The Contrast of Life and Death in the Wasteland

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T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland creates the ultimate paradox. In a poem of wastefulness, lifelessness, and decay, the appearance of life is highly visible. The title unifies the five parts of the poem and does nothing to disguise its purpose—to criticize an industrialized society. Eliot contrasts decay with the constant appearance of water. “But sound of water over a rock/Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees/Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop.” His use of sound and imagery work together to create a chaotic atmosphere. Water will save these people if they can only obtain it. It is everywhere, but it is always out of reach. The Wasteland would be less powerful had Eliot only focused on the negative aspects of a society. By intercepting signs of life, we see a greater contrast. He also uses dialogue as a means of transmitting his voice into the voices of the characters. Water is typically seen as a sign of life. In the Bible, for example, we see constant references to water as a form of cleansing or renewal. Life on Earth could not survive without it. Throughout the poem, a society’s need for cleansing becomes evident, and we question whether rain finally comes at the end. He uses dialogue as a means of transmitting his voice into the voices of the characters. What’s important is the fact that the characters he presents are waiting for it. If they were not aware of the presence of water, we might think that there is no hope for them. Instead, they thrive for it. They seek for the water that is not available. “But red sullen faces sneer and snarl/From doors of mudcracked houses/If there were water/And no rock/If there were rock/And also water/And water/A spring/A pool among the rock.” This passage creates the image of a sullen people. They stand on their doorsteps waiting for a storm. They are desperate for anything that might bring them out of this drought. They are deprived of a deeper meaning to life, of a society not grown out of industry. Instead, they live in a world amongst rats, brown fog, traffic, and waste. “Unreal City/Under the brown fog of a winter noon.” They are artificial and the wasteland that they live in will only be saved by water.

The only water that they have available to them is stagnant. “A rat crept softly through the vegetation/Dragging its slimy belly on the bank.” In this scene, Eliot creates the image of a riverbank. This bank appears in other places in the poem, but it is one infested with rats. Rats are scavengers, and they feast on what has already been eaten or what something else has already killed. Water is instead an image of death in this case.

“Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,/Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused.” This form of water, as perfume, will not quench the thirst of these people. They are attempting to use perfume to cover up the stench of decay. They are distracted by the presence of vanity. Perfume is not a cleanser and it will not pull them out of the wasteland.

With the interaction of life and death comes the need to cover up what represents death. Death is apparent, but the attempts to hide it appear in various ways throughout the poem. The people know that water will save them, but without water, they do their best to hide their problems. “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?/Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?” This represents another contrast of life and death in a way that portrays a dead body as a seed. In this context, a flaw is trying to be buried, but it is bound to resurface. Disguising or burying is not the final solution.

Eliot uses signs of life to contrast with death, and this theme appears within each section of the poem. There are times when life and death interact with one another, so that it is difficult to separate the two. The very first line in the first part, titled The Burial of the Dead, reads, “April is the cruellest month,...
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