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Setting is an important element in literature in developing and portraying themes. Ever wondered why black is the color for funerals and white for weddings? In life, the former is given to mourning and sadness, and the latter to joy and happiness. Similarly, the wilderness is imbued with images of evil and savagery, while light and human habitats reflect goodness and civility. That is how Europe and the white race came to represent enlightenment and civilization, while Africa, the black continent, is a connotation of backwardness, barbarism and evil; hence the expressions black Monday, black sheep and black magic- everything evil is black, but never white! After all, God is white while Satan is black, right?
In literary circles, the physical geographical context/ locality has become so important in defining theme and styles, and the development of characters. Thus, when one reads a literary work set in war torn Somalia or Southern Sudan, he or she is likely to confront themes like violence, hunger and human suffering. But in the advanced West, it will be more of change, modernity and progress. Such is the centrality of place/ setting in literary works, in portraying themes, definition of style and construction of characters. In William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily, the setting of the story, in a lonely decaying house helps to bring out the theme of death. Similarly, T. S. Elliot’s The Waste Land portrays death by through the use of descriptions and imagery. The writer uses the setting of a waste land, a land that is dry, rocky and barren of vegetation to emphasize the absence of life. This paper explores the use of setting to portray the theme of death in The Waste Land by T.S. Elliot and A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner.
In literature, setting is the total physical context within which a text is written. It could be the locality (geographical), the environment (physical) or sequence (chronological) in which events are realized. Collectively, they form a background for understanding the author’s major concerns (themes).
Reading through the poem The Waste Land, one is confronted with images of death and hopelessness. The first part of the poem, The Burial of the Dead, seems to be an ominous foreshadowing of the events to come. The coming of spring at the end of winter is supposed to bring new life, but the poem portrays a gloomy situation. Ideally, a waste land is a barren land, which cannot sustain plant life. Elliot uses this setting to portray images of death. In describing the waste land, he says:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
Only There is shadow under this red rock.
The images in these lines, such as the absence of water, stony rubbish, silence (no sound of water) and a dead tree than cannot even shelter a cricket implies that there is no life but death. This setting is similar to Emily’s lonely decaying house, an image that foreshadows her death.
The possibility of new life is overshadowed by the gloominess of the previous winter, symbolized by the speaker’s use of contrast. For instance, lilacs sprout out of the dead land; the roots are dull despite the spring rain, finding warmth in winter, and life in dried tubers. The coming of spring is supposed to symbolize the regeneration of new life, but the life that spring gives is overshadowed the coldness of winter, which suggests death (the expression as cold as a corpse suggests the absence of warmth at death).
In describing the Unreal City, Elliot says that it is engulfed “Under the brown fog of winter” (60-61). The presence of fog creates impressions of darkness as in Emily’s house, which is an omen of death. Indeed, the speaker marvels at the death of many people in the following lines, when he says “I had not thought death had undone so many” (63). Actually, the speaker here seems to be a ghost because he is speaking with the dead. He says:
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying “Stetson!
You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?.
In part IV, Death by the River, Elliot advances the theme of death by describing a scene at a sea side, filled with the cry of gulls and sounds of the sea. These images are symbolic to mourning, because Phlebas and Phoenician are dead (312-313). There are also bones, suggesting that the victims have been dead for a while, which actually is may be the case given the speaker’s assertion (line 312) that Phlebas and Phoenicians have been dead for a fortnight.
The events in A Rose for Emily take place in an urban setting (a small town called Jefferson), whose secluded life has been interrupted by the encroachment of garages and cotton gins. This foreshadows a disruption of people’s normal lives as a result of change. In traditional societies, gender roles were clearly defined, but not in the town where men become servants of female ladies; Miss Emily’s cook and gardener is an old Negro man. The town setting, therefore, suggests the death of tradition. When Emily died, the men attended her funeral out of respect, and the women driven by the curiosity to inspect the inside of her house. Under normal circumstances, women are expected to display emotion in the face of death and loss of life. Thus, this setting also indicates the death of people emotional feelings.
The writer describes Emily’s house as “stubborn and decaying”. While this at one level may suggests an element of stubbornness and defiance of the main character- she had defied local authorities by refusing to pay taxes- the decay could be symbolic of her life which is wasting away, or of the corpse she kept in her house. This setting becomes significant in the wider scheme of things, in portraying the larger society as undergoing some sort of destructive changes and the death societal norm.
When a deputation is sent to her place, they are ushered into a dark hall which leads into what the writer calls “more shadow.” Darkness is connected to bad omens or evil, while a shadow suggests the absence of life; and the presence of death. As we learn later, there is a corpse lying in the house. Emily’s life is in darkness- confusion and disillusionment; she doesn’t know that a new mayor has taken over, and lives in the illusion of marriage. The chronological sequencing of the setting from a decaying neighborhood, to a dark hall and shadowy stairs, implies the progress of degeneration from physical defects to death. The cracked leather of the furniture and dust indicates that they were not used; suggesting that life had really stopped for Emily- and true it is, since even the invincible watch on a chain points to this reality: she was unconscious to the passing of time. She was living in a private life inside her house, oblivious of the outside world. It is worthy noting that her house was secluded, suggesting how she was an outsider –dead to the outside community. It is said that nobody ever visited her, not even her visitors. She only became their concern when the smell of rotting flesh got into their lives. Even then, the expressed concerns were personal and they referred to legal provisions rather than some societal norms like one’s social responsibility. Otherwise, she did not feature in their daily routines: neither did they feature in hers, if she had any. At a higher level, her isolated house portrays the individualistic tendencies of urban life, the death of interpersonal relationships. .
When Emily decides to poison Homer Barron, the scene changes to a drug store where she went to buy arsenic. This marks the height of her mental deterioration, suggesting that her sanity was dead. Initially, she had been unable to choose a husband, and the drug store suggests the height of dementia, where her life is really in the shadows of death. On the whole, Faulkner uses setting to get into the mind of the character and show how they are undergoing slow death. Like the physical environment that surrounds Emily, she is in a process of decay that will lead to her death.
In conclusion, setting is significant in literature as it provides the context for developing and portraying themes. Secluded settings like Emily’s house in A Rose for Emily suggest lack of contact with other people, akin to the loneliness of a grave. Similarly, the rocky patches of land in The Waste Land indicate the absence of life, since there is a lack of water, the symbol of life.