sections of the poem, and show how they contribute to the motif of decay and to the complexity of the poem.
- to look at different levels of the text, searching for ambiguities and trying to resolve them.
- to describe main literary devises which are used in the poem ( symbols, images, metaphors, irony, paradox and s.o.) and to show how the author’s techniques contribute to the theme of decay.

Since the New Criticism holds the author’s personality as absolutely irrelevant to the understanding of the poetic work, I will allow myself some critique of the New Critical approach. Using some examples from T.S. Eliot’s biography, I want to illustrate that author’s biography and intentions can not be totally neglected, even if the literary text remains to be the main source of information and the subject for analysis.

2. Themes which contribute to the motif of decay

At first sight The Waste Land seems to have a fragmentary structure. The four parts are seen by most critics as fragments, which are not connected with each other thematically. In this part of my paper I want to show how the one can come across in every part of the poem, are related to each other to form the central motif of the poem and its different meanings.

2.1. The theme of death in The Burial of the Dead

The title of the first part of the poem The Burial of the Dead already indicates the main topic of the whole section, which is full of images of death. All images can be divided into those, which are concerned with the death of nature and those, which are concerned with a death of a human being. According to the New Critical theory, images should be explained through thematic oppositions. The following thematic oppositions form the idea of the death of nature in the first part of the poem:

a) spring (the birth of new life in nature) <=> winter (numb dream)

The first episode shows the change of seasons. April is coming, a happy month, which should symbolize the rebirth of nature after a long winter. But the spring is not welcome in the ”dead land”, which is ”covered in forgetful snow”. ”The dead land” prefers remaining in its present state of sleeping forgetfulness.

b) Fertility <=> sterility

The image of dead nature, which is not able to regenerate after the winter, is extended in the next episode through the dreadful picture of ”the stony rubbish” , where the plants cannot grow. The idea of sterility, which is an important part of Eliot’s imagery, appears here for the first time. With respect to nature it is seen as inability to bring the circle of seasons into move. Sterility is metaphorically expressed through dryness (”dead tree”, ”dry stone”), while fertility is associated with water (”spring shower, rain”).

As far as the topic of human death is concerned, no clear thematic oppositions can be established. There are rather some parallels between the images of the dead nature and the desolated ”unreal city”, which is inhabited only by ghosts

The natural state of seasons is broken, there is no hope of rebirth of nature. ”The dead nature” influences human beings, makes them die as well. The speaker walks through the city ”under the brown fog of a winter dawn”, meets his dead fellow Stetson in the crowd of the ghosts and asks him about the corpse which he planted in his garden last year.

Has it begun to sprout ? Will it bloom next years?[3]

A metaphorical use of the verbs to plant, to sprout, to bloom with the reference to a corpse provides an other clear parallel between the death of nature and the death of a human being.

The dead man gives no answer; that intensifies the emptiness and hopelessness of the situation. The speaker, who is alive, is able to see the ghosts of the dead and speak to them. This fact might hint at the mental or moral death which is more terrible as the physical one. The ghosts which flowed up the Unreal City are alive and dead at the same time. They are nothing but the products of the dead land, of decaying civilization.

The predictions of Madam Sosostris, who is a fortuneteller, implies another interpretation of the topic of death. Madam Sosostris foretells ”death by water”. Her predictions are based on some vague symbols which are not the part of a traditional pack of cards. For example, Belladonna, which is actually a poisonous plant or The drowned Phoenician sailor, a dead person, are the part of her death predictions. The use of the false cards and vague foretelling might hint at the fact that Madame Sosostris does not possess the prophetic power like Sybil, but just makes arbitrary meaningless moves with the pack of cards. Thereby the author wants to stress the meaninglessness and emptiness of the modern life: mystic predictions of a charlatan displace the real belief. This detail may be interpreted as a hint at religious decay. The idea of religious decay goes far beyond the interpretation of the text and may be extended in term of an other critical approach.

One of Madame Sosostris’s predictions comes true in the fourth section of the poem - death by water. Death in its different forms fills the wasteland, reappears in different parts of the poem and remains indispensable for the understanding of the motif of decay.

