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Alexander Gonzalez on T. S. Eliot

Themes, Analyzed
Home | Biography | Analysis of Eliot's Style | Themes of Eliot's Work | Themes, Analyzed | Eliot's Imagery | T. S. Eliot and the Modernist Movement | Eliot's Influence on Other Writers | T. S. Eliot's Influence on World Literature | Sample Work: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock | Literary Criticism for "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" | Quotes | Sample Work: Burnt Norton | Sample Work: East Coker | Sample Work: The Dry Salvages | Sample Work: Little Gidding | Favorite Links | Images | Works Cited

T. S. Eliot uses a number of themes with far greater frequency than he does most others.  Many of these are discussed below.

Particularly in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Eliot addresses the plight of individuals who feel out of place in situations where they wish otherwise.  Prufrock, for example, wishes to have an effective conversation with women, among other things, but utterly fails to do so and therefore feels alienated.  Tying in with Eliot's general fixation on themes of hopelessness and failure, the theme of alienation appears as a major or sub-theme in almost all of Eliot's poetry, often as a side effect of another, related theme, such as the "urban wasteland."  Considering that Eliot is a member of the "Lost Generation" that came to adulthood during the aftermath of the World Wars, this fixation is unsurprising and typical of his time.


Similar in many respects to the theme of alienation, the theme of loneliness also appears in Eliot's work with some frequency, and with many of the same results.  Prufrock, the protagonist of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," seeks company and fails to adequately sate that desire, remaining lonely even as he resolves to find other ways to fulfill himself.  Again, this predominance of themes of loneliness is unsurprising given Eliot's heritage as a "Lost  Generation" poet.

The "Urban Wasteland"

The term "urban wasteland" as a header is misleading.  Though many of Eliot's wastelands were indeed urban, a large portion of the poem titles "The Waste Land" takes place in a much more natural and potentially serene place.  The idea behind a waste land is that it can produce nothing of value--plants die trying to extract nourishment from the barren soil, and the spirits of other creatures are crushed and chilled by the sheer desolation of the place.  Such a wasteland serves as a vessel to convey other themes, particularly alienation, as well as a poignant reminder that such isolation is not confined to any particular setting.  Again, such desolation bears a remarkable resemblance to the rubble left in the wake of the World Wars.


Though Eliot is a modernist, not a nihilist, his work nonetheless exhibits many qualities of nihilism.  His analyses of time and the nature of time reflect a belief in the inexorable flow of time and the prevalence of entropy in the universe--nihilistic ideas in the extreme (bbc).  This is most evident in "Burnt Norton," one of the Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

Religious Conviction

Not so much a theme as a motif, religious conviction is an important part of the way Eliot views the world late in his life, particularly in the Four Quartets.  In his essay Religion and Literature, he addresses this prevalence, indicating that as a new but fervent believing in Anglicanism, it is his duty to view the world he portrays in his poetry through a partially religious viewpoint (bbc) Though he has survived a great deal of criticism because of this choice, he has nonetheless succeeded in causing people to think differently about his work--certainly the aim of any great poet.

The Nature of Time

A topic he addresses throughout the Four Quartets, the nature of time seems to fascinate Eliot.  He harps on whether it is predetermined, random, or some combination thereof throughout all four, and on whether there is an ultimate purpose to mankind's existence.  This harping serves to highlight certain religious aspects in his work (not the least of which is the idea that mankind has a purpose at all).  It also highlights ideas of desperation and hopelessness in the work.

Hopelessness of Existence

Tying in very neatly with Eliot's nihilistic tendencies is his common expression that existence is a hopeless attempt by man to achieve something before again becoming dust.  Though his religious conviction prevents him from being existentialist--a belief that the universe is absurd is hardly compatible with a divine master plan--it creates interesting parallels.  This theme is more the result of other themes than a separate theme in its own right, as hopelessness is a natural result of prolonged alienation, loneliness, and nihilism, particularly if they do not appear to have results.

Works Cited

bbc - h2g2 - 'The Four Quartets' by T. S. Eliot. 21 Feb. 2000. British Broadcasting Company. 11 Apr. 2005 <>.

Four Frames (1/1/2). 29 Sept. 2002. Exploring the Waste Land. 11 Apr. 2005 <>.


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