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Study Questions

The Waste Land Questions

Bring on the tough stuff - there’s not just one right answer.
  1. How does Eliot describe the physical "Waste Land" in this poem? What are some of its main features, and how are they connected to the symbolic wasteland that Western culture has become for Eliot?
  2. Why does Eliot choose to conclude this poem by discussing the Hindu values of giving, compassion, and self-control? According to the poem, what can we learn from these values? 
  3. What does Eliot mean in the final moments of the poem when he writes, "These fragments I have shored against my ruins" (431)? What are the fragments? What are the ruins? And what does shoring mean, anyway?
  4. Why does Eliot tell us in a footnote that the blind prophet Tiresias is the most important character in the poem? How is Tiresias best suited to narrate "The Waste Land"? Do you think the speaker of the poem is always Tiresias, who is both a man and a woman and lives many different lives?
  5. On the whole, how much hope does Eliot allow us to have in this poem? Is it all purely, "We're done, and it's a shame," or is there the possibility for something good to happen in the future?
  6. How much does "The Waste Land" still apply today? Do we still face any of the problems Eliot talks about in this poem, or would he be overjoyed to be alive today and to see how far we've come?
  7. Does the poem show any sympathy for the woman in the pub in lines 139-172, or for the young woman in lines 222-248? Are they still redeemable as characters, or is Eliot simply using them as examples of how far we've sunk as a society?
  8. Is it really possible for today's readers to get behind what Eliot is doing in this poem, or are we too invested in pop culture to care about his supposedly elitist ideas anymore? 
  9. Is there any upside to thinking the way Eliot does? Is his thinking undemocratic? Does he expect everyone to be as smart as he is? What are the upsides and downsides of living in a modern world where important decisions tend to be made by applause meters instead of experts?
  10. Is there something to Eliot's theory that life makes more sense when everyone knows the same stories? For example, have you ever compared your life to an episode of a TV show in order to have your experience make sense to someone else? Is this still a valuable way of relating to one another?
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