Wastelands, from Eliot to McCarthy

The Evolution of the American Waste Land, from T.S. Eliot to Cormac McCarthy

Charlie Hedditch (3rd Year, English)

In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot laments both the pointless destruction of the First World War, as well as the seemingly meaningless intellectualism of the time. The first he achieves by fragmenting his text to the point where it is effectively impossible to build a cohesive narrative from the various voices and narrators he employs throughout the poem. The second is achieved by permeating his epic with intellectual allusions that seem to have no relation to each other. This mirrors the apparently arbitrary emphasis placed on specific works and subjects in the contemporary man’s education.[1] Eliot furthermore demonstrates a Modernist distaste for ‘intellectual ability without […] more human attributes’, something Eliot writes about in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948).[2In contrast, McCarthy's novel The Road laments the possibility of a complete decay and breakdown of society, through nuclear war or ecological disaster. McCarthy's text emphasises the lack of sway society actually has over its inhabitants, by having the survivors of the catastrophe demonstrate depraved acts--including infanticide and cannibalism--of which people become capable in the absence of surveillance.[3] However, alongside McCarthy's seemingly pessimistic view of society and humanity there runs a persistent note of hope and optimism for the human race. Although the two wastelands presented in McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) may seem dissimilar, they have something important in common: both texts use their respective wastelands as a way to lament the decay of society and those who inhabit it. 

I would argue that the cataclysm does not just uncover fate as a real force, but, for Eliot and McCarthy, also exposes society and those within it for what and who they really are.

The metaphorical and physical wasteland presented in both texts is a result of apocalypse. Daniel Wojcik writes in The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America (1997) that ‘the word apocalypse […] means revelation or unveiling. This sense of a revealed, underlying design for history has traditionally characterized apocalyptic ideas and resembles ancient notions of fate as an absolute force in the universe that determines all things.’[4] Wojcik suggests that both of the texts’ wastelands result from previously unknown, inexorable forces, whose outcomes were inevitable. Expanding on Wojcik’s argument, I would argue that the cataclysm does not just uncover fate as a real force, but, for Eliot and McCarthy, also exposes society and those within it for what and who they really are.

In The Road, despite the protagonist's responsibility to his child, he has been unable to avoid personal decay. This decay is both physical and mental, literal and metaphorical. The man’s mental decay is illustrated by an early admittance that he ‘hadn’t kept a calendar for years.’[5] His inability to keep a record of the days passing, a capacity that the ancient Egyptians possessed thousands of years ago, demonstrates how far the man has fallen since society dissolved around him. In addition to this, the man has passed his mental decay onto his son, revealed by his realisation that ‘we don’t work on your [the sons] [reading and writing] lessons anymore.’[6]

This minimalist approach to grammar emphasises the primitive nature of the father’s and son’s communications, as it strips out the nuance and complexity of the language system.

However, this sharing of mental deterioration extends further than just literacy. Every conversation the father and son have consists of brief, terse sentences, seldom more than ten words long.[7] These short conversations demonstrate how even language, one of the most basic human skills, is slipping away. Their conversational style suggests that the two are devolving. McCarthy uses minimal punctuation; there are few exclamation marks, and speech marks are not used at all. McCarthy frequently includes the beginning of a conversation or offhand comments inside a paragraph, rather than following the conventional grammar rules for a conversation.[8] This minimalist approach to grammar emphasises the primitive nature of the father’s and son’s communications, as it strips out the nuance and complexity of the language system, reducing it down to a bare minimum. 

The father and son in The Road have also deteriorated physically, illustrated by the father’s body having shrunk from the lack of food and nutrients, until, after shaving his beard off in the apocalypse shelter, ‘he seemed to have no chin’.[9] Even more significantly, his eyes have become ‘sunken [and] haggard’, deepening the impression that he is devolving into an ape-like creature.[10] By describing him as almost primitive or primate-like, McCarthy perhaps also emphasises how man has had to return to his primal roots in order to survive.

After a period of time, much of what comes into contact with the man also decays, including the ‘stinking robes and blankets’ he wears and pushes around in his shopping cart.[11] The stench evokes the idea of rotting and decomposition, another stage of decay. These are words that can also be applied to both the man’s body, and they become particularly relevant after the ambush towards the end of the novel. When the wound he suffered during the attack becomes ‘swollen and discoloured in the truss of the black stitching’, the man’s mental, metaphorical decay, and physical, literal decay become one.[12] It shows how his flesh has finally turned into little more than a rotting vessel for his rotting mind, demonstrating how after years of surviving in The Road’s wasteland, and gradually deteriorating because of the conditions there, his body has finally followed his mind and started to decompose. The father’s decay mirrors the decay of society following the death of the Earth; although he fought to hold on and stay with his son, as society will have fought to remain relevant in the new environment created by the apocalypse, he eventually loses that battle. 

