A Brief Musing on T. S. Eliot’s “Hysteria”

Hysteria

BY T. S. ELIOT

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it,
until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in
by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of
her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling
hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green
iron table, saying: “If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the
lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden …” I decided that if the shaking
of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be
collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.
 

I enjoy this poem for a variety of reasons. The first-person point of view and the way Eliot launches the reader in the middle of a scene to which he provides no introduction—“As she laughed, I was aware”—makes the reader identify with the narrator. At the same time, the narrator identifies with the laughing lady: “I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad drill.” The gentleman in question becomes so involved in her laughter that he repossesses the laughter; it is he who is laughing—the woman’s teeth are just ancillary objects that mechanically represent the laughter, in a “squad-drill” fashion. Another interesting feature in this poem is the “character development” (if you will) of the narrator: At first, he is “drawn in,” lacking self-control, being under the lady’s sway. Toward the end of the poem, his wish to assert control over himself shines through: “I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped […] careful subtlety to this end.” “[D]ecided” is an interesting choice of word. Perhaps one would think or imagine that if the shaking of the lady’s breasts could be stopped, some fragments of the afternoon might be collected; but to use “decided” in such a context is very strange, because such a scenario is unlikely to be under the purview of volition. But, at the same time, using “decided” in such an overly confident (perhaps self-duplicitous) manner conveys a longing for the self-control the narrator has lost: After all, he has identified himself with this woman and her laughter to the extent that he has become less conscious of the afternoon’s happenings, less conscious of himself and his own perspective. This brings me to the teasingly apposite title of this poem: “Hysteria.” “Hysteria” means an uncontrolled outburst of emotion (such as laughter) and up to the nineteenth century, it was thought to be a medical condition to which women were prone. So on the one hand, “Hysteria” could be referring to the woman’s bout of laughter. But on the other hand, “Hysteria” could be understood in reference to the man, who lacks the self-control needed to prevent himself from being “drawn in;” and who does, in fact, become drawn in to the point that her persistent and uncontrolled laughter becomes, according to him, his own.

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