“In Our Time” and “The Waste Land” Essay

Modern Wasteland of Hemingway in “In Our Time” in Comparison to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:

Ernest Miller Hemingway and Thomas Stearns Eliot were two prominent writers of the twentieth century, who depicted the post-war world and successfully managed to convey all the horrors and fateful consequences of the devastating World War I. Their works are considered the masterpieces of both American and world literature. They mainly focused on the hard cultural situation that was apparent in post-war time and that was attended with ruined moral principles, altered values and depressed views. Therefore, in their works both writers use the notion “wasteland” as the main characteristic feature of the post-war period.

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If to compare Hemingway’s collection of short stories “In Our Time” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” one can see much in common in the way these two writers saw the state of people and of countries participating in World War I.

It was the time when modernism appeared, a new cultural movement that was characterized by the freedom to search new forms of art, the break with past literature traditions and the cultural mess in the post-war time.

Hemingway’s “In Our Time”, which was published in 1925, was his debut in America and differed much from the works of other writers of that time. It was like a second breath in the literature. Other authors wrote in a very pompous and complicated style, overwhelmed with compound sentences. Perhaps Hemingway was not the first who began expressing his thoughts in simple and comprehensible manner but he was the first who was highly praised for that. Soon a number of writers started to imitate his style. His sentences were short and capacious. His language seemed to be rather unemotional and dry, still he managed to create powerful and touching stories. First in his short stories and then in his further works he used his theory of iceberg. He believed that the author should not write everything he knew. He considered his writing to be the tip of an iceberg – as the rest of his ideas readers would understand themselves. “If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.” (Hanneman, 126)

The poet Thomas Eliot also contributed much into the development of American literature. “The Waste Land” belongs to his early works and was published in 1922. The characteristic feature of Eliot’s poetry is his deliberate attempt to combine intellectual, emotional and aesthetic values in the way that in his works, the past would be revered and the present would be acknowledged. It differs him much from other authors. “Eliot’s intellectual rigor and vast erudition however has not been easy to emulate. The American novelists nevertheless have been continuously inspired by Eliot’s innovative use of language, myths, metaphors, objective correlatives, allusions, symbols, images and several other poetic short hands.”(Kenner, 95)

“The Waste Land” has references to many famous literary works, using quotations or allusions, still it is possible to state that the main works that influenced Eliot’s “The Waste Land” are exceptional cultural texts “From Ritual to Romance” by Jessie Weston and “The Golden Bough” by Sir James Frazier. The main topic of these books is the place of ancient fertility rituals in contemporary religion and thought. These both authors and T.S. Eliot refer to a legend about the Fisher King but their approaches are a bit different. The legend itself narrates about a man, the Fisher King, who has no potency because of the wound, and this trouble causes the infertility of the country where he lives, and turns this territory into a wasteland. According to the legend, if the Fisher King is healed, then the land will also become fertile. Still, Eliot does not see the opportunity to heal the Fisher King. The author identifies him with all the people and thus expresses his view that the fallen society is incurable and has no bright future. Hence, “The Waste Land” reveals the author’s pessimistic approach to the subject – he realizes the decay of the culture and his inability to do anything. The imminence of living in such a world dispirits him.

The poem consists of five chapters, all of them focused on the main theme. The first section of the poem “The Burial of the Dead” makes you feel really desperate because it seems as you find yourself in a crowd of unknown people where nobody can help you. It happens because you identify yourself with the main characters who feel a intense desire to speak to somebody but they are surrounded by dead people and frustrated by difficult circumstances. For instance, when one of the speakers is walking around London, he sees a deserted city where only ghosts live. The modern city is a true wasteland and Eliot manages to convey the oppressing feeling that it gives: “the brown fog of a winter dawn”, “the flowing crowd of the dead” (Eliot, 10)

In the second sector, “A Game of Chess”, the author shows two women from different strata of society and their perception of sex. These women are absolutely different, their ways of life are opposed, and they represent two sides of current sexuality. Eliot tries to show that none of these sides can be the source of moral regeneration. Love was replaced by sex and it is a deadlock for the society and its spiritual life. Human souls have also become a wasteland.

The third part of the poem, “The Fire Sermon”, is the largest section of the work and depicts the Waste Land itself – a barren, abandoned, cold land, covered with rubbish. It is a dead place that can produce nothing, no living creature, except rats, can survive there. In this part another myth appears that is counter to the earlier legend about the Fisher King. The main character of the myth “Virgin Queen”, Elizabeth, has to sacrifice her own sexuality for the sake of the vitality of land. Thus, we can observe the increasing pessimism of the author, the ruin of his hopes that it is possible to restore the society. This section ends with a single word “burning” on a page; it symbolizes unavailing human efforts to find the way out.

