Sexuality in The Waste Land

All of the instances sex and sexual relationships in The Waste Land are dysfunctional, dispassionate, unnatural, and often times violent. From the horrific story of Philomela, to the two women in the pub, to the typist and young man, carbuncular, it is clear that The Waste Land trying to express that something is wrong or broken concerning the sexual act an physical passion. I believe that this was, at least partially, inspired by the sexual issues in the Eliots’ marriage. Both Eliot and Vivien had health problems that put strain on their sexual relationship. Vivian had “menstrual problems” and Eliot had “thin blood.” (66) However this issues were compounded by psychological problems. Ackroyd states that the Eliots both were “Ill at ease or unenergetic in sexual relations.” (66)

I would hesitate to make too direct of comparison between the Eliots and the sexual characters of The Waste Land. I believe the more important and appropriate parallel is upon the idea of unnaturalness that resonates in each story. Both the physical and mental issues that the Eliots faced involving sex would likely have caused anxiety about being abnormal or unnatural. The section between the typist and the young man express this anxiety the most directly. The interaction is passionless and meaningless as if the two were mechanized and unnatural. This is what Eliot feared his marriage would become.

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One thought on “Sexuality in The Waste Land

  1. I definitely picked up on the broken sexuality between Eliot and Vivene as well. However, I would be as bold to claim that, while Eliot might not have intentionally included biographical elements in The Waste Land, it seems that, in terms of the sex act, he was simply writing about what he was familiar with. Our reading states that Eliot tends to use sex throughout his work in a similar way to what we see in The Waste Land, as, “in Eliot’s own poetry the sexual act is described in impersonal and characteristically violent terms; it is implicated in an awareness of sterility and leaves only guilt or resentment in its wake” (66). I agree with you that this is best expressed in the section between the typist in the young man, but I would argue that, if Ackroyd is correct in claiming that Eliot used sex in the same way throughout his poetry (Ackroyd mentions ‘Hysteria’ and an ‘Ode’ that was printed only once).
    It’s the description of the sex act as “impersonal” and “violent” that really gets to me. If we are indeed to read Eliot’s descriptions biographically, then, is it likely that a man with low physical vitality and extreme anxiety would force himself upon his wife? It almost seems more likely that the passionate Vivien would have forced herself on Eliot. But did the couple love each other? Based on how Eliot cared for his sick wife, and how Vivien supported her husband’s career, I would tend to think that there must have (at least at first) been some degree of attachment between the two. It is odd that Eliot could care for Vivien so well while she was ill, and Ackroyd argues that, in her sickness, Vivien “reverted to the helpless condition of a child” so that in nursing her, Eliot “could escape the inflictions of the sexuality which so unnerved him” (68). This caregiving relationship fits more with the couple suffering from PTSD in The Waste Land; there is no sexual tension between the two of them, they are both just driven further to madness by trying to care for one another. Is it possible that this is what happened between Eliot and Vivien?

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