Study Guide

The Waste Land Themes

  • Religion

    For Eliot, one of the single greatest causes of Western civilization becoming "The Waste Land" is the fact that religion doesn't really have the influence it once did. In the old days, people didn't have to worry so much about questions like "Why am I here?" or "What's the meaning of life," because religion already had answers for these questions. In the modern world though, Eliot has seen a decline in the power of religion, and one of the side effects of this decline is that more and more people are feeling like they're in a funk or suffering from a full-blown spiritual crisis.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Do you think "The Waste Land" supports one major religion more than any other, or is it basically supporting religion in general (i.e., "take your pick, as long as you're a believer")?
    2. Do you agree that religion provides a sort of mental and emotional structure that makes it easier to live daily life? Why or why not?
    3. Do you buy the idea that religion helps us communicate because it gives us a common point of reference when we're making sense of experience? It this true of other stories, too, like when you and a friend both refer to the same TV show or movie to explain a situation? Is communication enhanced this way?
    4. Should people be able to pick and choose little bits from different religions and throw them together, or would Eliot have been convincing if he'd just picked one religion and stuck with it?

    Chew on This

    "The Waste Land" suggests that most of the world's problems would go away if we all found religion.

    Deep down, Eliot doesn't really believe in any God or higher power; he just likes the comfort that he gets from religious stories.

  • Memory and the Past

    There's just no getting away from the past in "The Waste Land," but Eliot's biggest criticism of modern society is that it has gotten too far away from the past. Throughout this poem, you encounter a lot of personal memories; but for Eliot, these aren't nearly as important as the "cultural memory" he's trying to preserve in this poem.

    Many critics have criticized Eliot for being "nostalgic," meaning that he tends to fantasize about a glorious past that probably never existed. Sure, if all you read are the great classics of literature, then it's going to seem that everyone living in Rome was killing tigers with his bare hands and drinking wine with the gods. For Eliot, though, there's just no question that modern society has developed a depressing sort of cultural amnesia, and the decline of this society is directly connected to the fact that people don't have a good enough understanding of their cultural history. So you make the call: is he right on or way off?

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Do you think it's possible to have a personal, emotional connection with a past you never lived through, or is this always just a fantasy? In other words, is it possible for us modern folks to do what Eliot wants us to do, or are we doomed from the get-go? 
    2. Does Eliot's poem offer any worthwhile advice for us to take forward into the future, or is the poem just too stuck in the past to have any value for us?
    3. Why do you think Eliot was so obsessed by the idea of society's decline? Do you think things were as bad in the 1920's as he says they were? Are they better now? Worse?
    4. In what ways do you find comfort when you look to your own past? Why do people so often think that the past was somehow better than the present?

    Chew on This

    In "The Waste Land," Eliot suggests that Western culture has no hope for the future, and that all it can do is sit around and mope.

    In "The Waste Land," Eliot is calling for a full-blown revival of the past, and he truly believes we can return to a more glorious time in our history.

  • Isolation

    Question: "Hey Eliot, what's so wrong with the modern world?"

    Eliot's answer: "Everyone is way too selfish."

    Question: "So what?"

    Eliot's answer: "Well, haven't you ever wondered why you're so lonely? That's why."

    In "The Waste Land," the great despair of modern existence doesn't just come from a sense of meaninglessness, but from a very deep loneliness. This loneliness, in turn, is something Eliot thinks we create for ourselves by constantly pursuing our own selfish interests. It's pretty simple: you can't spend your whole life trying to beat the people around you, then turn around and complain about being lonely. Modern existence, with its emphasis on individualism, is a breeding ground for isolation and loneliness, and the major problem with modern people is that they don't seem to realize that they're responsible for the isolation that's always eating at their souls.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Do you think Eliot makes a convincing case for giving up your selfish ways and devoting your life to thinking about others? Why or why not?
    2. Why does Eliot think that selfishness is the root of so much evil in the world? Isn't it possible to live a spiritual life and still look out for yourself?
    3. Does reading this poem make you feel isolated in your life? How might it apply or not apply to your family life, your social life?
    4. Does everyone in the modern world feel as isolated as Eliot suggests, or does Eliot just feel isolated because he thinks no one's as smart as he is? Is it possible to feel isolated and not fully be aware of it?

    Chew on This

    In "The Waste Land," Eliot suggests that spending a few hours in the soup kitchen every week will make all of our bad feelings go away.

    According to the final sections of "The Waste Land," it's impossible to reach spiritual enlightenment and still think of yourself as an individual.

  • Appearances

    Simply put, there are some pretty unattractive characters walking around "The Waste Land." The worst of all might be the two-thousand-year-old Tiresias, with his "wrinkled dugs" (228); but the pimply-faced "young man carbuncular" (231) might give the prophet a run for his money in the Ugliest Eliot Character pageant. Eliot might talk a lot about sympathy and compassion, but he's more than willing to draw a direct relationship between moral and physical ugliness when it comes to stuff he doesn't like. Eliot focuses on people's appearances constantly throughout this poem, and always does so to convey his larger ideas about spiritual beauty and ugliness.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. By making some of his characters physically ugly, is Eliot actually showing a lack of compassion? Is he failing to meet the very standards he sets forward in "What the Thunder Said"?
    2. By using physical prettiness and ugliness to comment on people's moral character, is Eliot actually being superficial? Is he encouraging his readers to be superficial?
    3. How do Eliot's descriptions of Tiresias, the young man carbuncular, and the woman from the pub (139-172) contribute to our understanding of this poem? How might they get in the way of our understanding?
    4. Do you think you would've been more receptive to Eliot's ideas if he himself showed more sympathy to his less attractive characters? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    By using people's physical ugliness to show their moral ugliness, Eliot undercuts his own message of compassion and sympathy

    In economic terms, ugliness for Eliot is always just a shorthand way of saying "working class."

  • Sex

    In "The Waste Land," the status of sex is pretty much a measuring stick for how morally demolished society is. On several occasions, when it comes time for Eliot to show how truly low we've all fallen, he points toward sex—and not just sex, but the separation of sex from love. There's no getting around it; pop culture is totally obsessed with sex, and it tries to throw sex in our faces as much as it can. For Eliot, sex once had the potential to be a beautiful thing. But in modern times, this beauty (as with all forms of beauty) has been completely stripped of its significance, mostly because the act of sex no longer has anything to do with love. Call Eliot a little old-fashioned, but the guy's observations on sex pretty much still hold true for much of pop culture today.

    Questions About Sex

    1. How does Eliot represent the difference between sex, fertility, and birth in "The Waste Land"? 
    2. Why does he represent these things differently? How are they connected?
    3. Is there any hope for redeeming the act of sex in this poem, or is Eliot suggesting that sex should only be had for reproductive purposes?
    4. How does the scene between the typist and the young man carbuncular (220-248) make you feel about sex? Is it an accurate portrayal of what sex has come to mean in the modern world? How so? How not so?

    Chew on This

    In "The Waste Land," Eliot suggests that the world needs a sexual revolution, just not the kind we might usually think of.

    Judging by "The Waste Land," it appears that Eliot is actually terrified of sex. His prudish anger toward the subject is just misplaced fear.