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"The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot and its reflection on early twentieth-century humanity and its relevance today

Summary:

"The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot reflects early twentieth-century humanity's sense of disillusionment and moral decay following World War I. The poem's themes of emptiness and loss of purpose remain relevant today, as modern society continues to grapple with existential crises and the search for meaning in a rapidly changing world.

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What does "The Hollow Men" reveal about T.S. Eliot's view of post-WW I humanity?

I'm not sure that I would necessarily identify anything specifically "post-war" about the themes of "The Hollow Men." An interesting phenomenon is the continuity of modernist thought between the pre-war and post-war era. We're often told, not incorrectly, that a massive disillusionment among intellectuals and people generally was caused by the carnage of the Great War. Writers who had come of age from 1914 to 1918 were told by Getrude Stein, "You are all a lost generation," as quoted by Hemingway, one of that generation's best exemplars, in The Sun Also Rises. But before the war, Eliot had written "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Prufrock seems to be much the same kind of individual, emptied of emotion and desire, as the speaker in "The Hollow Men." It is the same tone in the latter poem, but starker, even more intense and despairing.

It would be false to deny that the post-World-War-I atmosphere had an influence on the mood of "The Hollow Men" but, as stated, negativity had already been part of the modernist mindset before 1914 and even extending further back into the Victorian period. The poems of Arnold, Swinburne, Dowson, Hardy and others were filled with a fated pessimism and hopelessness. The epigraph to "The Hollow Men," from Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), comes as well from the era that preceded modernism. Conrad's novella is a picture of the deterioration of the old European world, symbolized in the madness of Kurtz. It was left to Eliot and others to extend and amplify that Zeitgeist of despair, until Eliot experienced his religious conversion beginning with "Ash Wednesday " and essentially created a new, metamorphosed vision of modern man.

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What does "The Hollow Men" reveal about T.S. Eliot's view of post-WW I humanity?

In "The Hollow Men," Eliot describes humanity after World War I as lost and unmoored. The hollow men are likened to living corpses, to rats, and to the sightless. They wander around with ideas that they are incapable of putting into action. They are the "Shadow" between an idea and its actualization:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

These hollow men sound like the shell-shocked or traumatized soldiers who never quite recovered from their experiences on the battlefields of World War I. They are also likened to straw men, empty inside.

World War I was a shocking event to most Europeans, who had believed in the superiority of their culture and had faith in rationalism and Christian compassion, only to witness the irrational and barbarous bloodbath of World War I. Many people, reflected in Eliot's hollow men, felt empty inside, betrayed by the failed ideals of their culture. They didn't know, after the war, what to put their faith in or where to turn, which is why they are often called the Lost Generation. As the narrator puts it at the end of this 1925 poem, civilization falls not in a glorious upheaval but with a "whimper" as its people run out of steam and the will to act:

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

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What does "The Hollow Men" reveal about T.S. Eliot's view of post-WW I humanity?

T. S. Eliot writes that all men after World War I are "hollow." At the beginning of his poem "The Hollow Men," the line "Mistah Kurtz--he dead" appears. This is a reference to Kurtz, the antagonist of Conrad's Heart of Darkness--an evil man who dies after despairing of the state of humanity. However, the hollow men, their heads filled with straw and with "dry voices," have not passed to "Death's other kingdom," as Eliot writes in the first stanza of his poem. Instead, these hollow men wander the earth with "paralyzed force." They have no force but instead inhabit the earth as if they were dead.

The hollow men that Eliot describes are afraid to look the dead in the face--they seem guilt-ridden to look at the dead. Instead, they wonder alive but in a "dead land," a "cactus land." Eliot's view is that humanity has no ability to be human after the war. They instead are unable to show emotion, such as kissing people. The hollow men have no eyes and no ability to speak. They can't even complete simple acts, such as circling the mulberry bush in the famous children's rhyme in the final stanza. Instead, they live in a world of shadow. They seem unable even to complete a prayer, as the line "For thine is," which refers to the line "For thine is in the kingdom of God," in the Lord's Prayer, is incomplete in the final stanza. Eliot believes that after World War I, people lived in a world of shadows where they are reduced to being less than human and where God had deserted them. 

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How does "The Hollow Men" by T. S. Eliot reflect early twentieth-century humanity? Is it still relevant today?

"The Hollow Men" emerged out of the aftermath of World War I. It can be seen as a paradigm example of modernism in that it reflects a cultural environment in which all the old certainties have been destroyed. Deprived of all the old moral, aesthetic, and political certainties by this cataclysmic conflict, Western humanity has been hollowed out, no longer able to draw on centuries of cultural achievement for its values and principles.

The contemporary relevance of the poem lies in the fact that, in the current climate, many of the certainties that formed the bedrock of Western civilization during the Cold War appear to be under serious threat. In this era of fake news and populism, the values of liberal democracy, the rule of law, and internationalism are under sustained assault from a variety of sources. Once again, Western humanity finds itself hollowed out, deprived of all the old certainties by massive upheaval (in this case the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath, whose damaging consequences are still being felt to this day).

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How does "The Hollow Men" by T. S. Eliot reflect early twentieth-century humanity? Is it still relevant today?

"The Hollow Men" is largely a poem of despair, decrying the emptiness felt by many in the early twentieth century following the terrible destruction of World War I and as fascism and state communism began to rise. Eliot repeatedly compares men to scarecrows, suggesting a disconnect from the heroic way in which they might try to frame themselves and the way they actually are.

We can understand the modern era in terms of people reacting against the terrors of war, industrial society, and the failed promises of the political systems that dominated the world. In contrast, post-modernism is often discussed as people adjusting to this. For example, there is a general understanding that politicians and corporations are corrupt but little expectation of truth or purity.

In this framework, we can see Eliot's poem as a modern lament for the hollowness of the world and these themes as setting the stage for the world we live in now. I would say "The Hollow Men" very much applies to the present day, but that it's meaning and tone will read differently in the different context we live in. I think few would really argue that world systems live up to the ideals they espouse, so i think framing the world and its leaders as hollow is still a compelling depiction.

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How does "The Hollow Men" by T. S. Eliot reflect early twentieth-century humanity? Is it still relevant today?

"The Hollow Men" reflects a society that is filled with meaninglessness and symbols that have ceased to signify anything. One of the two epigraphs of the poem refers to the death of Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Kurtz is a revered figure in Conrad's novel until the main character, Marlow, finds out that Kurtz is a fraud; Kurtz therefore stands for the meaninglessness of life and of its spiritual deadness.

The beginning of the 20th century was marked by the loss of belief in established ideas and by widespread disillusionment, particularly after the death and destruction caused by World War I. Countries were divided by a belief in western-style democracies, a belief in Fascism, and a belief in Communism, but all systems resulted in war and in destruction. In the face of this wide scale destruction, it was hard for people to sustain their faith and hope.

Eliot reflects people's disillusionment with the hollow men in his poem. These men have a "headpiece stuffed with straw"--in other words, their heads are stuffed with nothing but straw. These men are so hollow, so desiccated in their ideas, that they seem to not be able to enter "death's dream kingdom." Their life does not end with a traditional death; instead, it seems as if death characterizes their hollow lives as they exist in a barren "cactus land." The cactus is a symbol of their spiritual desiccation. Their lives are drained of meaning; they are dry and without sustenance. Instead, they wander as if in a "valley of dying stars." They have no stars to guide their journeys but instead live without guidance and without hope.

Some might argue that the meaning of the poem still applies today, though you have to figure out your own take. Is today's world filled with meaninglessness and with "hollow men" without substance, or do people today find some sort of meaning in their lives and some kinds of hope?

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