Lines 43-59 of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land present Madame Sosostris as the Tarot card-reading psychic who bears bad news. While this stanza has been interpreted in a myriad of ways, two important features are commonly regarded as Eliot’s intent. (1) The clairvoyant is considered “the wisest woman in Europe” because the world is a tattered wasteland where everyone is in search of answers – a fortuneteller provides false security with her seemingly absolute understanding of destiny, and everyone is desperate enough to believe her. (2) Because Eliot regards fortunetelling as little more than empty consolation for the desperate, he writes with levity to poke fun at the concept. These two points comprise the general gist of the stanza, but the allusive way in which he elucidates this is what makes The Waste Land a remarkable poem.
Like the rest of the poem, this stanza is a hailstorm of allusions that reference previous literary works, and these literary sources were often playing with the words from their sources. For example, Eliot derives very name “Sosostris” from “Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ectabana,” a woman who plays a fortunetelling gypsy at a fair in Aldous Huxley’s novel Chrome Yellow. While the Norton Anthology simply states, “Sesostris was a 12th-dynasty Egyptian king,” other sources say the name Sesostris is a corruption of the name of that dynasty, “Senwosret” (Silverman 29). Sesostris was also the name used by Herodotus in tales about a 19th -dynasty Pharaoh, and Herodotus is notorious for avoiding accuracy in favor of flamboyance. My point is, for the sake of succinctness, I will analyze this stanza shallowly in order to support the two aforementioned intents of Eliot’s portrayal and avoid further digressions.1
The speaker of the stanza is a soldier’s wife who, out of the desperation of her circumstances, has come to the fortuneteller to discover what may have happened to her husband in the war. Madame Sosostris logically...
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