2.2 The theme of memory in The Burial of the Dead

The second episode of the first section describes the woman’s childhood recollections, which are full of nostalgic sadness. Her recollections are mixed with her current existence, which is barren and meaningless in comparison with her past, when she felt free. (The image of sledding down the mountain serves as an expression of freedom.)

By means of this scene the thematic opposition past <=> present is created. This thematic opposition is of great importance for the understanding of the motif of decay, because decay means that things go to ruin slowly. The confrontation of the past with the present helps to realize how badly things are decayed. In contrast to the present, associated with the ”dead land”, the past is full of brightness, happiness and joy of life. The following epithets are used for the description of the past: wet hair, hyacinths girl, garden. They form the images of water and fertility, which promote the idea of Birth of New Life , as I have already mentioned above. The present, on the contrary is associated with the ”fear in a handful of dust”. ”The handful of dust” is actually nothing. The present is meaningless. The current barren state of the decaying civilization is exposed by means of comparison with the glorious time of the past.

2.3. The theme of sexuality in The Game of Chess

The second part of the poem takes its title from the play of Thomas Middleton, where the moves in a game of chess denote stages in a seduction.”[4] The title already drops a hint at the topic which becomes central in this section: love and sexuality. Two episodes of the section represents two different sides of sexuality. Thus, we do not deal with the thematic opposition in this case, but rather with thematic parallels, which contribute to the motif of decay from a different point of view.

The first episode shows a rich woman, who is unhappy because she leads a luxurious but a loveless life. She is bored with her life surrounded by ”strange synthetic perfumes”. Her frustration develops to despair, which is expressed in her pathetic cries, addressed to her lover. She is depressed, frightened by her meaningless existence and wants to be comforted by her man.

My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?[5]

Her lover or husband is not able to comfort her. He gives her a frightening answer instead. The gloomy images of death like ”rat’s alley” or ”bones of the dead men” come to his mind. He is as helpless and lost as his wife. His helplessness may be also seen as a hint at his sexual impotence. The woman’s wish to play a game of chess reveals her sexual dissatisfaction (according to the interpretation of the title). The main idea of the episode can be summarized as following: the meaningless existence may cause a nervous breakdown and ruin one’s mental state. This sort of psychical depression paralyzes not only people’s mind, but people’s body and causes sexual impotence. The image of sexual impotence suggests once again the idea of sterility, which has been already discussed above. The image of sterility has a quite direct meaning in this context. It promotes the idea of people’s inability to reproduce themselves.

The next episode illustrates the idea of sterile sexuality from a different point of view. We see two apparently poor women in the bar. They discuss the third woman, named Lil, and reprove her for the way she looks. Epithets of rapid aging ( e.g. false teeth) carry an implication of physical decay. The women said that Lil’s bad looks would make her sexually unattractive for her husband Albert. Lil reveals the cause of her aged appearance: ” It is them pills I took, to bring it of.”[6] She wanted to induce an abortion. Her friend, one of the women in the bar, asks her a question, which is decisive for understanding of the whole episode: ” What you get married for if you don’t want children?”[7] The idea behind this conversation is a further reason for being pessimistic: even when with the help of sex one can conceive a child, it does not happen. People destroy the natural circle of reproduction, preferring the sterile sex to the fertility and are punished for that by their bodies.

The both characters of two episodes are women. The first one is in the state of a deep psychological decay: she suffers a nervous breakdown and is apparently not able to give birth to a new life. The second one (Lil) is in the state of the physical decay: she has poisoned her body with the medication and is not able to give birth to a new life ether. This comparison may be an indication of the idea that no form of sexuality can be regenerative.


[1] Richards, I.A. Principles of Literary Criticism. New York: Brace and World, 1988

[2] Empson. Seven Types of Ambiguity. London: Chatto and Windus, 1970, p. 1

[3] T.S. Eliot. The Waste Land London: Faber&Faber, 1977, p.27

[4] James, E. Miller, Jr T.S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land , 1977 p.79

[5] Eliot, p. 31

[6] Eliot, p.32

[7] Eliot, p.33

Excerpt out of 17 pages


The motif of decay in "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot
University of Hannover  (Englisches Seminar)
High Modernism
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ISBN (eBook)
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Waste, Land, Eliot, High, Modernism
Quote paper
MA Anna Fedorova (Author), 2004, The motif of decay in "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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