Analysis of “The Hollow Men”

The Hollow Men is a soliloquy by one of the hollow men, representing a modern generation of rootless, faithless, lonely, and aimless wanderers. The hollow men are bewailing their lot in the modern Waste Land. They are in Death’s dream kingdom from which they cannot cross to Death’s other kingdom because of spiritual impotence.

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The title of the poem is derived from a combination of the “Hollow Land” by William Morris and the Broken Men by Rudyard Kipling. The four major sources of the content of Eliot’s Hollow Men are; Dante’s Divine comedy, the Gun Powder Plot; Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Joseph Conrad’s story “Heart of Darkness”. In Conrad’s story, the hero Kurtz has described as ‘a a hollow sham’. The first epigraph to the Hollow Men consists of the words of the servant announcing the death of Mr. Kurtz.

Mistah Kurtz — he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy

“Heart of Darkness” is full of hollow men who are devoid of faith. They lack personality, moral strength, and humanity. In this story, Marlow tells us of his journey to a village in the forest of Congo where he meets Kurtz, ’the hollow sham‘, the man who came from Europe full of an empty and rhetorical idealism that collapses under the force of the savage barbaric darkness. According to Conrad, all men are hollow; all are destined to endure the condition which Eliot has described.

The epigraph of the poem also recalls “A penny for the guy” the reference is to the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day, Nov.5. Guy Fawkes was associated with the Gun- Powder Plot, hatched by the Roman Catholics to kill King James and his peers by blowing up the Parliament building. The plot was discovered in time and Guy Fawkes was arrested.

The protagonist of the poem is one of the stuffed dummies symbolizing the hollow men in the modern Wasteland.

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We are the hollow men

We are the stuffed men

Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

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The opening lines describe the condition of the effigies which lean together with their straw-filled heads. They produce dry whispers as the wind blows over them, they symbolize the condition of spiritually empty men lying in the valley of bones. They are all sapless creatures who cannot stand erect and so lean on one another. They are too diffident to take any position, any stand on anything. They lack the ability to speak as their headpiece is filled with straw. These hollow men are in death’s ‘dream kingdom’ and positively remember the stronger souls who had the courage to see the truth and affirm it. Those stronger souls had achieved a higher spiritual state leading to final redemption. But these men are simply hollow, incapable of doing anything, not even evil acts. They lead to a negative existence. For Eliot, it is better to do evil than to do nothing.

The image of the eyes prominent figure in the second section of the poem.

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams

In death’s dream kingdom

These do not appear:

There, the eyes are

Sunlight on a broken column

The reference to the eyes here are the eyes of Dante and to Joseph Conrad’s story “The Heart of Darkness’. In Dante the eyes are those of Beatrice which he is afraid to face because of his carnal sin and breach of faith in her. In the ‘Heart of Darkness” the eyes refer to the stare of Kurtz or the glance of his fiancée, “guileless, profound confident and trustful”.

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The hollow men cannot face too much reality.

Let me be no nearer

In death’s dream kingdom

Let me also wear

Such deliberate disguises

Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves

In a field

The hollow men try to avoid that vision of Death’s other kingdom. They put on deliberate disguises by turning into scarecrows.

The third part of the poem presents the contrast between Death’s Dream kingdom’ and the life on earth. Eliot implies that Death has its kingdom on this earth also and the hollow men are its subjects.

In death’s other kingdom

Waking alone

At the hour when we are

Trembling with tenderness

Lips that would kiss

Form prayers to broken stone

Will they wake up when they are kindled with desire or instead form a prayer combining frustration in love with a broken faith?

In the fourth part the scene shifts from the hollow valley to the Beach of Turnid River. It is progress from despair to the margin of hope. Will they remain Sightless, until

The eyes reappear

As the perpetual star

Multifoliate rose

Of death’s twilight kingdom

The hope only

Of empty men.

Hope does not seem to become. Here the hollow men, like lost souls, are sitting together in darkness, silent and dejected.

Part V brings us down from the hope of empty men to the reality of their existence. The opening stanza is the parody of the nursery rhyme ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’.

Here we go round the prickly pear

Prickly pear prickly pear

Here we go round the prickly pear

At five o’clock in the morning.

The original song is concerned with the old fertility ritual and dances around the Maypole, a symbol of fruitful sex. The hollow men, on the contrary, go round the prickly pear symbolizing sterile motion and frustration.

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception

And the creation

Between the emotion

And the response

Falls the Shadow

Between conception and creation, between emotion and response, there is a shadow. The hollow men are therefore totally incapacitated. The poem closes with another nursery song. The reference again is to the Gunpowder Plot. Guy Fawkes’s desire was to end the world in a noisy explosion. But Eliot’s straw effigies, his hollow men, are bound to perish noiselessly. Their world ends “not with a bang but with a whimper”.

Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, in spite of its cynical and s skeptical views of modern life, offers a means of escape from spiritual despair in the message of Thunder, but “The Hollow Men” is devoid of hope and ends on a whimpering note.

The poem ends ambiguously. The question remains. Is the despair of the poem sterile? Will the effigies burning in a purgatorial fire have hope of new birth?

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