The next part, “Death by Water”, depicts a man, who drowned and thus relieved from all the difficulties and burdens of life. So, the author claims that the only solution for people living in the wasteland is death. The ideas of regeneration are completely rejected.

The last part of the work, “What the Thunder Said” is the culmination of “The Waste Land”. It is the most dramatic part as it describes the apocalypse and the wasteland seems to reign in this world.

Comparing Hemingway’s philosophy with Eliot’s one, we can state that Hemingway’s conception of the notion “wasteland” is very similar to that of Eliot. He also uses it as a metaphor for the poor and decayed cultural and spiritual life of people. As many other lost-generation writers he accuses World War I in such situation. In his collection of stories “In Our Time”, Hemingway describes time before the war, during the war and after it. Critics agreed that his book comprised the true depiction and analyses of the war. He created a portrait of Americans, describing common life of people: relations, responsibility, masculinity, adaptation and development.

Nick Adams is the main character of many short stories, such as “Indian Camp,” “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” “The End of Something,” “The Three-Day Blow,” “The Battler”, “Big Two-Hearted River”. All of them describe his life from the early childhood till the maturity and show how the war changed his life. The story “Indian Camp” describes his early childhood when he accompanies his father-doctor to a woman who is giving birth to a child. There for the first time he witnesses the beginning of life but also he realizes that life is always attended by death. He sees the father of the child, cutting his throat at the bedside of his wife. Nick’s father gave him many good lessons and taught him to value life. Still, as a child Nick refused to accept the truth of life: “In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.” (Hemingway, 25) Therefore, when after war Nick returns to his home and sees his land abandoned, burned and ruined, he realizes that his system of values is destroyed. Everything he was taught in his childhood, all the values he got are changed now. The ruined house symbolizes the ruined life. However, Nick is not going to give up, but he tries to restore his feelings and reminiscences. At the same time, Nick feels that his destiny is in his hands and he can begin a new life. On the one hand, his ruined home place shows the destruction of life, on the other hand it suggests freedom to built a new life. In this process, he tries to become a part of nature and to renew his contacts with it. All his reflections and attempts are described in the story “Big Two-Hearted River”. It is necessary to mention what important role the grasshoppers play there. They symbolize Nick and all other veterans who found their homes ruined and burnt, who experienced the change of their world outlook and could not find their place in society. Grasshoppers changed their color to black in order to adapt to burnt soil, thus soldiers should adapt to new circumstances of life.

In my opinion, the principles that are highlighted in this two-part story are significant for understanding Hemingway’s philosophy of life-in death.

The last story in the collection is of a particular interest, as it differs much from the rest but still focuses on the problem of a post-war time. “L’Envoi” is a surreal story about a Greek king. Its theme is again the ruined traditions of the old world. World War I caused the disappearance of several kingdoms, and we see the king working in the garden and living as an ordinary man. Besides, at the end of the story, hence at the end of the whole book, Hemingway claims that America takes the path of development and great power in the world. Greek civilization is known to be the most prominent in the ancient times, while Hemingway says: “Like all Greeks, he wanted to go to America”. (Hemingway, 230)

To make a conclusion I am inclined to believe that both T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway were anxious about the situation in the post-war period. They agreed in the opinion that World War I caused wasteland not only throughout countries but in people’s souls and mentalities as well. The lost generation had to built a new life. Both writers managed to convey the dramatic feelings of the time to readers.

Having analyzed Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” and Hemingway’s collection of short stories “In Our Time”, I have come to a conclusion that although the writers acknowledged the existing problem, they had slightly different approach to it. While Thomas Eliot is ultimately pessimistic and sees no way out of the current situation, Hemingway tries to find solutions. Within the poem, the atmosphere becomes increasingly oppressive, in the end the reader realizes that the world is doomed to ruin.

The book gives different feelings. The reader is aware of the tough conditions and grave consequences of the war, he or she understands that the former world is ruined forever. However, Hemingway suggests the outlet for surviving in this new world. It is necessary to revalue the former traditions and to use the received experience. Hence, Hemingway creates a code that must help his characters to survive in the wasteland. The images of Nick Adams and the Fisher King are rather similar. In the beginning of “The Waste Land” the legend about the Fisher King also gives hope to change the situation, but at the end of the poem, the author makes sure and convinces the readers that it is an illusion, while Hemingway believes that the survival of the world is possible.

Nevertheless, these two works form an essential part of modern literature and contribute much to the forming of people’s knowledge about the post-war period.


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