The Hollow Men Analysis

  • The poem has two epigraphs: the first alludes to Kurtz, the deified ivory trader from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and the second alludes to Guy Fawkes, a historical figure famous for his part in the Gunpowder Plot.
  • T. S. Eliot uses the scarecrow-like Hollow Men to personify the spiritual emptiness he sees around him. Eliot makes them sing and dance as they explain their spiritual emptiness to the reader.
  • The last lines of the poem, "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper,"  speak directly to the despair that Eliot believes defines human existence.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” was originally published in 1925. The poem contains one hundred lines and appears in five parts. The opening line states, “We are the hollow men,” in a clear reference to the title. The following line, “We are the stuffed men,” could be an allusion to the effigies (or little straw men) burnt in celebration on Guy Fawkes Day. The next few lines offer readers sensory imagery, both visual and auditory, in which the hollow men are “leaning together” and whispering with “dried voices.” These voices, hushed by their dryness, correlate with images of wind blowing through the grass and rats’ feet walking over broken glass in the “dry cellar.” The repetition of the word “dry” in the opening stanza allows the speaker to continually emphasize how arid this setting is.

Part two of the poem refers to “death’s dream kingdom.” The speaker once again uses sensory imagery, with descriptions of “sunlight on a broken column,” a tree’s “swinging,” and the wind’s “singing.” Images of the pastoral with the wind and trees appear in sharp contrast to words that connote death or disjointedness. When the speaker mentions that he must wear disguises and dress almost like a scarecrow (“Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves”), readers can infer that he does not belong in this strange place, which could be either the afterlife or a surreal version of the modern world.

Compared to the rest of the poem, part five seems detached from the rest. This final section of the poem opens with “here we go round the prickly pear,” an allusion to the children’s song “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”; in Eliot’s poem, the original “mulberry bush” has been replaced with the prickly pear cactus. The word choice here further emphasizes imagery that signifies dryness, death, and age. In the song, children dance around a blooming bush, but in the poem, old men (or “hollow men”) huddle around a desert plant which is traditionally not associated with youth and vitality.

Most of the remaining stanzas in the poem contain a continuation of juxtaposed ideas with line breaks in between each of them and with no punctuation, all framed around the repeated phrase “Between” and ending with the line “Falls the Shadow.” This shadow that falls between each of these related ideas could be interpreted as death, uncertainty, or the apocalyptic end that awaits everyone and will interrupt everything. Almost all of these stanzas end with clear allusions to “The Lord’s Prayer” (or at least one of its concluding lines, “For Thine is the Kingdom”) before the prayer is reduced to mere fragments like “For Thine is” as language itself begins to break down. Three of the final four lines of the entire poem are repetitions of “This is the way the world ends” before the concluding “[n]ot with a bang but with a whimper.” It’s as if the dry voices of the hollow men fail to make any resounding noise. Instead, they simply whimper, huddled together by the cactus and the river.

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