Marriage and Homosexuality in "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot and "Mrs Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf

Essay, 2019

10 Pages, Grade: B+


The Waste Land and Mrs Dalloway are two literary canons in 1920s Britain. They, however, presented gender issues very differently. This essay will focus on comparing the representation of the two works in terms of marriage and homosexuality.

In modernist Britain, there were two influential movements affecting marriage rate. The eugenics movement, aiming at improving the human race through genes selection, encouraged Britons to select their couples carefully, most ideally with high intelligence, good personality trait and attractive physical attributes (Phillips 1991) . The motherhood campaign, on the other hand, at the same time encouraged people to marry and have more babies in order to solve the problem of male depopulation after many men have died in World War I (Smith 1990). Britain in the 1920s, therefore, is said to be a society of great marriage paradox, with “the simultaneous popularity of marriage and divorce” (Wolfe 45). The essay will look at how the two sides of the paradox is presented in The Waste Land and in Mrs Dalloway respectively.

The second section of the The Waste Land, i.e. A Game of Chess, described the relationship of a rich married couple, and the relationship of a poor married couple, both of which are somehow deteriorating due to ethical breakdown. We will look at the rich couple in this essay. The rich couple’s house is described as extremely extravagant, with the chair “glowed on the marble”, decors such as “a golden Cupidon” and containers made of “ivory and coloured glass” (Eliot 79, 81, 86). The couple’s material richness, however, did not provide them with a great relationship by helping them eliminating worries caused by money issues. What the husband really cared about is only sex. From the description of the house decors just 1 stanza before the speech, we saw the tapestry telling the story of Philomela, as the transition between the description part and the speech part:

“And still she cried, and still the world pursues, / “Jug Jug” to dirty ears. / And other withered stumps of time / Were told upon the walls; staring forms /Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.” (Eliot 102-105).

At first it seems that the poet is still describing the story of the rape of Philomela, with the cry of Philomela during rape. The poem, simultaneously and gradually, develops the sex scene here, between the rich couple. The noise “Jug Jug” is heard to dirty years, and this onomatopoeia can mean either the chirping of a nightingale, which Philomela was transformed into after the rape, or the noise produced by a couple having sex, no matter it indicates the rape scene of Philomela or the sex scene of the rich couple (Eliot 103). “The withered stumps of time” can refer to either the cut forearms of Philomela by Tereus (Strandberg, 2017), or the tied and feeble forearms in the case of voluntary sadomasochism sex by the rich couple. The word ‘time’ here refers to both the stumps of Philomela in the old times and the stumps of the couple in modernity. The phrase “Were told upon walls” may refer to either the story of Philomela told on the wall by the tapestry or the sex scene projected on the walls in some form of shadow, with the presence of light from the sacred “sevenbranched candelabra”, signifying the falling apart of sacred sex in the modern Waste Land. With “staring forms / [l]eaned out”, in one way it can be said that the Philomela still wants her story of rape to be heard and in terms of personification the tapestry leans out in an attempt to tell the story to the couple, which they may not have noticed the content in the tapestry. Another possibility is that it actually refers to the shadows of the rich couple having sex, as they stares at their forms (shadows) and the female like the tapestry to achieve some difficult sex positions. The word ‘out’ is then eliminated and became ‘leaning’, signifying the end of sexual intercourse as the couple probably leans on the bed, and at the same time “hushing the rooms enclosed” and silencing the room. With long hair, the female would have her unravel her long hair using her “brush” as it twisted and knitted during the sexual intercourse, and “spread out in fiery points”. The tied hair seems to be signifying the end of the couple’s relationship of the day. It seems to act like “words” that tells the beginning of the silencing of the husband. Their relationship would then be “savagely still”. A contrast between the word “savage” and “still” tells the cruelty of being indifferent in a relationship, especially when the husband only cares about sex but not the wife as a person and as his most intimate friend. We only hear the voice of the wife after this sex scene and we can feel from the silence of the husband how cruel it is by not responding the wife’s questions: ““Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak. / “What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? / “I never know what you are thinking. Think.” ” (Eliot 111-114).

In The Waste Land we see that marriages are falling apart due to ethical breakdown: selfishness in only caring one’s sexual needs, as in the case of the rich couple, as well as Tereus and Procne, in the story of Philomela. Mrs. Dalloway, on the other hand, sees marriages in a very different manner. In Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa is married to Richard, but she does not love him really that much and Clarissa’s real lover seems to be Sally Seaton. The moment when Clarissa and Sally kissed was considered “the most exquisite moment in life” and it was described that at that moment it seems that “[t]he whole world might have turned upside down!” (Woolf 38). In contrast, Clarissa chose Richard because “she wanted support” (Woolf 128), and this support cannot be given by Sally, a female (hard to attain rich economic status as an independent female during the 1920s, and therefore cannot provide economic support), or, Peter Walsh, who was too demanding to Clarissa did not leave her enough personal space (therefore cannot provide psychological support). The result of choosing a much duller Richard, however, proves to be the right choice. Clarissa became the perfect hostess which hosts extravagant parties, which is even attended by the prime minister, and Sally Seaton, became the wife of a wealthy man with five sons. Even for Septimus, marriage seems to be a temporary way out for the psychological sickness experiencing by him, until Dr. Holmes came and ruined his life by trying to remove him from his personal space.

