The Theme of Destructive Lust in The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

Topics: The Waste Land

Throughout his poem, Eliot uses imagery to depict the world as a place devoid of any real life. Each section of his poem creates a different image of the world, each one just as barren as the last. Such images include Part 3’s description of a barren place of overgrowth and Part 5’s world of no water. In Part 1 Eliot alludes to Dante’s depiction of Limbo, another type of wasteland, to describe the world around him, specifically London. In London, as in Limbo, the people are alive but since they have no aspirations or feelings they are equally dead.

Eliot feels that a life without meaning is one of death, which all Londoners share now as “each man fixed his eyes before his feet / flowed up the hill and down King William Street” (64-65). This life of Londoners, one where they shuffle along with their eyes on the ground, is the reason they are comparable to those of Dante’s Limbo.

In Dante’s work, those in Limbo ended up there because they lived a life in which they did nothing; good or bad. Eliot also employs the use of allusions to various works of antiquity throughout his poem. By using allusions to classic stories, Eliot can create parallels to the modern scenes he has created. One of the themes that Eliot continuously portrays in his modern scenes through the use of these allusions is that love has become lust and in doing so is now destructive. Love has lost all significance just as everything has in this Limbo-like wasteland. Eliot uses allusions to classic couples to illustrate his idea that sex for love and reproduction has been replaced by lust and by doing so has lost all meaning in the contemporary period.

There are three varying levels of lust throughout Eliot’s poem, each one increasing in severity. The first level, with the smallest emotional response, is when lust is unsatisfying. This is represented in The Waste Land with the episode of the hyacinth girl. The second level elicits emotional pain. This level consists of the danger of confusing love with lust, illustrated in the scene of the woman and her lover at Moorgate. Lastly, the most extreme level, that of when lust causes one to lose control, is illustrated in Eliot’s poem through various allusions to rape, such as that by King Tereus. Las, toy the story of the typist and the clerk mixes all three levels, illustrated in a very modern scene. The first level, lust as unsatisfying is seen in the first part of The Waste Land when the narrator recalls his encounter with the hyacinth girl. “Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing” (38-40). This is expressing an experience where the narrator feels nothing for this woman that he has been dating, he has fallen victim to that same limbo-like state of all others of the modern period. Right before this quote, Eliot alludes to a scene in Tristian und Isolde where Isolde is on her way to marry someone she does not love. This shows the connection between the narrator and his relationship with the hyacinth girl. He is in a loveless relationship, thus unsatisfying, causing him to become that living dead Londoner just shuffling through life.

The second level deals with the emotional pain when lust is mistaken for love. This can be seen in that of the woman and her lover at Moorgate. The speaker in this section, the woman, seems to be bitter. Most likely because her lover “promised a new start” once she had a sexual experience with him, one that likely never came (298). She is heartbroken, “and my heart / Under my feet”, and is angry that her lover never fulfilled his promise to start a new life with her (296-297). The woman believed that the two were in love and that her sexual partner would follow through with his promise, but by failing to do so she was left heartbroken. This again shows the negative consequences of having sex for the wrong reasons. 

Another example of mistaking lust for love is shown in the relationship between Lil and Albert. The two are a modern married couple yet they are not in love. In this section, Eliot is commenting harm of desire based on physical characteristics instead of emotional ones, and that of sex for non-reproductive reasons. “He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you/ […] / He wants a good time, / And if you don’t give it to him, there are others that will” (146, 148-149). This quote shows the emotionadeathlessnessss of the two’s relationship. Albert has no problem cheating on his wife if she does not improve her appearance. This is one of the concerns Eliot has for the modern period. Lust and sex-based on physical appearance alone have overcome the emotional bond of a married couple. This couple did not get married for the right reasons, which should be out of love and to produce children. By failing to get married for the right reasons their relationship is doomed to fail. Lil’s physical appearance has been altered, and no longer appealing to Albert, because of their disinterest in children. She has had five abortions which have resulted in her physical decay. Again Eliot is making the point that sex for the wrong reasons leads to destruction.

Eliot contrasts these two modern couples with an allusion to Tristian and Isolde. While in these two modern scenes the male counterpart of each relationship has no problem leaving his partner, Tristian is shown to have waited for his love to return up until his death. Tristian’s unending dedication to Isolde was because their relationship was based on emotional connection, not physical lust as was the basis of the modern couples.

The third level deals with the destruction that can happen when you let lust control you. Here Eliot uses allusions to the rape of Philomel by King Tereus to illustrate his point. In this allusion, King Tereus rapes his wife’s sister, Philomel, out of pure lust. The violent act of rape is

the extreme level of lust. It occurs when someone leads to a complete loss of control. This uncontrollable lust has the most severe consequences. The consequences are not just emotional but physical and change the lives of both parties forever. Again, Eliot is commenting on the damaging effects lust has on those who allow it to take control of them.

The scene of the typist and the clerk is an embodiment of all three levels. The scene is significant to the entire work because it illustrates all of Eliot’s opinions on lust and sex in one episode. Eliot is expressing his opinion that meaningless physical sexual interaction with others has destroyed the possibility of emotional connection. The typist is a representation of the modern woman. She falls victim to all three levels of lust. In the first level, she is left unsatisfied after a sexual encounter with her partner. She says to herself “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over” (252). This is Eliot illustrating his point emotionless sex leaves those who engage in it unsatisfied and yearning for something more.

On the second level, she makes the mistake of thinking that her lustful sex with the clerk is love. “Hardly aware of her departed lover; / […] /paces about her room again, alone” (250, 254). She fails when she considers the clerk a lover when it is clear that the clerk returns no love for her when he “Bestows one final patronizing kiss, / And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit” (247-248). He holds no love for the typist, he has come only for the emotionless sex, explaining his quick leave once sex has been completed.

On the third level, the sexual encounter with the clerk is shown to be similar to rape. While the typist does not resist the clerk’s advances, it is apparent she does not want to participate. The lustful clerk “assaults” her and “His vanity requires no response, / And makes a welcome of indifference” (239, 241-242). This image is one of the typists being violated by the lustful clerk, an act she allows to happen to her because she mistakes the clerk for her lover. The typist is comparable to a rape victim because she fails to resist the unwanted lustful advances of another. “We who were living are now dying” (329). This quote sums up Eliot’s comments on the modern world. Members of the modern world have become both alive and dead. One reason for this paradox is the loss of significance in sex and love. By using allusions and modernizing the stories of classic couples, Eliot can express his opinions on the dangers of lust. Sex,

which was once meant for those in love and reproduction is being replaced with lustful sex in the contemporary period. Lust has become the norm, which is one of the reasons the world has become a wasteland. The parallels between Eliot’s modern scenes and those of antiquity help to relay the message of the harms of lust that exist throughout his poem. What all these varying levels of lust have in common is that they are destructive. Lust makes the possibility of emotional connection nonexistent. Eliot is expressing his idea that sex is not meant to be an activity to be shared by anyone at any time, but should be reserved for those who have already built an emotional connection and who wish to reproduce.

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The Theme of Destructive Lust in The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. (2022, Jun 15). Retrieved from

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