The Waste Land

The Waste Land Summary and Analysis of Section II: "A Game of Chess"

The second section of "The Waste Land" begins with a description of a woman sitting on a beautiful chair that looks “like a burnished throne” -– a nod to Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. She occupies a splendid drawing room, replete with coffered ceilings and lavish decorations. The setting is a decidedly grandiose one. We are not sure who the woman is: perhaps Eliot’s wife Vivienne, perhaps a stand-in for all members of the upper crust, perhaps simply an unnamed personage whiling away the hours in a candlelit kingdom. Eliot writes of “satin cases poured forth in profusion,” “vials of ivory and coloured glass,” an “antique mantel” and “the glitter of […] jewels.” Both the woman and the room are magnificently attired, perhaps to the point of excess.

One of the paintings in the room depicts the rape of Philomela, a scene pulled from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the original story, King Tereus’s wife bids him to bring her sister Philomela to her. Upon meeting Philomela, Tereus falls instantly and hopelessly in love; nothing must get in the way of his conquest. Racked with lust, he steals away with her and rapes her in the woods –- the "sylvan scene” Eliot mentions. He then ties her up and cuts off her tongue so that she may not tell others of what has happened. He returns to his wife, but Philomela is able to weave on a loom what has befallen her; she gives the loom to her sister, who, upon discovering the truth, retrieves Philomela, slays Tereus’s son, and feeds his carcass to the king. When he finds out that he has been served his son for dinner, Tereus flies into a rage, chasing both Philomela and his wife out of the palace, and all three of them transform into birds. The speechless Philomela becomes a nightingale.

Snatches of dialogue follow. It seems plausible that the woman in the room is addressing the narrator. She complains that her nerves are bad, and requests that he stay with her. When she asks him what he is thinking, the narrator retorts, “I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones.” Still more harried questions follow; the woman demands to find out whether the narrator knows “nothing,” then asks what she should do now, what they should do tomorrow. The narrator answers with a rote itinerary: “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.”

The last stanza of the section depicts two Cockney women talking in a pub at closing time – hence the repeated dictum: “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.” The subject of conversation is a certain Lil, whose husband Albert was recently released from the army after the war. He gave Lil money to get a new set of teeth, but she has hesitated: “You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique [...] I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face." Lil is apparently on pills, unhappy in her marriage, and mother to none. The dialogue grows more fractured and the closing time announcements become more frequent, and finally the stanza devolves into a quotation from Hamlet: Ophelia’s final words to Claudius and Gertrude, “Good night ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.”


This section once again ushers in the issue of biographical interpretation. It is tempting to read the woman on the “burnished throne” as Eliot’s wife, Vivienne; the passage then becomes a dissection of an estranged relationship. Some of the details point to failed romance or failed marriage: the “golden Cupidon” who must hide “his eyes behind his wing,” the depiction of Philomela’s rape –- an example of love cascading into brutality and violence -– and even the woman’s “strange synthetic perfumes” drowning “the sense in odours.”

Again the word “drowned” appears, and with it comes the specter of death by water. In this case, the thick perfumes seem to blot out authentic sensations, just as the splendid decorations of the room appear at times more menacing than beautiful. The trappings of a wealthy modern life come at a price. The carving of a dolphin is cast in a “sad light.” The grandiose portraits and paintings on the wall are but “withered stumps of time.” By the end of this first stanza, the room seems almost haunted: “staring forms / Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.” The woman, for her part, is a glittering apparition, seated upon her Chair (Eliot capitalizes the word as if it were a kingdom) like a queen, recalling Cleopatra -– and thus yet another failed love affair.

First Tristan and Isolde, now Cleopatra: twice now Eliot has alluded to tragic romances, filtered from antiquity through more modern sensibilities -– first that of Wagner, the great modernizer of opera, and then that of Shakespeare, perhaps the first “modern” dramatist. Quotation and allusion is of course a quintessential component of Eliot’s style, particularly in "The Waste Land"; the poem is sometimes criticized for being too heavily bedecked in references, and too dependent on previous works and canons. The poet’s trick is to plumb the old in order to find the new. It may seem at first ironic that he relies so much on Ovid, the Bible, Dante, and other older works of literature to describe the modern age, but Eliot’s method is an essentially universalist one. Just as the Punic War is interchangeable with World War I -– the truly “modern” war of Eliot’s time -– so can past generations of writers and thinkers shed light on contemporary life. Eliot’s greatest model in this vein was probably Ulysses, in which James Joyce used Homer’s epic as a launching pad for a dissection of modern Dublin. In contrast to modernist poets such as Cendrars and Appollinaire, who used the choot-choot of trains, the spinning of wheels, and the billowing of fumes to evoke their era, or philosophers such as Kracauer and Benjamin, who dove into the sports shows and the arcade halls in search of a lexicon of the modern that is itself modern, Eliot is content to tease modernity out of the old.

This is not to say that "The Waste Land" is free of the specifics of 1920s life, but rather that every such specific comes weighted with an antiquarian reference. When Eliot evokes dance-hall numbers and popular ditties, he does so through the “Shakespeherian Rag.” When he imitates the Cockney talk of women in a pub, he finishes the dialogue with a quotation from Hamlet, so that the rhythms of lower-class London speech give way to the words of the mad Ophelia.

That said, “A Game of Chess” is considerably less riddled with allusion and quotes than “The Burial of the Dead.” The name itself comes from Thomas Middleton’s seventeenth-century play A Game of Chess, which posited the said game as an allegory to describe historical machinations –- specifically the brewing conflict between England and Spain. What might the game allegorize for Eliot? He offers it up as one of several activities, when the woman demands: “What shall we ever do?” Simply a slot in a strict numerical ordering of the day, chess recalls “lidless eyes,” as its players bide the time and wait “for a knock upon the door.” We are not far removed from the masses crowding London Bridge, their eyes fixed on their feet. Modern city-dwellers who float along in a fog are neither dead nor living; their world is an echo of Dante’s Limbo. Chess belongs therefore to this lifeless life; it is the quintessential game of the wasteland, dependent on numbers and cold strategies, devoid of feeling or human contact. Interaction is reduced to a set of movements on a checkered board.