The Hollow Man: by T.S Eliot - Summary & Analysis

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       Introduction: The Hollow Men is a recast of some of the earlier poems written by Eliot. It was published separately in 1925. Originally, it was intended to form a part of The Waste Land. As such its theme is the same as that of The Waste Land. It contains in poet's reflection on the "subject of human nature in this world, and the relationship of this world to another, the world of death and eternity". The poet's theme has a reference to the gun-powder plot of 1605, the novel of Conrad entitled The Heart of Darkness and Dante's Divine Comedy. Southam makes a reference to the connection of the poem with Conrad's novel, which is a story of hollow men empty of faith, of personality, of moral strength, of humanity. In this connection, Elizabeth Drew remarks: "Psychologically, the experience in The Hollow Men is even more despairing than that of the conclusion of The Waste Land. The full horror the situation of spiritual stagnation is experienced, without the actively dramatized revulsion from the contemporary scene, or the actively dramatized inner struggle between compulsion and revulsion towards personal change. It is a condition which Jung, as well as Eliot, characterizes symbolically as the meeting with the Shadow. To Jung, it is the confronting of our own inner 'darkness' which means 'bitter shock, though it is the indispensable pre-requisite to every renewal of spirit'."

The hollow men are like effigies of Guy Fawkes fit only to be burnt.
The Hollow Man

      This poem is perhaps the most negative and pessimistic of all the poems of Eliot, whereas The Waste Land and Ash Wednesday are relieved by the hope of redemption. The Hollow Men presents a picture of unmitigated horror of modern life. It is in no way relieved by a ray of hope or light. The poem is gloomy and dark like death's other kingdom.


      Section I. We are the hollow men, the unreal men, stuffed from inside. We have no energy of our own. We stand together depending on mutual support. Our brain is not filled with intelligence but with straw. Alas! our empty voices when we whisper together are dim and meaningless, like the sound of the wind as it passes over dead grass, or like the sound of rat's feet walking over pieces of broken glass in our vacant basement. We have the shapes of human beings but not their nature and qualities. We are shapes, but without any color; our force is paralyzed and we can only make gestures but no motion. Those, who have gone to the other world after leading a life of action and purpose, do remember us. They regard us not as active people but as hollow men like stuffed dummies.

       Section II. I dare not face even in dream the eyes of "Charon" who will meet me in death's dream kingdom. His eyes will not be seen by me. In this world, my eyes see the shadows of sunlight on a broken pillar and observe a tree disturbed by the wind. I can hear the song of the wind. This vision appears like distant and dim light of a fading star. I do not wish to be near to the kingdom of death. I would like to avoid it, by wearing deliberate disguises like the scare crow-wooden poles covered with a hat and a coat in a corn field. The scare-crow would move according to the impact of the wind and it would have no impulse of its own. (The condition of the hollow men is also the same.) I am not prepared for my final meeting with death because I dread the very idea of going into death's dream kingdom.

      Section III. The world of the hollow men is a dead land, it is unproductive, it is like the land of the cactus. Here only stone images are put up. These idols are worshipped by the hollow men. They receive the prayers from the hands of dead men (hollow men)under the light of a fading star. I wonder, if it is like this world, in the kingdom of death. We here wake up alone at an hour and we tremble with love when we kiss the lips that we love. We offer our prayers to the broken stones.

      Section IV. In our worlds, there is no light in the eyes of faith. Our eyes are dim and sunk. In this dimly-lit valley of dying stars, there is hardly any flow of light This life is like a piece of broken-jaw cut out from the entire human body. In this last place of meeting we move in darkness and hold no communication as we stand together. On the bank of the swollen river of Limbo, we are incapable of seeing anything unless the eyes of light (eyes of Beatrice reappear as the eternal star- lighting the multi-petaled rose of the kingdom of death.) As far as we inactive men are concerned, this vision is only a pious hope, perhaps beyond our reach.

      Section V. In this world, in the manner of the childish nursery rhyme we go round and round the prickly pear tree in place of the mulberry tree, early in the morning. This movement leads nowhere. In between the idea and the action necessary to concretize it, between the resolution and the follow-up action, the shadow of fear falls. In such case, our only refuge lies in a prayer to God to remove our fear and frustration. Between the thinking and the execution for fruition, between the feeling and the achievement, the shadow falls. Life appears very long and weary; Between the desire and the action, between the inner power and its external manifestation, between the seed and the fruit falls the shadow of doubt and fear. In such a case the only hope lies in a sincere prayer to God for strength and courage. We cannot even find courage to utter the words of prayer seeking God's help. We feel tired, exhausted and lifeless. This is perhaps the way in which our world ends, not with a loud voice but with a painful and halting whisper.


