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Elizabeth McKinney

English Studies 2102

Scott Rogers
Dreaming a way through The Waste Land
Dreams are something everyone experiences in their own individual way. More often
than not, there is at least one aspect of a dream that does not make sense; maybe the people speak
in a language that is unknown to the dreamer or the dreamer is in a city they know, but there are
a few buildings that do not belong. Dreams can be very intricate, and Sigmund Freud developed
a way to psychoanalyze them in order to understand a persons psyche better. Through his work,
psychoanalytic literary criticism developed as a way to analyze the relationship between authors
or readers and literary works. One way to analyze these relationships is how the reader interprets
the authors meaning in the piece. This criticism is especially interesting when applied to T.S.
Eliots The Waste Land, which takes place in Britain after World War I. Interpreting the poem as
a dream can provide new insights into the authors possible intended meanings of the work.
Psychoanalytic literary criticism is based on Freuds theory of psychoanalysis, which is
used to cure people of their mental disorders such as depression and anxiety by taking their
unconscious thoughts and motivations and making them the persons conscious thoughts and
motivations (McLeod). One method used by psychoanalysts is interpretation or dream analysis.
Freud is quoted in Saul McLeods article, Dream Interpretation, to claim dreams are the royal
road to the unconscious. The interpretations help the patient understand and accept the instincts
of their id, which is the part of the unconscious mind that controls a persons instincts, or to
realize the sources of their disorder, perhaps in their childhood memories (McLeod). At a storys

This application for patients works for authors as well.

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very basest level, it is a dream of the authors. This means that any literary work can be
interpreted using dream analysis through psychoanalytic literary criticism if one analyzes the
work as the authors dream.
In order to psychoanalyze The Waste Land as a dream, one must first understand how
Freud believed a dream worked as wish fulfillment. Dreams had manifest contentwhat the
dreamer rememberedand latent contentthe wish of the dreamer, expressed in symbols
(McLeod). These symbols are what stand in for the memories or knowledge the unconscious
thinks is too distressing for the conscious mind (McLeod). Dreams were produced through
dream-work, which translated the wish into a gentle form that would reduce the dreamers
unease from having a suppressed thought surface. There were three aspects to dreams:
displacement, condensation, and secondary elaboration. Displacement refers to when the
significance of a dream object is placed on a real object that is different from the real object that
is the subject of the dream (McLeod). An example of this would be if someone didnt like a
person who happened to look like a rat, and they dreamed about shooting rats. The rats in the
dream take the place of the person who looks like a rat. Condensation is when two ideas or
images are combined into one object, such as the Christian God, who is a combination of all
previous gods in regards to his powers. Secondary elaboration occurs when the dreamers
unconscious takes the dream images and puts them together in a logical order, making the dream
events more plausible (McLeod).
Symbols are important elements of themes in literary works, just as they are important in
dreams. In the poem, water symbolizes life, death, and the unconscious mind. It is blatantly
present in almost every single stanza of the poem, because what it represents is a major theme in
the piece. For example, water or a word relating to water is used eight times in The Burial of

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the Dead and more than twenty times in The Fire Sermon (Eliot 1-76, 173-311). Water has
two meanings of bringing life to dead things and of killing things that were once living. The
theme of death is perhaps the clearest theme. According to the Purdue Owl article
Psychoanalytic Criticism, a question psychoanalytic literary critics always ask is whether the
characters behavior, narrative events, and/or images [can] be explained in terms of
psychoanalytic concepts including the concept of fascination with death. This fascination is
evident throughout the poem in the characters and in the waste land itself. The first person named
in the entire piece is Archduke Ferdinand, whose assassination began World War I (Eliot 13). The
next reference to death comes from Madame Sosostris, who mentions the drowned Phoenician
Sailor and Hanged Man tarot cards and warns Tiresias to fear death by water (47-55). The
narrator speaks of the war often, such as in lines 115-16, where he has a flashback to the trench
warfare: I think we are in rats alley/Where the dead men lost their bones. As much as the
poem mentions death, however, it also brings up rebirth frequently. The first two lines of the
whole work depict April, the month when flowers start to bloom after the winter. In lines 71-73,
the narrator asks a soldier if the corpse [he] planted. . .in [his] garden had begun to sprout.
Tiresias is looking for any sign of new life after the war that killed so many. Water can also refer
to the unconscious mind. This is explained in Freuds iceberg analogy: the conscious mind is the
tip of the iceberg, the part that can be seen above the surface of the water. The unconscious mind
is the rest of the iceberg that is hidden below the water (McLeod). Water acts as a curtain
between the conscious and unconscious, protecting the conscious mind from details that could
damage it.
Another major theme, one that seems to be the most popular, is the search for the Holy
Grail, which is intertwined with the theme of water. This theme is an example of secondary

