Study Guide

The Waste Land Appearances

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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."

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