      Section I - The Hollow Men - their inertia: This is a sort of group chant where the hollow men lament their loss of activity, their vacuity and their emptiness. Symbolically the modern men are spiritually barren, lacking faith and Christian spirit. Their life is one of spiritual decay. They are like ghosts for abstractions. They suffer from physical and spiritual paralysis:

"Shape without form, shade without colour,

Paralysed force, gesture without motion:"

      They are not like the notorious men of action, like Mistah Kurtz and Guy Fawkes. Of course, those persons were violent and villainous, yet they were men of action. These hollow men are leading a life like death-in-life:

"Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom."

      The hollow men are like effigies of Guy Fawkes fit only to be burnt. They do not have the will to follow the example of men of action. They are tied down to a meaningless and futile routine. Eliot seems to suggest that it is better to be up and doing even evil, than to be doing nothing at all.

      Section II - Death's two Kingdoms: The protagonist who represents the poet, expressed his fear of death. There are two kingdoms of death-one is the death's other world i.e. the life after death and the other is death's dream kingdom i.e. the world of hollow men which is a state of spiritual death. The hollow men would like to go over to death's real kingdom i.e. the other world, but they do not have the strength to face the eyes of those men of action, died before them and would look upon them (hollow men) with scorn and reproach. Actually, the hollow men are afraid of facing the sharp eyes of Charon the Ferryman who can take him to the other world. So, in both ways the hollow men can neither face the reality of life nor the reality of death.

      The world of the hollow men is like the dream world-meaningless and futile. They are like the Lotus Easters, who cannot face the responsibilities of life. To avoid the world of action, the protagonist would like to disguise himself as a scare-crow or as a rat running on dead grass or as a mock crucifix. He would be passive to the world and be blown by the wind here and there. He likes a passive and inert life so as to evade all duties and responsibilities. He has no courage to face death. He is quite happy with his own condition of death-in-life.

      Section III - A Dead Land: The hollow men live in a dead land-a land spiritually barren and sterile. Instead of worshipping Christ they worship stone images. Spiritual truth are as far from them as a fading star. The hollow men wonder if death's other kingdom-the other world- is also like their own desolate land. Is the life after death similar to the one that the hollow men are leading? Here, they get up and kiss the lips of images they love and worship. How much different the life in the other world will be? Will it be totally different from or similar to the life they are leading? We may sympathize with their lack of knowledge and their desire to continue their present pattern of life in death's other kingdom. How foolish it is to wish that the next life i.e. life after death may be a continuation of their present way of life. They are shocked by the assumption that their routine in the modern life will come to an end when they pass from this life to the next. They are not in a position to reconcile themselves to any life other than the one, which they are leading.

      Section IV - The Hollow Men are Sightless: The hollow men lack the eyes of will and action. They grope in this dark and dismal valley. They are speechlessly awaiting their fate. Their life has been a useless drift without any purpose. In this last kingdom, they have no indication of any goal or achievement. In this miserable condition, the hollow men assemble on the banks of the river in the underworld, waiting for Charon the Ferry man, to take them across to death's other world. They are full of despair because they have no vision of faith in God. Faintly they hope that just as the eyes of Beatrice guided Dante to Paradise, in the same way, the eyes of Virgin Mary - the Multifoliate rose-would appear to them and guide them to death's other kingdom. This is their only hope. Pearce thinks that the word only the capacity of two meanings. It may mean that the rose is only the hope and nothing more of her hollow men, or it may mean that it is the only hope of the hollow men. This ambiguity can work both way, pointing either to their pessimistic or optimistic future. The reference to the Beatrice and Dante episode cannot be taken seriously, until and unless the hollow men, put in the required effort and take the necessary action in the direction of penitence and self-purification. They cannot be regarded worthy of divine grace symbolized by the perpetual star or the Multifoliate rose. It is essential that the person to be saved should be worthy of saving. Merely a pious hope of the hollow men that they can be saved is no guarantee of their being actually saved.

