TS Eliot : The Waste Land - A Game Of Chess (Summary)

This is part 2 of the four part series on the T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. You can read the entire poem here. The first part dealt with my version of the section "The Burial Of The Dead". This part will try to interpret (mine) the section "A Game Of Chess".

The first part dealt with the sterility of the land and love where love has lost the power to redeem and invigorate the times. This part builds on the same theme but is not as extensive as the first part. From what I could grasp, there are two broad stanzas with different context and narrator all reinforcing the theme of lust, breakdown and drudgery in marriage .

The first stanza opens with opulent setting where a wealthy lady sits on a high chair in a room stocked with all the paraphernalia of the rich society. The room is filled with big paintings on the walls, perfumes that pervades the room, ivory vials of exotic scents that fill the satin cases. The lady herself is covered with glitter from all the jewels she is wearing. The setting though luxuriant looks artificial and of decay and decadence. The spirits are all confused and troubled by the fresh air coming from the open window (metaphor on state of disarray inside due to the incoming fear of the unknown). The whiff of air flatten the candles that burn and smoke fills the grand room. The setting shows the lives of the high society who though are free from the grinding of the daily struggle still face the emotional and sexual collapse due to self absorption. The painting of Philomela, a character out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is hung on the wall. Philomela is raped by her brother-in-law Tereus, who then cuts her tongue out to keep her quiet. She manages to tell her sister, who helps her avenge herself by murdering the king’s son and feeding him to the king. The sisters are then changed into birds, Philomela into a nightingale. The story of Philomela brings the lust and cruelty into the foreground. The woman here in the poem is like Philomela (unable to speak) sitting alone on a high pedestal unable to reconcile to her luxurious environs chirping meaningless verses (like a nightingale). Lust (using Philomela story) is one setting here that showed love not only failed to invigorate but instead broke down into a vicious circle of cruelty and revenge. The wealthy woman is also neurotic (maybe by self destructing occupation with the self and materialism) and pleads her lover to stay with her and talk to her, while the lover is obsessed with nihilistic ideas and thoughts of drowning. Occasionally we see a hint of absolute terror in his speech. This lack of communication and emotional attachment negates any chances of love and alleviating the sterility of their lives. What ever little communication happens is a cacophony of mindless babble of the neurotic and frantic couple incapable of shared sentiment. In the last lines, the woman plans for what she is going to do the next day (an outing, a game of chess) which appears to be a meaningless rote. It signifies the diversion and distraction that typically masks the routine married life where love has been pushed to the boundary.

The second stanza is a conversation that happens between two women in a crowded bar that is about to close. The women are talking about a certain Lil whose husband is about to be demobilized from the army and would be returning home. Their talk shows that they all belong to the working class unlike the high society in the first stanza. The women talk about how they chided Lil to mend herself up (get a new set of false teeth) so that when Albert returns he finds her pleasing. The women gossip telling her that Albert would leave her for some other attractive woman if she does not improve her appearance. Lil replies that she is on certain pills that is making her sick (could be pills for abortion). She has already got five times pregnant, all at the age of 31 and was near dying due to the last pregnancy. She does not want more, but Albert won't leave her alone. All this conversation happens in the midst of the frequent calls by the bar owner about "it's time to close". The two women greet each other and leave. The stanza shows the rushed existence of the working class made evident by the many calls of the bar owner. The poor have no culture, but only gossip and trivialities and the drudgery of marriage.The poet juxtaposes the high society experiences with the lives of the working class and retorts that ultimately it is in the same state. In working class, the love and sexual lives have become demeaning and the vitality is missing due to the premature aging brought frequent abortions and promiscuity. In the richer classes, it has become materialistic and sometimes neurotic. So in both there is no life enhancing sense of joy, no live giving fertility. Neither high nor working class sexuality is generative. The Fisher King will have to wait more. Nowhere is the sense of redemption and potency. Everything is sterile. A Waste Land.

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