Download The Hollow Men Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Summary

"The Hollow Men" is a poem of alienation, despair, and futility. The first epigraph, from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, sets the theme of death. The second, the traditional rote request children make of neighbors while collecting money for Guy Fawkes Day fireworks, sets up both the concept of scarecrows or stuffed men (the Guy Fawkes effigy that is traditionally burned on that day) and the ironic references to children's songs, chants, and games that recur in the poem.

The "we" referred to is the generation at the time of Eliot's composition, sometimes called the Lost Generation. Those who came of age during and immediately following World War I (or the "Great War") had reason to despair. Never had the world seemed so cruel, so sad, so meaningless. Thus the poem is best understood as the thoughts of these hollow men contemplating matters of life, death, and purpose.

The poem plays on the idea of two kingdoms of death. The afterlife, typically considered death's domain, is called "death's other Kingdom." That makes this life death's kingdom as well, a somber thought.

Part 1 introduces the hollow men with powerful images. Part 2 emanates fear and avoidance—going through life in disguise and not meeting others' eyes. Part 3 comments on the emptiness of religion—it is nothing but "prayers to broken stone." Part 4 suggests lack of understanding ("there are no eyes here") and unfulfilling interpersonal relationships ("We grope together/ And avoid speech"), as well as the wavering, perhaps futile, belief in eternal rest ("The hope only/ Of empty men").

Part 5 begins with a children's game chant—although modified by substituting "prickly pear" for "mulberry bush." Although the following lines are esoteric and abstract, they are punctuated with a clear "Falls the Shadow" refrain and a choral response with fragments of the Lord's Prayer. The effect is to communicate a downward spiral of disintegrating hope, purpose, and life. The part ends with another chant, ominous indeed, about how the world will end. Rather than a "bang" comparable to the explosion of Guy Fawkes Day fireworks, Eliot predicts the world will end with a whimper—a fitting last gasp for a generation of hollow men.

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

This poem of emptiness, “The Hollow Men,” opens with a double epigraph, one from the novelist Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and one from the traditional children’s request for a penny on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5. The former seems intended to draw the reader to Conrad’s short masterpiece and to the...

(The entire section is 850 words.)