Summary of Summer Research

This summer, I chose to start working on my thesis by beginning with an understanding of the poet (T.S. Eliot) and the circumstances in his life leading to the formulation of The Waste Land. My thesis will focus on fertility and the role of women throughout the poem. This meant it was essential that I understand the role that women played in Eliot’s life.

Thus, I chose to first delve into Eliot’s first marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, focusing particularly on her influence on The Waste Land. Starting from a strong understanding of his first wife and the restraints put upon Vivienne because of the time period gave me the context of the society in which The Waste Land was written. In understanding Vivienne, I could understand the woman Eliot spent most of his time with. In understanding Vivienne, I could understand what demands society put on women in the 1920s and how that might affect their mental health and general fertility.

From my understanding of Eliot’s first marriage, I went on to read Eliot biographies that detailed the influences of his early years and spiritual experiences. These were less focused on the role of his wife and more on Eliot’s general philosophy towards writing as well as his spiritual journey – both contexts I needed to understand in order to fully appreciate The Waste Land.

Yet at the same time, reading the different biographies offered different perspectives on events throughout Eliot’s life – or perhaps more tellingly, offered very similar narratives and interpretations of one experience or another. Through the different biographies I read of both Eliot and his first wife, I began to gain a better understanding of the underlying motivations and inhibitions essential to Eliot’s life.

In proceeding from my summer work, I have many new directions I can research for my thesis. There are of course the other women in Eliot’s life – I might choose to research more about Emily Hale or read Mary Trevelyan’s memoirs of life with the poet.

More pertinent to my thesis, however, might be an exploration of Jean Verdenal, the French medical student so dramatically contrasted with the figure of Vivienne Eliot in The Waste Land. Or, perhaps, researching more specifically about Eliot’s conversion to Catholicism.

Regardless, this summer has provided a great springboard into the fall for my honors thesis, and I am so thankful to the Charles Center for giving me this opportunity.

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