Doris Lessing famously takes her title from T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which blends antique myths and representations of contemporary society, finally resulting in a sombre and pessimistic vision. In one of the most cited passages - which is incidentally Lessing’s epigraph as well - the poet establishes a juxtaposition between the arid landscape and an enclosed space of a chapel. With the appearance of the chapel in the middle of the barren landscape the poem becomes truly desolate. It is not only the futility and eventual death of the Western myths that is accentuated in the passage but the hopelessness of ever changing for the better.
Lessing uses a technique similar to Eliot’s: parallel to the African space, she also presents the main characters’ cottage as the central place of events. Mary, who grew up and has lived her whole life in the town, marries Dick Turner, a farmer who is in perpetual combat with nature. She moves into his cottage which is situated in the middle of the savage terrain. They live in a miserable, yet self-imposed poverty without any promise of redemption. The Turners share the suffering of all African farmers but since they belong to the “poor whites”, they are forced to feel it even more profoundly. On her arrival, Mary is stupefied to discover their standards of living but she stays optimistic for a long while.
However, the closed-up suffocating place becomes unbearable, and consequently, she slowly goes paranoiac. This process is not entirely due to the infinity and impossibility of the African land, which could be envisaged as a vast cemetery full of “tumbled graves,” perpetually tormented by the burning and unending sun, but also due to the closed and suffocating little cottage. In the middle of “this vast, harsh country” there is the Turners’ wretched dwelling – “enough to drive anyone mad...”
It is not merely Eliot’s smothering and oppressively hot atmosphere that is taken over by Lessing but the spatial arrangement as well. Furthermore, the cottage can also be viewed as a representative of colonialism, which allows for a bodily interpretation: the abandoned house in the middle of the African desert is the corpse of the coloniser defeated by nature and the enormous infinity of the surrounding African landscape.
Mary Turner’s body greatly resembles the presentation of the African space: she is dry and frigid. Mary’s “aching bones” are reminiscent of Eliot’s “dry bones.” Her pure repulsion towards African women is in fact a mixture of fascination and disgust stemming from her own sub-conscious desires. Over the years Mary becomes more and more feeble and sickly until the moment when this affects her mental health as well. Her only link with the rest of the world is her servant, Moses whose body somehow stays immaculate. “The powerful, broad-built body fascinated her.” Moses is a substitute for Mary for everything that she has missed and is missing from her experience of Africa.
Her hatred towards Moses and all the blacks of Africa becomes a profound fear which pushes her into a subjugated position: Moses ceases to be a simple domestic servant; he practically becomes the guardian and benevolent parent of Mary. The scene where he dresses Mary shows his absolute power over this weak and almost childlike woman. However, it is not until the very end of the story when he kills his mistress that violence actually emerges in him. Until this tragic moment he wins all his battles with patience and the occasional manipulation of this broken spirit. One still has to remark that Mary’s murder, even if it is a profoundly violent act, is also a liberating one whose aim is to deliver this woman from her earthly sufferings. Thus it is the coloniser’s turn to become subjugated and powerless.
Thus, Lessing shows the devastating reality of white colonization, a parallel to what Eliot shows in the The Waste Land, as the failure of Western civilization at the centre.