Tiresias is the central figure in the poem The Waste Land, and an interested spectator of the modern wasteland. What Tiresias sees is the substance of the whole poem. The significance of Tiresias is complex and varied. Historically he is connected with the story of King Oedipus of Thebes, which is clearly the classical legend of a wasteland, with striking resemblances to the drought infested sin ridden kingdom of the medieval Fisher King.
Tiresias is one of the famous personalities in ancient Greek mythology. He had possessed sexual experience both as a man and a woman, he was summoned by Jove (or Zeus) to settle a dispute with his wife Juno (or Hera). Jove had taken the position that in lovemaking (sex-act) woman enjoys greater pleasure, while Juno argued that it was the man who found greater pleasure in the sex act. Tiresias endorsed Jove's view. Feeling annoyed, Juno cursed him with blindness; but to compensate him for the blindness Jove conferred upon him the gift of prophecy and long life.
Significance of Tiresias in the waste land
In The Waste Land, Tiresias appears as the protagonist of the poem. Tiresias belongs to the past and the present, and so he is a suitable connecting link between the wasteland of King Oedipus and the wasteland of modern civilisation. Moreover, he has experience of life both as man and woman and though he is physically blind, he is gifted with prophetic vision.
He is an enlightened commentator on the modern wasteland. He is at once a prophet and detached spectator of the agonizing drama of contemporary history and a participator and fellow-sufferer, with superior insight into the meaning of the ghastly masquerade, miscalled human life.
Psychologically speaking, he is the conscience of humanity, the voice of sensitive humanity, deploring its spiritual degeneration of the modern world. So he is a suitable protagonist of the poem. Tiresias has existed across all time and space as both the epitome and the observer of mankind's suffering.
Because he is also male and female- he has an intuitive understanding of both genders. He can appreciate simultaneously the world of the Prophets; the lover in the Hofgarten; the querent at Madame Sosostris's; Stetson; the man in "A Game of Chess"; the 'carbuncular' clerk in "The Fire Sermon"; Phlebas and the questor in "What the Thunder Said."
Simultaneously he is at one with the women: Marie and the two failed prophetesses, the Cumaean Sybil and Madame Sosostris; the women in ‘A Game of Chess'’ and the typist in The Fire Sermon. And he is the surreal, neurotic lady in "What the Thunder Said".
It so being, Tiresias epitomises the experience of all men and all women - of mankind itself, in fact, Tiresias is a complex and many-sided persona or symbol and he provides the unity of the poem. Without his presence, the poem would have been meaningless or formless.
Eliot himself has explicitly stated the vital significance of Tiresias's role in the poem: “Tiresias although a mere spectator and not indeed character, is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, the seller of currants melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand, Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias.”
Thus Tiresias plays a very important role in the poem The Waste Land. He becomes an objective correlative for Eliot's own voice. Evidently, Tiresias is an embodiment of the modern mind. He is the keen observer who is “powerless to act.”