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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” is divided into five sections, exploring the fate of a group of “hollow” souls gathered near what could be the banks of the River Styx. Before the poem begins, Eliot chooses to include two epigraphs:

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.
Penny for the Old Guy.

The first epigraph is a reference to Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, specifically the death of a character named Kurtz—a corrupted character described as “hollow to the core”—who dies suddenly during his journey home from the jungles of the Congo that drove him insane. The second epigraph references the British celebration of Guy Fawkes Day on November 5, when straw effigies of the traitor Guy Fawkes are burned and schoolchildren travel from house to house collecting money to buy fireworks. Although both epigraphs are derived from different sources, each points to the potential hollowness of men.

The opening lines from Eliot’s poem tie directly to the two epigraphs.

We are the hollow men.
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

The four introductory lines present the reader with a paradox and raise questions: How can men be “stuffed” yet “hollow” simultaneously? Are they hollow because they are stuffed? It is also important to note that the speaker of the poem includes himself among the “hollow men” by employing the pronoun “we.” The speaker mourns the state of the “hollow men” with the use of the word “Alas!” The words and deeds of these “hollow” souls are described as “meaningless.”

The speaker of the poem appears to be stuck along with the other “hollow men” in some dry, purgatorial place. Much of the poem is dedicated to describing the desolation of this place:

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms.

This setting is described elsewhere in the poem as a “cactus land,” “death’s other kingdom,” “death’s dream kingdom,” the “twilight kingdom,” and “last of meeting places.” This repeated focus on the place inhabited by the “hollow men” has become the subject of much scholarly debate. Some argue that Eliot is referring to some sort of afterlife, while most agree that Eliot refers to the state of the modern world. In this grim interpretation of modernity, “The Hollow Men” argues that many members of society are themselves hopeless and live their lives in a state of limbo, simply existing and waiting for death.

The final lines of Eliot’s poem rank among the most famous and memorable lines of all twentieth-century poetry.

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 a whimper.

Eliot’s speaker is confident that this end will eventually come but leaves the cause or source of the “whimper” vague and ambiguous. What exact form this whimper will take is for the reader to imagine. The end is inevitable; it appears to be only a question of when and how.

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