In spite of rampant decay, the father believes that ‘[g]oodness will find the little boy.’[13] This is explained by the fact that despite the omnipresence of decay through the novel, it appears that the child is, if not immune, at least resistant to it. That is not to say that he is not malnourished, uncommunicative, and generally a product of the world he was born into.[14] But the boy endures all of this and is still capable of maintaining child-like innocence, something almost divine in the wasteland that is the novel’s setting. The boy's innocence is best displayed in his frequent pleas to his father to help those they come across. The most powerful example of these pleas is his demand that they help the man who steals everything from them at the end of the novel.[15] His innocence is not born of ignorance here, as he tells his father that ‘[he is] the one’ who has to worry about their survival.[16]

Alan Noble argues in ‘The Absurdity of Hope in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’ (2011) that this quotation tells the reader that the man believes he has a ‘God-given duty to care for his son and that his son is a living sign of God’s presence.’[18] This reading of the text gives reason to the father’s absolute insistence that the boy survive, no matter what the cost, as he believes he is protecting one of the few links God has to the hellscape that is The Road’s world. This reason is further reinforced with Noble’s argument that the father is a mirror for Abraham in the biblical story of The Binding of Isaac. He writes that the ‘father’s confidence that his son will have a life worth living for reveals that Abraham’s absurd faith [that God would not require him to sacrifice Isaac, but would if he did] is at work in the man.’[19] The father’s belief in a better life for his son demonstrates how despite the breakdown of society, there is still a place for optimism and goodness.

Allen Josephs writes in ‘What’s at the end of The Road?’ (2009) that ‘the critics who say Parka-man is a deus ex machina are right, and that is precisely the point.’[20] Josephs argues that the presence of this deus ex machina demonstrates how God must be present in the novel, due to the use of religious tradition in having the boy wait three days before being rescued, the statement of the father that ‘goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again’, and the fact that the deus ex machina is even employed at all.[21] However, it is not just the presence of God that can be taken away from Josephs’ assertion. Indeed, this line of argument can also demonstrate the presence of goodness in humanity, even without societal supervision. Josephs argues this to some degree, writing that the woman with the Parka-man ‘doesn’t talk to him of civilization, she talks to him about God’.[22]  However, it is not just the ending that demonstrates the goodness that is still possible in humanity. In fact, a wholesome father-son relationship is a persistent illustration of this goodness throughout the novel. Noble discusses this, writing that McCarthy presents to us to a world that ‘cannot be put right again. Yet within these first few pages the narrator also introduces us to one of the most intimate and loving father and son relationships in American literature.’[23] 

In the aftermath of The Great War, Eliot’s suggestion is that the cost of the conflict undid much of the work that had come before it.

Elizabeth Yukins writes in ‘An “Artful Juxtaposition of the Page”: Memory, Perception, and Cubist Technique in Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth’ that cubism is the ‘visual idiom of modernism’, furthering the idea that The Waste Land mirrors cubism.[26] This mirroring is due to it being one of the most important modernist texts. This is particularly relevant to the argument that The Waste Land laments the effects of World War One, as cubism, predominantly crystal cubism, has been argued to be an attempt to escape from the reality of The Great War. This demonstrates how the fragmentary and divided wasteland in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land criticises the First World War and laments the decay of society that it caused. Eliot believed much of the poetry outside of the metaphysical poets to be incapable of standing up to the rigors of the First World War. Even Dante’s Divine Comedy (1304), it seems, is incapable of remaining relevant in a post-World War One reality. Eliot quotes Dante directly in ‘Burial of the Dead’, writing that ‘I had not thought death had undone so many.’[29] In the aftermath of The Great War, Eliot's suggestion is that the cost of the conflict undid much of the work that had come before it. Eliot was lamenting the decay of society in The Waste Land in part because of the seemingly arbitrary focus on intellectualism. 

