The Waste Land: A Single Protagonist
The idea of a single and unifying protagonist in The Waste Land was briefly proposed by Stanley Sultan in Ulysses, The Waste Land, and Modernism form. I would like to pursue this topic in greater depth. Part I presents no obstacles to reading the poem in this light. On the contrary, the hypothesis of a single speaker and performer adds shadow, depth, drama, and direction to everything in the movement. It discovers a poem of far more seriousness, profundity, and complexity.
Certainly the original working title, "He Do the Police in Different Voices," implies the presence of a single speaker in the poem who is gifted at "taking off" the voices of others--just as the foundling named Sloppy in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend is, according to the doubtless biased and doting Betty Higden, "a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the police in different voices." This speaker has a flair for tones of criminality, sensationalism, and outrage--the whole gamut of abjection and judgment; or so the title implies. He shows a relish for such tones, he is virtuosic at rendering them. The working title was thus itself a harsh judgment on the protagonist (whom it travesties). All speech is abjection? The very impulse to perform voice is suspect? A complicity in the fascination of crime--say, murder? To create and to murder are near akin? These severe intimations are of a piece with the contemptus mundi of the poem.
The hypothesis of an all-centering, autobiographical protagonist-narrator is not only consistent with the working title; it explains the confident surfacing, in the latter part of the poem, of an unmistakable religious pilgrim. Unless this pilgrim can be shown to develop (to inch, scramble, flee) out of a waste land that is, or was, himself, the poem splits apart into two unequal sections, a long one constituted by what Lyndall Gordon calls "the Voices of Society" and a shorter one on a lone pilgrim to elsewhere. Neither Gordon nor A. D. Moody--each so admirable on The Waste Land--connects what they concur in regarding as a pilgrim with what they might agree to call the Voices of Society. But there is no difficulty in the way of positing the former as the "doer" of the latter--as one of the social voices, yet he who surpasses them in being able to do and place them in an ironic relation to other voices, including his own.
Gordon's valuable suggestion that the poem belongs in the religio-literary category of "the exemplary life" is in fact better served by this more unifying reading. "In the lives Eliot invokes," Gordon comments, "--Dante, Christ, Augustine, the grail knight, Ezekiel--there is always a dark period of trial, whether in a desert, a slough of despond, or a hell, followed by initiation, conversion, or the divine light itself." The protagonist is not merely one among others in hell (and the "conversation" between him and Stetson, who were alive...