From the time of its first appearance in 1922, The Waste Land has presented its readers with numerous challenges. To list a few, it lacks a straightforward narrative; it omits smooth transitions between sections; and it alludes to obscure texts drawn from all corners of the world and seemingly every historical period. Even after the reader has worked to fill in the narrative gaps and track down the sources, the poem leaves many questions unresolved. Some of the most persistent of these relate to the question of voice. Who “speaks” this poem? Is it Eliot himself? Is it a fictional character—for example, the one called Tiresias? Is there no narrator at all, but rather a group of independent voices, like in a play? Or is it something else entirely?
This website provides tools and resources for exploring such questions. It encourages you to use these tools to come to your own decisions about them. It does not seek to impose any definite answers of its own.
Two sections of this website—“What the Class Said” and “What the Computer Said”—aim to demonstrate strikingly different ways of approaching these questions. Specifically, they seek to show some interesting ways that quantitative (numbers-based) readings of the poem’s voices can supplement qualitative (impression-based) ones. But these sections are intended only as “hypotheses”—provisional statements intended to incite debate and discussion, to be argued with, modified, and revised.
The third section, “Have Your Own Say,” provides tools for making your own reading. It allows you to provide answers to many crucial questions related to voice—to decide how many voices there are in the poem, indicate where they switch, and to identify the individual voices. It also allows you to make important decisions about genre—to decide, in effect, whether The Waste Land is a poem, a play, or something in between. (For now, however, you must make these decisions with our own, somewhat limited, cast list.) In encouraging the reader to interact with the text, this part of the website responds to Eliot’s own sense that the “collaboration of the audience with the artist [. . .] is necessary in all art” (“Marie Lloyd,” 174).
The overall aim of this site is to make The Waste Land a less forbidding, less remote, less confusing, more enjoyable, more accessible, more dynamic text. The first step in “understanding” The Waste Land, we believe, is seeing it as tangle of voices—one that is ultimately irreducible to a single, definitive interpretation; and one that can thus be “understood” in many different ways. Our site aims to help readers take this crucial first step, and to provide tools and resources for ensuing explorations.
Eliot, T. S. "Marie Lloyd." 1922. The Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Farrar, 1975. 172-174.