      Section V - Shadow of Fear: The hollow men like the nursery children follow a life of routine and meaningless singing. Instead of going around the mulberry tree-a fruitful act, they go round the prickly pear which can offer nothing but thorns to them. Secondly, they are shadowed by fear and doubt. Their intentions may be good but their actual performance is nil. This is because their spirit is weak; they are unable to make up their minds and therefore postpone decisions and commitment. This failure on their part to act and to move forward is the greatest hurdle in their march onward; unless they replace doubt by faith, hesitation by commitment and pray positively for divine grace, they cannot be saved. The nursery rhyme about the end of the world which Guy Fawkes intended, but which actually led to his own execution and subsequently to the burning of his effigy shows that the hollow men will leave the world whispering about their failure and frustration. The hollow men cannot be saved because they are not worth saving. They cannot even mumble they prayer for the Lord's grace. They die with a sense of defeat. Their life has been a kind of whimper, indicating fear and damnation.

      Style: The Hollow Men is a personal poem. It presents the poet's views on contemporary life. It is a cry of despair unrelieved by hope. Modern civilization, which is the pride of many nations has been shown as negative and lacking all the values of life. The peculiarity of the poem is that it is an inner drama with the utmost economy of words. As a critic puts it: "There is little mythical variety. The effect is of a monotone, a chant without variation. There is a good deal of repetition of parallel clauses and expressions. There are suggestions of poetic diction, as also by some lines referring to Dante's Divine Comedy- "Gathered on the beach of this tumid river". The recurrent images and the fragments of Lord's prayer are introduced to represent the poet's faith and divine grace. The images echo the deadness of sensibility and the emptiness of hollow men who, like the effigies, are fit only for burning.

      Symbols: The eye-symbol is exploited by the poet. The poet plays on the various meanings of eyes:

"The eyes are not here

There are no eyes here"

      Then the poet mentions direct eyes which refer to the eyes of men of action with a purpose, though rough and violent, like Mistah Kurtz and Guy Fawkes. Secondly, there are the eyes of the Lord.

      The eyes of hollow men will be full of shame and remorse when they, thus, will be presented to render their account to God. There is also the symbol of light in various shades -

"Sun-light on a broken column:

Than a fading star..

In the twilight kingdom..

In this valley of dying star.."

      The groping together on the beach of the river, the light of the Perpetual Star and finally the shadow which has a very deep meaning though the diction is compact and bare. The images and symbols constitute the strong point of the poem.

      Title: Eliot explains that The Hollow Men is a combination of the title of two poems namely, William Morris's poem The Hollow Land and Rudyard Kipling's The Broken Man. There is a mention of 'hollow man' in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. In the play, this phrase was used by Brutus when he learns that his former friend and fellow conspirator Cassius is behaving in a less friendly way towards him. Brutus feels that hollow men are like inexperienced horses who fail in the trials of racing competition. In the poem, the hollow men refer to the unfeeling, inactive and lifeless men of the modern world.

      Epigraph: There are two epigraphs which throw light on the theme of the poem The first epigraph Mistah Kurtz- he dead is taken, from Conrad's novel The Heart of Darkness. These words were spoken by Marlowe who reports the death of Kurtz. Mistah Kurte was the agent of a colonial compliance, living in the interior of Africa. He was very harsh and violent. He died in Africa. According to Eliot, it is better to be violent and evil than to be inactive and dead like the hollow men of today.

      The second epigraph A penny for the old Guy is a line of a song sung by children who celebrate Guy Fawkes day. The children beg for money to buy fire works for the celebration of the day. They carry the effigy of Guy made of old clothes, stuffed with straw and paper. In the evening, the effigy is burnt on the top of a bonfire in the midst of the deafening sounds of the fire-works fixed around the effigy. Guy Fawkes was a notorious Catholic who plotted to blow up the parliament house and thereby kill the King and minister on 5th November, 1605. He was arrested and hanged. In his memory, Guy Fawkes day is observed in England on 5th November every year. Eliot suggests that the hollow men of today are like the effigy of Guy Fawkes which is suffed with straW, and burnt by the children.


Section I.

L. 1. Hollow men: lifeless, inactive, idle and unfeeling men of the modern world. This line is the song of the hollow men.

L. 2. Stuffed men: like the effigies, the modern men are stuffed with rags and straws. They have no life in them.

L. 3. Leaning together: the hollow men have no strength of their own. They lean against one another for mutual support.

L. 4. Headpiece: brain.

L. 5. Dried voice: voices without any feeling.

L. 6. Whisper togeher: their speech or their words are mere whispers. They cannot be understood.

L. 7. Quiet: without any feeling.

L. 8. As wind in dry grass: like the blowing of the wind without any purpose, dry grass: dead grass.

L. 9. Or rats, feet over broken glass: their voices are like the sounds made by the rats, feet, moving over the broken glass.