It seems that a good marriage is a cure to all problems in Mrs. Dalloway, including psychological breakdown, in contrast with The Waste Land, marriages are depicted as seriously deteriorating and a cause of problems, if one fails to cares about. In Mrs Dalloway, however, caring one’s wife less in a marriage seems not to be a problem, and even a merit, as Clarissa sometimes finds it good to have enough personal space by marrying Richard. The Waste Land and Mrs Dalloway and two typical literary works that stands to represent the two opposite marriage philosophies that were present 1920s Britain, the pro-divorce eugenics movement, and the pro-marriage motherhood movement.

In terms of representation, the Waste Land is apparently more sexually explicit in giving imageries of sexual intercourse, in order to let readers feel subjectively how serious it is when comes to ethical breakdowns in marriage that only cares about sex. Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, presents the issue of marriage in a way more similar to objective societal discussion. A good marriage solves social problems, by giving enough personal space to your spouse.

The essay will now look at another gender issue: homosexuality. Unlike in Mrs Dalloway, it is presented negatively in The Waste Land. Scholar Lamos asserts that "[t]hroughout his early poetry Eliot typically depicts women as threatening figures who torment and castrate men" (77). These masochistic fantasies, as Freud suggests, in fact expresses the wish of males to be loved by men (qtd. In Lamos 77). They see their mother as their enemy in the fight for their father’s love. This is in contrast with the normal heterosexual male perception, fighting for mother’s love and sees the father as the enemy. Similarly, in the Waste Land, Eliot, in several occasions, portrayed scenes of homosexuality and condemned the abnormal phenomenon as a part of the great ethical breakdown that makes the world a Waste Land. The scene of hyacinth girl is a typical example exhibiting the idea:

““You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / “They called me the hyacinth girl.” /—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, / Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence.” (Eliot 35-41)

The hyacinths, having phallic shape, can be symbolizing homosexual love here (Pondrom 2005). The phrase “[t]hey called me the hyacinth girl” (Eliot 36) maybe referring to ‘a girl possessing a hyacinth’, i.e. a phallus-possessing man who recognizes himself as a girl, or a gay man. The gay man was given “hyacinths first a year ago” (Eliot 35), which can refer to the gay man given the opportunity to have male-male sex for the first time a year ago. The next line “Your arms full, and your hair wet” (Eliot ll. 38), seems to be depicting the sweat that stayed on the arms of the gay couple after they have had sex in the “Hyacinth garden” (Eliot 37). The consequence of gay sex, however, was disastrous. The lines “I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither /Living nor dead” (Eliot 38-40) may refer to the consequence of contacting syphilis through gay sex. Syphilis can cause Argyll Roberson pupils, which affects the eye, and sores can occur inside the mouth. It can also affect the central nervous system, which is coined neurosyphilis. (Wikipedia, 2019) This can be the reason why the hyacinth girl cannot speak or see, and why she was “neither/ Living nor dead” (Eliot 40), as her nervous system was damaged. This scene, of course, also refers to Tiresias’s tragedy, in which he was made blind by Hera after answering the Gods that women enjoy sex much greater than men. The hyacinth girl, by choosing to become a gay feminine man, wanted to enjoy sex in the position of the woman, very likely holding the belief that by being a woman one enjoys sex more than men, as Tiresias did. The notion of homosexuality is condemned by forming a parallel between the hyacinth girl’s story with the story of Tiresias. Perhaps there is another reference to Philomela’s story here for the episode of the hyacinth girl, in which Philomela is raped by Tereus, who eventually cut her tongue and muted her in order to not let her tell others about the rape. The main cause of the tragedy is the desire to heterosexual sex, and the beauty of the female that triggers that desire. To gay men, other men possess similar beauty as the female’s beauty, which triggers the desire of homosexual sex, as in heterosexual sex. By depicting that the serious aftermaths which the hyacinth girl had to bear exceeding the aftermaths borne by Tiresias and Philomela, Eliot may have wanted to express greater condemnation of homosexual desire than bisexual sexual desire (held by Tiresias) and heterosexual sexual desire (as in the story of Philomela), in causing the world becoming a waste land.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


Marriage and Homosexuality in "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot and "Mrs Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
ENGE5330 Modernist Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
dalloway, eliot, homosexuality, land, marriage, virginia, waste, woolf
Quote paper
Kwan Lung Chan (Author), 2019, Marriage and Homosexuality in "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot and "Mrs Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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