“What shall we ever do?” Entrapment and Alienation in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land

“What shall I do now? What shall I do?”
 “I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
 “With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?
“What shall we ever do?”
                         The hot water at ten.
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

   TS Eliot’s The Waste Land has become a staple in the literary canon, and encompasses the Modernist melancholy that echoes throughout many 20th-Century works. It explores many complex and varied themes, but it’s exploration of entrapment in the two stories that form “II. A Game Of Chess” feel the most poignant to me.

    Out of the two character’s stories in this section, he woman in the first half of this section is particularly interesting. She surrounds herself with luxury; ivory, jewels, and even a throne. However, Eliot weaves in the idea that her decadent lifestyle masks her true emptiness. Her “synthetic perfumes” “drowned the sense in odour”; the artificial nature of the products she surrounds herself with are drowning her in superficiality- they replace real human connection and emphasise her emotional estrangement from her from her husband.

The woman and her husband are trapped in an unending routine. As the woman attempts to connect with her husband, pestering him with a series of questions to which he gives answers of no real depth; we become increasingly aware of the maddening routine that they experience. As the title suggests, it is a game. Instead of achieving any sense of union, this married couple routinely play out this disjointed game of question and answer (or lack thereof). The husband’s refusal to acknowledge his wife’s questioning maddens her to the point where she asks “what shall we ever do?”. To this his response is simple. He lists their regimented and dull daily routine, closing it with their “waiting for a knock at the door.” This reflects the struggle to find true meaning in modern life following dehumanising events such as war. People are struggling to connect with one another and therefore they try to find other, more artificial, ways to make their existence matter. However, as seen in the opening stanza of this section, this just becomes a way of alienating people further. They, and we as a collective, wait in anticipation for someone to “knock at the door” and break the routine, bringing a change in direction.

I’m sure that if you’ve gotten this far into my post, you’ve already read this poem, but just in case you want to read it again, go to: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47311 – enjoy! 🙂