Gendered Voices in The Waste Land

Throughout TWL, gender remains an ambiguous subject— subverted, unassigned, indicated through merely behavior, and so forth. In the case of Madame Sosostris, though she’s clearly indicated as a woman, the most peculiar description of her— “Had a bad cold”— conjures the thought of a hoarse voice that follows a cold. Attributed to men normally, the implication that Madame Sosostris has a hoarse voice serves as another example of gender subversion and ambiguity in the poem. 

Relating the difference between the voice of men and women in TWL, the narratives of men are conveyed through metaphoric references and allusions to works of art/myth, while women are, in a way, confined to solely their own narrative. This contrast, between the manner in which men and women relay their stories, suggests that while the stories of men are universal, grand, and powerful, the stories of women are individual and reduced. 


The story of Marie corroborates this observation: “​​My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled, / And I was frightened. He said, Marie, / Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. / In the mountains, there you feel free. / I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.” (14-19). Here, though, no pronouns are used to indicate Marie’s gender, her actions lead us to assume her gender as a woman. The recurring use of the personal pronoun “I” conveys her story in a personal tone. In contrast, “Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,/Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell/And the profit and loss./A current under sea/Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell,” the story of the sailor is relayed in an impersonal and more mythical tone that offers a sense of universality. In fact, Stephanie’s direct annotation to these lines highlight such theme: “Eliot drastically alters the tone of this section to be more finite and impersonal, emphasizing the state of death, rather than the brief flash of vitality at the point of death” ( 

Age, Music, and Voice 

Along with Marie’s gender, her young age is an important characteristic of hers within the poem.

He do the police in different voices: The Original Title of TWL



There are obvious allusions to voiceless characters throughout The Waste Land; most notably Philomela, whose tongue was cut out to prevent her from exposing her rape at the hands of Tereus. The other women present in the first stanza of “A Game of Chess” are similarly silent, almost decorative: “The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne” is taken from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and “Flung their smoke into the laquearia” is from the story of Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid. The way these references fade into the rest of the stanza, which is mainly dedicated to sensory descriptions of a woman’s lavish surroundings, emphasizes these women’s lack of voice. Cleopatra and Dido, though referenced, become ornamental. However, the roles are reversed almost immediately after, in the conversation between an unnamed man and woman. The woman says, “‘’My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. / ‘Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.’ / ‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?’ / ‘I never know what you are thinking. Think’” (111-114). The man is conspicuously silent, voiceless, almost dominated. His inability to speak is emasculating, a concept that comes up constantly throughout The Waste Land, from Tiresias’ transformation into a woman and the insinuation of erectile dysfunction in line 116, “Where the dead men lost their bones”, to the castration of the Fisher King inherent to the title. 

Reginald Arthur, The Death of Cleopatra (1892)

Reginald Arthur, The Death of Cleopatra (1892)

Another important aspect of voice throughout The Waste Land is language. Eliot borrows German from Wagner, French from Baudelaire and Verlaine. The presence of languages other than English add to the rich fabric of the poem, giving it a sense of depth and diversity. When Eliot uses these lines, he is, in essence, borrowing existing narrators, e.g. the sailor and the shepherd from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Interestingly, the lines “Oed’ und leer das meer” (42), “You–hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère!” (76), and “O ces voix d’enfants chantant dans la coupole” (202) are all the last lines of their stanzas. In a way, it seems that Eliot is trying to leave the reader with a certain sense of mystery by using these strange, foreign lines. Also, in some cases, when he does choose to translate, the translations are not exact: Eliot turns Baudelaire’s “fourmillante cité” into an “Unreal city”.  In French, fourmillante means teeming, swarming, or infested, rather than unreal, which begs the question of why Eliot decided against borrowing Baudelaire’s words exactly (especially because he still chose to cite the lines). Certainly, the use of German and French into the composition of the poem add dimension and distinctiveness of voice.

Rogello de Egusquiza, Tristan and Isolt (1910)

The Voices of the Bartender and Lil

Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.

He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave


To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.

You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,

He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.

And no more can’t I…and think of poor Albert,

He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,

And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will… 

Oh is there
Something o’ that
Then I’ll know who to thank
If you don’t like it you can get on with it…Others can pick and choose if you can’t.

But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.

You ought to be ashamed…to look so antique.

I can’t help it…It’s them pills I took, to bring it off…The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been

        the same.

You are a proper fool…Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is…What you get married for if you don’t want children?
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,

And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—




The Voice