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elaboration: Tiresias takes a specific path in a specific order, in order to find something. There
are many allusions and intertextual references that support this theme, such as the hyacinth girl,
who, in the original legend, is seen with the grail, but she cannot be caught. She is a symbol for
someone or something of inaccessible value, something Tiresias wants but cannot have. The
Fisher King is another allusion, him being the man who guarded the hiding place of the grail.
The generally barren land in the poem, however, is the key evidence for supporting this theme.
This is because the land stays dead and hopeless while the grail is missing, but once the knights
find it, life and abundance will be restored to the land. Throughout The Waste Land, the lifeless
land is obvious: there are many comments on the dead soldiers from World War I and the other
effects the war had on the land and the people. Line 175 says for the first time: the nymphs are
departed, and there are several references to Philomelas rape, so rudely forced on her, the
unwilling victim of disaster. The most frequently found evidence for this theme, however, is no
Without the Holy Grail, without life, water, or an unconscious mind, the land cannot last
very long. Time running out is another message the poem sends to the readers. A second obvious
example is the lines Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,/Sweet Thames, run softly, for
I speak not loud or long, which occur several times in the poem. The section Death by Water
has an urgent sound to it. The current under the sea that picked up his bones in whispers
gives the reader a feeling of warning or foreboding (315-16). The most obvious example of this
is in A Game of Chess, when the phrase HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME repeats five times
within thirty lines (Eliot 141-169). Freud often used the sound of an alarm clock as a trigger for
his patients. He would mimic the sound of a specific object from the patients dream and
continue the noise until the patient realized it was an alarm and woke up (Reaume). The

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interrupting line HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME is like Freuds alarm in The Waste Land.
This could be explained a number of ways. It could be dream-work, trying to wake the dreamer
before the images and events in the dream become too harmful for the dreamer. It could also be
the unconscious mind trying to warn the dreamer that his or her time is literally running out, that
he or she is going to die soon.
There are a number of ways these themes can be understood as Eliots own experiences,
thoughts, or motivations. When using psychoanalytic criticism, one must think about how the
author is integrated into the dream. For The Waste Land, a logical conclusion is that Eliot is
Tiresias in his dream. This means that Eliot is searching for something in his reality. According
to Tiresias person, he could be searching for a specific gender or the missing information for or
the result of a prophecy. Neither of these seems likely to be what Eliot is searching for, so those
two examples are displacement in the dream. One possibility is that Eliot could be searching for
a partner, since his first marriage was very unhappy. The hyacinth girl and the Fisher King are
both people who help him along the way; the hyacinth girl would be the woman Eliot would be
happy with and the Fisher King could be the person who introduces the two of them.
In another perspective, the search is being guided by Tiresias, instead of him searching.
In this case, he is both the hyacinth girl and the Fisher King/Wise Old Man for the searchers.
This is an example of condensation. Tiresias is a shape shifter. In The Waste Land he is the only
narrator and thus takes the form of many different speakers, male and female, young and old. All
of these characters are condensed into one person. Eliot gave lectures at both Cambridge and
Harvard (Bush). His educational guidance could have been what his unconscious mind related to
Tiresias, thus portraying Eliot as Tiresias in his dream. His multiple roles of husband, poet,

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scholar, educator, and literary critic are examples of a sort of real-life condensation that translates
into the many roles Tiresias played as the sole narrator of The Waste Land.
The theme of water bringing life and death could have a very basic meaning in Eliots
waking life: all humans need water to survive. To go without water means death and to drink
water means to have life. It also, however, goes back to Eliots unconscious. He wrote The Waste
Land while his marriage was deteriorating steadily; his unconscious turned the idea of his
marriage into the idea of a waste land, to protect him from being overwhelmed by emotions as
well as warning him that something was wrong. Along the same lines, Eliots unconscious mind
could have been using the message of time running out, the alarm clocks, as another warning for
Eliot and his marriage. It was not long after he wrote The Waste Land that he separated from his
wife. The time ran out for their marriage, but the water returned to Eliots life when they
Psychoanalytic literary criticism requires a reading of a literary work in which the critic
dives into the piece, looking for the manifest content, a second, or third or fourth, meaning
behind the narrators words and in the authors. By doing this to The Waste Land, the reader
finds many symbols and themes that have interpretations beyond Britain, World War I, and the
missing Holy Grail. The reader finds information about Tiresias as a person rather than just a
narrator and learns about Eliots unconscious thoughts and motivations, which is helpful when
one tries to understand the authors reasoning for writing and for the style in which it was

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Works Cited
Bush, Ronald. "T.S. Eliot's Life and Career." T.S. Eliot's Life and Career. Modern American Poetry, n.d.
Web. 21 Oct. 2012. <>.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land. Penn State Electronic Classics Series Publication. PDF.
McLeod, Saul. "Freud - Dream Interpretation." Freud - Dream Interpretation. N.p., 2009. Web. 10 Oct.
2012. <>.
McLeod, Saul. "Psychoanalysis." Simply Psychology. N.p., 2007. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.
McLeod, Saul. "Unconscious Mind." Unconscious Mind. N.p., 2009. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.
Reaume, Sherri, Nicole Christy, and Alex O'Neal. "Freudian Dream Interpretation." Freudian Dream
Interpretation. N.p., 18 May 2003. Web. 10 Oct. 2012. <>.
Tompkins, J. Case, and Allen Brizee. "Psychoanalytic Criticism (1930s-present)." Purdue OWL. Purdue
University, 14 Sept. 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2012. <>.