The Hollow Man | Summary and Analysis | T. S. Eliot

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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, characterize 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 negtive 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 no way relieved by a ray of hope or light. The poem is gloomy and dark like death's other kingdom.


Summary :-

      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 sympathise 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 ay be a continuation of their present way of lite. 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 speechless 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 capable 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 symbolised 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 decision 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.

      Conclusion : 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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