However, Eliot was not entirely fatalistic about the decay of society. He believed that intellectualism could be used appropriately, by focusing on those he believed to have written respectable literature, such as the ‘metaphysical poets’, including John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and George Herbert. Jewel Spears Brooker writes in Mastery and Escape: T. S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism (1996) that ‘Eliot’s own dispensationalism is evident in [his] assessment of Ulysses and indeed throughout his work – in his comparative readings of Virgil, Dante, and Blake as representatives of particular dispensations.’[30] This demonstrates how Eliot viewed some authors as of a standard where studying them was helpful to society, unlike other focuses in the contemporary education.

In both The Waste Land and The Road, the wasteland is used as a tool to lament the past, imminent, or future decay of society. In ‘The Fire Sermon’, Eliot writes that ‘[t]he river sweats/Oil and tar/The barges drift/With the turning tide/Red Sails/Wide/To leeward, swing on the heavy spar./The barges wash/Drifting logs Down Greenwich reach/Past the Isle of Dogs.’, Eliot displays the corporeal impact of the First World War on society and the world in general. The image of the river ‘sweat[ing]’ gives the reader the impression that the river is a living being. The fact that it is sweating oil and tar, two black and oozing substances, makes it seem that the river is rotting and dying, unable to cope with modernity and the consequences of the First World War. Additionally, the ‘drift[ing]’ barges and logs bring to mind the parasites that descend on rotting corpses, furthering the impression of the river as a dying living being. This description of the river as a dying creature mirrors that of The Road’s dying father, as both the father and the river begin slowly rotting when an important part of the world is changed or damaged. For the river, it’s the changes society undergoes with the advances of modernity and aftermath of the First World War. For the man in The Road, it’s the removal of the supporting structure of society. 

Despite these differences, the two texts use their respective waste lands to fundamentally the same effect: to demonstrate, emphasise, and lament the perceived or potential decay of society. A substantive difference, however, is that while The Waste Land attempts to return to the metaphysical poets in order to reverse the supposed decay, The Road argues that despite the possibility of a complete breakdown of society, there will likely still be pockets of goodness that make continuation worthwhile.


[1] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land [1922] (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), ‘Book II: A Game of Chess’, pp. 17-19, (ll. 87-141)

[2] T. S. Eliot, Notes towards the Definition of Culture (London: Faber and Faber, 1948; repr. 1962), p. 23.

[3] Cormac McCarthy, The Road (London: Picador, 2006; repr. 2009), p. 212.

[4] Daniel Wojcik, The End of the World As We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America (London: New York University Press, 1997), p. 4.

[5] McCarthy, p. 2.

[6] McCarthy, p. 262.

[7] McCarthy, p. 9; p. 99; p. 216.

[8] McCarthy, p. 52.

[9] McCarthy, p. 161.

[10] McCarthy, p. 202.

[11] McCarthy, p. 1.

[12] McCarthy, p. 286.

[13] McCarthy, p. 300.

[14] McCarthy, p. 161; p. 136; p. 292.

[15] McCarthy, pp. 277-278.

[16] McCarthy, p. 277.

[17] McCarthy, p. 3.

[18] Alan Noble, ‘The Absurdity of Hope in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’, South Atlantic Review, 76 (2011), 93-109, (p. 96), [JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43739125, accessed 22 November 2016].

[19] Noble, p. 96.

[20] Allen Josephs, ‘What’s at the end of The Road?’, South Atlantic Review, 74 (2009), 20-30, (p. 27), [JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25681391, accessed 22 November 2016].

[21] Josephs, p. 27.

[22] Josephs, p. 27.

[23] Noble, p. 93.

[24] Ladislas Segy, ‘Cubism’, College Art Journal, 13 (1954), 152-153, (p. 153), [JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/773530, accessed 23 November 2016].

[25] The Waste Land, ‘Book II: A Game of Chess’, pp. 17-19, (ll. 87-141).

[26] Elizabeth Yukins, ‘An “Artful Juxtaposition of the Page”: Memory, Perception, and Cubist Technique in Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth’, PMLA, 119 (2004), 1247-1263, (p. 1248), [JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25486120, accessed 23 November 2016].

[27] The Waste Land, ‘Book I: The Burial of the Dead’, p. 11, (ll. 1-2).

[28] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, A Complete Translation into Modern English, trans. by Ronald L. Ecker and others,            [http://english.fsu.edu/canterbury/general.html, accessed 23 November 2016].

[29] The Waste Land, ‘Book I: Burial of the Dead’, p. 13 (l. 63).

[30] Jewel Spears Brooker, Mastery and Escape: T. S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), p. 7.