The fragmented imagery and voices in “The Waste Land” are all vehicles for conveying the main theme of dehumanization. Dehumanization takes on two forms: 1. The death of human relationships and 2. Spiritual death.
The refrain of “The Waste Land,” as it could be called, gives an image of dehumanization that those in London are familiar with:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. (60-65)
The image portrayed in the excerpt above is one that depicts extraordinary isolation. It is the isolation of the working class, confined to the monotony– the hustle and bustle of every day existence. The vast population of a booming city is in a never-ending circle of ins and outs that takes a toll on the human spirit. Ackroyd refers to the dehumanization of London saying:
Ordinary human existence seems uninteresting or unimportant in this place where everything is colossal… Against the magnitude of stone, the city dwellers are like wraiths, replacing others and in turn to be replaced. (589)
He continues to say about Victorian London:
There is an appearance of energy and vitality in the mass, but the characteristic individual mood is one of anxiety or despondency… It has been estimated that, in the 1850s, 200,000 people walked into the City each day. (590-1)
Clearly, the image Eliot describes is not a new one. The masses have always been seen as downtrodden individuals, slaving away toward the sunset – waking up and starting all over without any change in scenery or routine. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
If you walk on London Bridge today, you may find yourself fairly disappointed. Because of the nursery rhyme, you may expect a large, elaborate piece of engineering, commemorating what has become a legend. What you will get is a wide, four-lane fairway connecting the City to Southwark. It is a large piece of concrete emptiness, which is a good representation for the dehumanization being discussed. It is very clearly a road meant for human transport and nothing else. Tower Bridge, watching menacingly from downriver, has smaller roads that are more conducive for pedestrian travel. London Bridge, however is meant for transporting a large amount of people efficiently. It is a representation of the desperate need of fuel for the machine of modernism that was, and is, London.
The dehumanization of the modern world is because of the monotony of the work place which, naturally carries over into personal life. The sexuality of “The Waste Land” is an important aspect of its spirit.
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins. (222-3)
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire,
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference. (231-42)
The scene is one of a typist preparing a meal for her husband who is on his way home from work. The sexual encounter here is representative of the relationship that man has with woman in a world where all are dead and dying. The only attempt he can make to connect with her is the one that comes most natural to him– the most primal urge. This may arouse some contempt in the female population, but what causes the real dismay is her response:
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
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. (249-56)
The urge to move on and forget it ever happened is just as immediate as the man’s urge to have sex with her. Eliot shows that this feeling of despondency that wrapped itself around the modern world pervades into the most intimate corners of life. Both men and women are wrapped up in the same monotony without thinking. Burton Blistein writes:
Men and woman are in [Eliot’s] view hardly more than automata or ‘crawling bugs’ that spawn and die… Just as a record always repeats the same tune, so we encounter repeatedly ‘Birth, and copulation, and death.’ Sustained by craving… (Design of ‘The Waste Land’ 241-2)
As Blistein says, there is no love involved in the exchange. It is also primal cravings and urges that even the most basic forms of life understand. We follow, in this view, a very strict form of life that never changes, especially in a world that is constantly pulling individuals apart.
It is also interesting to note the structure of this section as well. The rhyme scheme was awkward and disjointed in the first excerpt, but now– after the deed has been done– the rhyme scheme is a structured a, b, a, b, c, d, c, d. The form of the poem itself is just as rigid and precise as the woman’s hand placing the needle on the gramophone.