Study Guide

The Waste Land Sex

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The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced […] (99)

Eliot refers to the "Rape of Philomel" myth from Ovid's Metamorphoses to symbolize the way that popular culture has spoiled classical forms of beauty for everyone. After the rape takes place, Philomel kills Tereus' son and feeds the boy to Tereus. Therefore, pure physical lust actually leads to the destruction of future generations, even while sex is supposed to ensure the existence of these future generations. In this image, Eliot brings up the connection between sex and reproduction, and it seems that he's not quite sure if physical lust should have any place in sex, especially when rape seems to be the only example of it that he offers.

Well, if Albert won't leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don't want children? (163-164)

In this blunt statement, the woman in the pub tells her friend Lil that when it comes to sex and having children, she (Lil) doesn't really have any say in the matter. If her husband Albert wants to have sex, that's just the way it's going to be. In this passage, Eliot might actually express a bit of sympathy for Lil's situation. Although at the same time, he might also be suggesting that there's something wrong with her for not submitting more easily to her husband's sexual appetites. It's tough to tell with Eliot on this one, since he definitely doesn't let Lil off the hook for taking abortion pills. His prudish morality would never allow that.

Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference. (240-242)

In one of the most uncharming moves ever made, the young man carbuncular decides that he doesn't care if the typist wants to have sex with him. She doesn't say or do anything, so he just assumes he can go ahead and do what he wants. In fact, he hopes that the girl is indifferent. You probably couldn't pen a more dismal sex scene than this one, as Eliot shows us here that in the modern world, sex has become purely a matter of lust. There is no beauty in it, and there is nothing redeeming about it.

Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
"Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over." (251-252)

How's that for romance? Eliot obviously doesn't think much of the young typist, because only minutes after her lover has left, the woman can only sort of half-think that she never really wanted to have sex with him. For Eliot, this couldn't be a bigger betrayal of the beauty and love that sex is supposed to involve. In modern times, all you seem to have are these dirty young people having their dirty young sex in their dirty apartments. Scenes like this would increase the steaminess rating of this poem if they weren't so…depressing.

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone. (255-256)

This might just seem like a boring aftermath to the cold-shower tutorial Eliot just gave us on sex, but it's extremely significant because it makes a direct connection between the loss of sex's value and the spread of mindless modern culture. Yes, the gramophone (early record player) might seem like a fancy antique to us now, but in Eliot's time it could've been seen as the end of true culture. With the spread of gramophones, music became much more of a business than it once had been, and the sale of records was one of the first great blows that pop culture would strike against high culture (which was all about going to the actual live theater and watching an opera or something fancy).

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