Gender and Sexuality in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land

Essay 2007 9 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature






Works cited.


The rise of feminist theory during the last decades provoked a reconsideration of the general focus of interpreting literary texts, and literary criticism has been largely engaged in a rereading of canonical author’s works in terms of gender and sexuality while many definitions underwent a necessary revision. Modernist works, especially poetry, are a rewarding source for an interpretation in these terms since due to their fragmentary, ambivalent nature and lack of thematic clarity they offer much room for different interpretations. With its predominating sexuality, Freudian psychoanalysis and questions of sex and gender sneaked into the modernist world. In this essay I will attempt a reading of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in order to see in how far such issues are implied.[1] My understanding of ‘gender’ follows that of Judith Butler, who pointed out that gender is not only socially constructed in discourse rather than biologically predetermined, but also performative.[2] This is quite evident in Eliot’s poem. Moreover, in modernist texts sexuality seems to lose romance and meaning. In Eliot’s case such a loss seems connected with personal experience. His marriage with Vivien Haigh-Wood was problematic from the beginning on and worsened increasingly, and while working on The Waste Land he had a nervous breakdown.

The poem is divided into five parts and features various narrative voices which cannot always be identified unmistakably, especially in terms of the speaker’s gender. In order to examine the depiction of gender and sexuality in the poem, I will proceed mostly chronologically and focus on the depiction of the love relationships. Due to the limited scope of this paper I cannot, by far, include all relevant themes, let alone the numerous other related fragments and themes. The focus is therefore on the hyacinth girl, the Fisher King and Phlebas / Eugenides, the couple and Lil and Philomel, as well as Tiresias and the typist. Images of fertility and homoerotic desire will be considered alongside the character depictions.


The first person encountered in ‘The Burial of the Dead’ is Marie. Her name hints at her status as a prelapsarian female archetype and represents an antithesis to the also archetypal female prostitute encountered later in the poem. Though the vivid sledging image connotes sexuality, Marie rather reads ‘much of the night’ (l. 18) instead of being sexually active. Strikingly, there is no pronoun rendering the speaker male or female. Though this phenomenon is ubiquitous throughout the poem, one usually assumes the speaker is male while the unambiguously gendered characters are female (except Tiresias). The reader has to presume the speaker is male because he acts in ways that are perceived male. This is a powerful example of Butler’s performativity of gender: only in the discourse between reader and text gender is ascribed to the speaker.[3]

After a passage full of fragmented images of desolation (l. 19-34) the hyacinth girl appears. Significantly, the passage is framed by quotations from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, which deals with adultery and loss. The image of the hyacinth, phallic in shape, is a fertility symbol. It stems from the Greek myth of Hyacinthus: after Apollo, who was in love with the boy Hyacinthus, accidentally killed him the flower grows from his blood. The hyacinth and fertility are also echoed in lines 71-2: ‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout?’. It has been suggested that due to the fact that the flower originally stems from a male body, the hyacinth girl is in fact male, or at least androgynous, thus proposing a homoerotic reading of the passage. In my understanding, though, the text does not support such a reading at this point. The girl recalls an assumed sexual encounter in a garden: ‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago’. The speaker, again lacking a male pronoun, recalls the garden incident which left him speechless and blind. The passage is highly sensual and sexually suggestive[4]: Her arms full of flowers of fertility and her hair wet with life-giving rain, the sexually willing girl leaves the speaker emotionally and sexually paralysed. The implied sexual failure hardly allows for doubts about the speaker’s gender; impotence is initially associated with the male sphere. The sense of failure to connect is further underlined by the closing Wagner quotation ‘ Oed’ und leer das Meer ’. The attribution of gender roles is facilitated by the implied conventional roles. The male speaker initiates the act by giving flowers, whereas the female is rendered subordinate by the reference ‘girl’ (see Pondrom 429-30).

