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Death by Water is the sub-title of the fourth section of The Waste Land. Water is a traditional symbol of purification and rebirth, but in the modern waste land it has lost its functions and has become a source of destruction, because a man leads a life of the senses and in pursuit of wealth. 

The Phoenician sailor, Phlebas was young, tall and handsome, but he was drowned, because his life was a sordid round of business activity (profit and loss) and pleasure without any spiritual motivation. 

He was caught in a whirlpool and passed the various stages of his “age and youth”. The reference is to a ritual immersion of the effigy of the vegetation god, Osiris, who was supposed to pass the various stages of life in the reverse order. 

He is old when he is immersed in water, he is young as he rises and falls on the waves, then a boy, and finally is reborn. But there is no rebirth for the Phoenician sailor or modern man because of his moral degradation. Thus Eliot wants to show that complete secularisation and rejection of moral values are at the root of the contemporary decay and degeneration. 


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