Study Guide

The Waste Land Appearances

By T.S. Eliot

Appearances

Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations. (49-50)

Belladonna, which means "beautiful lady" in Italian, refers in this case to the Virgin Mary. In other words, Eliot associates the image of a beautiful woman with the spiritual beauty of Christ's Mother. This is no fleeting beauty, either, but one that has a long history of being celebrated, as Eliot suggests by bringing up Leonardo da Vinci's painting, The Madonna of the Rocks. Holding true to form, Eliot in this early image draws a direct connection between the Virgin Mary's classical beauty and her moral beauty.

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne, (77)

At the very beginning of "A Game of Chess," Eliot quotes Shakespeare's description of Cleopatra to evoke thoughts of a classically beautiful woman. For the next ten lines, the scene seems to confirm this beauty. But suddenly, at line 87, the tone of the poem shifts at the mention of "her strange synthetic perfumes." From that point on, the focus of the poem seems to be on the falseness of the woman's beauty, which is flimsily propped up by "Unguent, powde[r], or liquid" (88). Yuck. From this point on in the poem, Eliot seems to be done with his celebrations of classic beauty. Instead, his poem will turn its attention to physical (and moral ugliness), as he walks farther and farther into the waste land of the modern world. Is everyone happy yet?

You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one)
I can't help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It's them pills I took, to bring it off, she said. (156-159)

This selection of lines might be as depressing as it gets in "The Waste Land." In this scene, a woman is telling her friend Lil that she needs to improve her physical appearance (by getting some teeth for starters) before her husband leaves her. Lil, though, says her appearance isn't her fault, since her premature aging has been caused by a bunch of pills she took to give herself an abortion. Here, Eliot draws a connection between Lil's loss of physical beauty with her choice to have an abortion. It's as if the moral universe of the poem has punished her for refusing her reproductive role, and it is important to remember that the person choosing to show us this connection is Eliot. In this instance, then, you might say that Eliot is at his least sympathetic. You could also argue, though, that the poem does show some sympathy for Lil.

Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants (209-210)

Eliot's connection of physical and moral ugliness reaches almost racist proportions in his description of the "Unshaven" merchant from Turkey. The fact that Mr. Eugenides also speaks in "demotic French" (212) is really the icing on the cake, because even though the word demotic in this instance probably means "popular," there's no way the demon connotations of this word were lost on Eliot. This scene further confirms Eliot's tendency to link his physical descriptions with moral judgments. But hey, the dude preaches compassion; so it's all good, right?

I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest. (227-229)

Since he's a couple thousand years old and both man and woman at the same time, it makes sense that the blind prophet would have "wrinkled dugs." But it's strange that Eliot would give such an ugly characteristic to a character he actually seems to like more than any other one in the book. In this scene, then, you find that Eliot is capable of getting past people's looks and seeing them for what they are. In Tiresias' case, ugliness is not supposed to make us hate him, but make us pity him. After all, the poor guy's been forced to watch the total collapse of society for hundreds of years, and that's after he already knew it was going to happen. Bummer.

He, the young man carbuncular arrives,
A small house agent's clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire. (231-234)

Back to the basics, here. Among critics, the young man carbuncular is one of the most famous characters in this story, and not just because he's got a memorable name (though that's a big part of it). This pimple-faced goon is just about the lowest form of human life that Eliot can even force himself to write about. This young man's physical repulsiveness doesn't slow down his ego one bit, though. In fact, he's ridiculously self-assured, despite his appearance and his go-nowhere job. And if there's anything Eliot hates, it's arrogant people who've got absolutely nothing to back up their ego. If this young man were quiet and meek, Eliot might ask us to sympathize with him. But the guy's a bum, and Eliot makes an example of him when describing just how awful the modern world is.

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