L. 10. Cellar: an underground or basement room where generally rats are found. When rats move over broken glass they move gently but painfully on account of bruises received from the sharp edge of glasses. The voices of hollow men are faint, unemotional and painful like the sounds produced by the rats.

L. 11-12. Shape without....without motion: The hollow men have a dim shape without any symmetry or design; they have a dull appearance of men but without any color or vitality. They have little energy and their bodies are paralyzed. They have no energy for action or movement. They make only signs. These hollow men are men only in appearance but they have no. intellect, no feeling, and no energy for action. They are like stuffed dummies.

L, 13-14. Those who....other kingdom. Those strong and violent men, men with a goal and purpose, and who have direct eyes, i.e. eyes of direction and decision; this refers to men of action like Mistah Kurtz and Guy Fawkes and also men like Dante-all men of action-who are now” gone to the other world after their death. Such men were quite different from the hollow men. The hollow men sing that men of action remember them not as criminal people but as hollow and stuffed men. It has a reference to Dante's Divine Comedy where different types of men enter different regions after death. The good men go to Heaven. The bad men go to Hell. The men with good and bad qualities go to Purgatory. There is a fourth category of men who on account their purposeless and drifting lives have gone to a sort of no man's land called Limbo which is situated on the outskirts of Hell. Such men are excluded from the scheme of God's providence. Such men are even worse then those condemned to Hell. Having been rejected by Hell and Heaven, they stay permanently on the bank of the river Acheron.

Section II.

L. 19-21. Eyes I not appear. The protagonist of the hollow men speaks for his group in the first person. He does not have the courage to face the eyes of Charon-the ferry-man-who transports souls of the dead to the other world. The hollow men, therefore, cannot cross the river and reach death's other kingdom. Possibly, it may also mean that the hollow’ men cannot face the eyes of those in the other world who, when they lived in this world were men of action. This has also a reference to the story of Dante who could not face the reproachful eyes of Beatrice, on account of his sins committed while he lived in this world.

L. 20. In death's dream kingdom: it refers to the other world where man goes after physical death.

L. 22-28. There, the eyes fading star. Their eyes are full of dreams and shadows during wakeful hours. They see the shadow of sunlight on a broken pillar or a tree swayed by the air and echoing the sound of the wind. This vision is like the appearance of a dim star on the horizon

L. 29-30. Let me be....dream kingdom: The hollow men do not wish to face the horror of death They would like to cling to a life of inaction and indecision which may be called death-in-life.

L. 31-36. Let me also....No nearer: The hollow men are afraid of facing the realities of life. They want to escape from the struggles of this world by putting deliberate disguises, by turning into scare-crows erected in the fields, moving to and fro as the wind blows.

L. 37-38 Not that....kingdom: They are afraid of their meeting with death. The twilight kingdom refers to the place between Purgatory and Paradise where Dante was to meet Beatrice. The idea is that the hollow men are scared of death though their life is as good or as bad as that of the dead.

Section III.

L. 39. This is the dead Land: Death has its kingdom on this earth also.

L. 40. cactus land: the land of the hollow men is like the desert.

L, 41-44. Here the stone...fading star: In the modern waste-land stone images are worshipped by men who are spiritually dead. These idols refer to worldly things... which are of the flesh. The hollow men have no spiritual guidance like the light of the sun. They are guided by a fading light like that of a dim star.

L. 45-51. Is it like... broken stone. The hollow men want to know the difference between the condition of the men in the wasteland and the spirits who live in death's other kingdom (the next world after death). Is their life (of the dead spirits) like our life in the wasteland? They wake up alone at a time when they are fired by passionate desire kiss a woman or offer a prayer to a broken image. The hollow men want to know in what way the life of the spirits in other world is different from their life, when they have the friends to enjoy love and material joys at their will. They can offer prayer only to a broken idol.

Section IV

L. 55. This hollow valley: refers to a place in death's dream kingdom, a place of despair where the lost souls sit together in silence and dejection. L. 56. This broken... Kingdoms: This life is a kind of severed human limb cut off from the whole human body.

