Love and Sex in The Waste Land
Attitudes toward love and sex are one of the major themes of the poem. The introduction to "The Waste Land" in The Norton Anthology of English Literature states that "This is a poem about spiritual dryness," and much of this spiritual dryness relates to the nature of the modern sexual experience (although there are also other aspects of spiritual dryness the introduction also notes that major themes include a lack of a "regenerating belief" that gives "significance and value to people" and a type of death that "heralds no resurrection"). (Introduction 2146) Comparisons of different types between past and present are often used to highlight the nature of this modern sexual experience, which is pictured as empty, as lacking in both romance and passion, and as fruitless. Lil's rejection of her offspring (line 160) has already been mentioned; other examples abound throughout the poem. One example is furnished by the seduction of the typist by the "young man carbuncular," described by Tiresias in lines 230-256. This scene describes a seduction seemingly without any love or passion. The typist seems to have no desire for sex, but no desire to resist seduction, either -- the young man's "caresses are unreproved, if undesired." (lines 236-237) Her single emotion expressed in the passage is a vague relief when the episode ends. Eliot follows the scene of seduction with these lines:
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone. (lines 253-256)
These lines parody a song from Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, in which a woman who had been seduced earlier in the play mourns the loss of her virginity as something precious and meaningful -- so much so that its untimely loss is cause enough for her to desire death. For the typist, however, the only emotion experienced is summarized by her "half-formed thought," "`Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over.'" (lines 250-251)
The "young man carbuncular" also has a completely meaningless sexual experience: "His vanity requires no response,/ And makes a welcome of indifference." (lines 240-241) Neither the typist nor her lover seems to value either sexual activity or its lack to any great degree; it is simply something that happens to occur from time to time, and has little significance.
Eliot furnishes another example with the songs of the Thames-daughters in "The Fire Sermon." In each case, the sexual experience is described succinctly and in a matter-of-fact way. There are no details, except for place names. None of the daughters seems to resent the loss of her virginity, but simply describes it. The second of the Thames-daughters seems to have had a lover with some remnant of the past attitude toward the appropriate context of sex, as "After the event/ He wept....