In the following stanza the drowned Phoenician sailor Phlebas, one phase of a character he forms together with Mr. Eugenides, as the annotations tell (Greenblatt 2297) and the Fisher King appear. The myth about the Fisher King, a castrated patriarch, is again about fertility; according to the myth his impotency results in his land becoming a wasteland. His healing is meant to bring about rebirth and rejuvenation of the world. This is not the case in Eliot’s poem, though, here the impotency continues and is synonymous with the status Eliot ascribed to modern society. Fertility and resulting unification are denied, which is also emphasised by the absence of the tarot card of the Hanged Man who symbolises a self-sacrificing fertility god killed for the sake of rebirth and fertility for land and people (2397).

The character of Phlebas / Eugenides is associated with Shakespeare’s Ferdinand in The Tempest, whose father, King Alonso, drowned. The much debated line 48, ‘(Those are the pearls that were his eyes. Look!)’, is also taken from The Tempest where it is part of Ariel’s song. In The Waste Land it is associated with Phlebas and can be read in homoerotic terms.[5] The speaker’s implied (sexual) idealisation of Phlebas possibly echoes Eliot’s dead friend Verdenal[6]. Notorious for being reactionary, especially in postmodern eyes, critics found many elements of Eliot’s poetry conspicuously misogynist and homophobic. In The Waste Land one rather finds notions of homoerotic desire, most distinctly in the image of ‘the pearls that were his eyes’. Facilitated by the associative form and accompanying fragmentary nature of the poem, this apparent dilemma is not exclusive but simultaneous because ‘the intertwining of homophilia and homophobia in the same gesture attests to the productivity of the homosexual prohibition, which feeds upon the desire that it constraints’, as Colleen Lamos argues (in Laity/Gish 24). The homoerotic undertone led already during Eliot’s lifetime to homosexual presumptions and received public attention because of the fact that Eliot was panicking and legally suppressed Peter’s article. Later, critics went as far as suggesting Eliot led some kind of double life[7], or that the homosocial collaboration with Ezra Pound lead to the birth of The Waste Land instead of a baby[8]. In ‘Death by Water’, the speaker mourns Phlebas. The tone is melancholic, morbid, elegiac and strikingly tender. When concerned with female victims, the mood of the poem is rather aggressive and guilty; now that the victim is male it is soft, which again suggests a homoerotic interpretation. What is more, the pervasive, obscure sense of loss also reverberates with lamentation for western civilisation in general.


[1] Even though suitable for the purpose of this paper, considering the scope I have to disregard deleted scenes of earlier drafts in my analysis. I refer to the version printed in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed.

[2] See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge, 1999.

[3] On gender and its performativity in The Waste Land see Pondrom.

[4] What is more, the failure can not only be interpreted in a sexual, but also spiritual way. ‘Neither / Living nor dead’ (l. 39-40) the speaker is caught in a paradoxically beautiful, transcendent moment brought about by a glimpse of the ‘heart of light’ (l. 41).

[5] Miller attempts such a reading in T. S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land: Exorcism of the Demons.

[6] See John Peter, ‘A New Interpretation of The Waste Land,’ Essays in Criticism 19, no. 2 (1969), 140-75. He reads the poem as an elegy to Jean Verdenal, who died in 1915 and was a very close friend for Eliot. Peter argues that same-sex mourning implies homosexuality (though the term is not mentioned). See also Colleen Lamos in Laity/Gish 23-42.

[7] See Carole Seymour-Jones in her biography Painted Shadow: The Life of Vivienne Eliot, First Wife of T. S. Eliot, and the Long-Suppressed Truth about Her Influence on Eliot, New York: Doubleday, 2002. On the whole, the discourse serves as a nice illustration of Foucault’s ‘repressive hypothesis’ which sees sexuality as an effect of power dynamics.

[8] See Wayne Koestenbaum.


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Gender Sexuality Eliot Waste Land Modernism




Title: Gender and Sexuality in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land