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MonkeyNotes-The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot
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SYNOPSIS OF THE POEM (and its 5 parts)

The Waste Land is not a narrative poem and hence it is not fair to the nature of the poem to try and summarize it. In fact, the poem resists any attempt at synopsis. However, it may be possible to give the gist or essence of this contemporary epic by examining the general organization of the poem and its 5 parts. In fact, its 5 part structure has led some critics to view it as a symphonic poem, just as his later work The Four Quartets (1936-42) was seen as having a form analogous to a Beethoven Sonata or four- part string quartet. Some have even visualized The Waste Land as a five-part dramatic monologue or as a long and "interesting piece of grumbling," Tiresias with as chief protagonist or commentator on all the events, scenes and personalities of the poem.

In Part I, "The Burial of the Dead," Eliot first depicts the stirring of life in the land with the coming of spring. However, in the contemporary waste land of western civilization, we see only a "dead land" filled with "stony rubbish". Here, "the sun beats" mercilessly down, while "the dead tree gives no shelter ... and the dry stone no sound of water."

Besides, these opening sections also convey a sense of vague dread and apprehension in several characters depicted in different emotionally sterile situations. These include the exiled Lithuanian aristocrat, Countess Marie, as well as the Hyacinth girl and her last lover. A charlatan fortune-teller, Madam Sosostris, further adds to this lack of comprehension and human understanding. Her rather enigmatic and incomprehensible predictions seem to make some sense only much later in the poem (Parts IV to V).


Part I concludes with a grim picture of an "Unreal City" such as modern-day London. It is a dreary place where people lead a purely mechanical and monotonous existence. There does not seem to be any way out for them from this sterile urban landscape, where materialism, hypocrisy and total unconcern have made the city populace part of the "living dead."

Part II is entitled: "A Game of Chess" and presents two contrasting scenes that expose the essential emptiness and loneliness of people’s lives in big cities like London. It opens with the splendors of a palatial bedroom and its boudoir meant for a fashionable lady of high society.

This Rich lady of Situations is compared to Cleopatra, but she suffers the characteristic "ennui" and boredom of the modern "idle rich class." She seems caught in a loveless marriage with a rather cold and distant plutocratic husband. Her constant fears and inane questions show her neurotic state of anxiety. The second scene of Part II is set in a pub or bar where two working women of the poorer cockney class in East London discuss the plight of a mutual friend, Lil. Her husband, Albert, is about to come home from the war front. He has already saddled her with five kids and may now give her a sixth unwanted child. The over-fecund Lil dreads the idea of having more children as her earlier pregnancies have left her physically drained out and emotionally exhausted. Thus, there is uneasiness and despair even in the life of the poor overworked Lil.

Part III, "The Fire Sermon," explores the theme of sexual indulgence and the consequent dissipation or dissatisfaction when jaded lovers burn in the fires of lust. It conjures up a dreary picture of the ugliness of modern cities, the mechanization of modern life and the palling of human emotions. Eliot travels in time from Lord Buddha’s fire sermon and St. Augustine’s "Confessions" about his heady, youthful passions, and then down to the present day. Here the poet exposes human brings and their so called noble aspirations for a better life of the spirit as being constantly negated by their own weakness that permits them to indulge in selfish pleasures and purely sensual appetites.

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