Sick Love in The Waste Land

Sick Love in The Waste Land
Few stories from Greek mythology are as vicious as that of Philomela and Tereus. It is a myth of lust and coveting, violence and transformation: an ideal representation for Eliot’s theme of perverse romance (if you’re not familiar with the myth, the embedded video below will fill you in). Procne and Tereus represent Eliot’s mythic prototype of the abusive relationships so prominently and painfully created in The Waste Land. After Procne discovers that her husband Tereus has enslaved her sister, Philomela, she murders her own son, Itys, and feeds him to Tereus. While Tereus’s crime is unforgivable, Philomela’s is equally heinous. When Procne and Philomela, who are transformed into birds upon escaping from Tereus, are not morphed to help them escape Tereus’s wrath, but in punishment for the murder of Itys: “And even now their breasts have not lost the marks of their murderous deed,

their feathers are stained with blood.” (qtd. in North 50). Just as both the male and female are culpable in the eyes of the gods in Ovid, so they are both guilty of perpetuating sexual malaise in The Waste Land. The arid, dead imagery of the poem not only symbolize the culture and society of Eliot’s day, but also its sexual and romantic barrenness.

The decaying relationships pictured in The Waste Land mirror Tereus’s perversion, specifically with the dismantling of a healthy relationship. Consider the berating done by the female speaker in “A Game of Chess” to her husband:

“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“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”

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones. (ll. 111-116)

This passage, presented as a one-sided conversation, is a verbal assault by the woman, Lil, on her silent husband, Albert. Her incessant chatter emasculates the man, as she questions why he never speaks and wonders if he is even alive. The husband’s responses come in the form of his fatalistic thoughts, showing how emotionally and mentally removed he is from Lil and their conversation. “Rats’ alley,” where the man believes he is, is a reference to the trenches of World War I, an image strengthen by the fact that the rat is an image used elsewhere in the poem, such as line 87, as a symbol of life-in-death. Indeed, Albert is living a sort of life-in-death as a mute; his voice is trapped within his mind.

Works Cited

North, Michael, ed. The Waste Land: T. S. Eliot. New York : W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. Print.

Created by Greg LaLuna

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