L. 52-56. The eyes are... kingdoms: The eyes of faith are not to be found in this world. There is no hope of light or grace in this dark world. Life is like desolate valley where the stars are fading. This life is isolated and incomplete like a single piece or bone from the entire human body.

L. 57-60. In this last... tumid river. While crowded together in the hollow valley of despair, the hollow men grope in darkness. They are dejected and silent. They face the swollen river of Limbo. They are waiting for Charon the ferry-man, with sharp eyes who is to carry them to the next world. It has a reference to Dante waiting near Purgatory for Beatrice to guide him to Paradise.

L. 61. Sightless: blind.

L. 62. The eyes reappear: the eyes of Charon, the ferry-man, or the eyes of Beatrice.

L. 63. As the perpetual star: the everlasting and shining star. Dante finds in the eyes of Beatrice the light of the perpetual star i.e. the vision of Beatrice melts into the vision of Virgin Mary and the vision of the saints who live in heaven.

L. 64. Multifoliate rose: A rose of many petals. It refers to the bands of angels which surrounded Beatrice or Virgin Mary.

L. 66-67. The hope... men: The hollow men can only hope to be guided by the eyes of Charon, the ferry-man, or the blessings of Virgin Mary. This can only be done through self-purification, so that a hope can turn into a reality.

Section V.

L. 68. prickly pear: a thorny plant.

L. 68-71. Here we go....the morning: This is a nursery rhyme. The hollow men are moving around the prickly pear tree instead of the mulberry bush. It indicates that their life is full of useless motion and frustration.

L. 72-76. Between the idea....falls the Shadow. These lines have a reference to the conflict in the mind of Brutus regarding his conspiracy to murder Julius Ceaser. The soul of man yearns for the vision of God but on account of the weakness of his body, his resolution for the spiritual progress does not take the form of action. There is a gap between the idea and its execution, because the resolution is not backed by a strong action and that is why it is not executed. The shadow refers to the shadow of fear or the anxiety of death which leads to frustration, or to the inability of man to translate his ideas into action.

L. 77. For Thine is the Kingdom: In this state of frustration, in this stage of fear, the only recourse is to pray to God for strength and guidance. If man surrenders to God crying helplessly for his aid, He may help him.

L. 78. Conception: creating an idea.

L. 79. Creation: execution, follow-up, giving a concrete shape to the idea.

L. 80. emotion: feeling.

L. 81. response: action or giving a concrete shape to feelings.

L. 82. Falls the Shadow: Shadow of fear, of doubt, of hesitation.

L. 83. Life is very long: The only excuse for indecision or inaction is a hope that life is very long and one may defer action from time to time. Infact, life is not long; life is uncertain and therefore there should be no indecision or inaction.

L. 85. spasm: throbbing, breathing; here it means action

L. 86. potency: the potentiality or capability.

L. 87 existence: achievement.

L. 88. essence: inner power or the seed.

L. 89. descent: fruittion or achievement.

L. 90. Shadow: uncertainty, doubt, paralysis of will.

L. 91. see the meaning of line 77.

L. 92-94. For thine is... Thine is the: The hollow men do not have even the strength and the capacity to pray. They only mumble a few words from the Lord's prayer. lt shows that they cannot pray properly or adequately. They die with a feeling of exhaustion and frustration.

L. 95-97. This is the ends. This is a parody of the nursery song about Gun-powder Plot. Guy Fawkes wanted to end the world through a deafening explosion. But the burning of his effigy shows that the world did not end. On the contrary, his effigy burnt away quietly.

L. 98. whimper: it has a reference to a poem Denny Deeverby Rudyard Kipling. Deever, a British soldier is executed for killing another comrade. As his soul comes out of the body it whimpers. It may also have a reference to Dante's Purgatory. It suggests the cry of the baby. Dante stands before Beatrice, repentant and silent like a child before a strong mother.

L. 98. Not with a bang but a whimper: The world of the hollow men is affected by the shadow, by frustration and despair. There is no bang or shouting. It can only echo the low broken laments of soul dying, but unable to die in peace. The poem ends on a note of despair and frustration.

      Conclusion: The Hollow Man contain posts reflection on the subject of human nature in this world, and the relationship to another world of death and eternity. The poem is a kind of elegy on some of the characters mentioned in Eliot's early poems like Prufrock, Gerontion and Sweeney who are presentation of modern civilization but lack in moral value and all that which makes life worthwhile. This tragic chant sums up the view of Eliot on the barrenness and decadence of modern society.

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