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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

The "Hollow Men," Past and Present

The poem describes men who are "hollow," or without any real agency. This idea of hollowness may refer to the people of Eliot’s day coming into the modern age having faced brutal wars and an increasingly faithless world. In the poem itself, the speaker seems to focus both on the men of the modern era who have lost themselves and analogous characters from both history and fiction who were, in a related sense, hollow men. 

The hollow men of Eliot’s poem are essentially disembodied voices, a fact that complicates their status as characters in the conventional sense. It is never clear whether their descriptions of self or context are literal or metaphorical. The hollow men, in their lack of concrete reality and groundedness, take on a ghostly aspect that is in keeping with their liminal state.

Mr. Kurtz

"Mistah Kurtz," only alluded to in the epigraph, stands as a hollow man in his own right. Kurtz is a principal character in Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness; he is the most depraved man in a book filled with evil men who feel the need to harvest as much ivory from the Congo as possible and by any means necessary. Kurtz only realizes the fruitlessness of this endeavor on his deathbed.

Guy Fawkes

"Old Guy" is a reference to Guy Fawkes, who wanted to destroy one of the Houses of Parliament in England during the infamous but ultimately failed Gunpowder Plot, which could have destroyed the British government and killed many innocent people. Having been characterized as a traitor and a villain ever since, Fawkes is often made into a literal stuffed, or “hollow,” man, and the effigy is burned on Guy Fawkes Day (or Bonfire Night) throughout the United Kingdom.

The Modern "Hollow" Man

The references to these men from history and literature help readers to understand more modern hollow men. As the speaker implies, modern humanity (at least in the early twentieth century) has become empty because of the horrors of war and the lifelessness of industrial, urban existence, as people become numb to their surroundings and are driven only by carnal desires and natural instincts. The speaker shows how this loss of agency correlates with a loss of voice. Modern man, who is hollow, cannot even speak about how empty he is:

Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

The hollow men’s inability to speak or express themselves accurately is what eventually leads the speaker to see modern man—the hollow man—as the final iteration of humankind. The world ends not with a “bang” but with the dying “whimper” of a humanity devoid of substance:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.

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