Themes

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The Loss and Failure of Faith

In “The Hollow Men,” Eliot includes subtle references to religious faith, a pillar of culture that had begun to crumble by Eliot’s time. In part four, the speaker begins chanting parts of the Lord’s Prayer (“For Thine is the Kingdom”), but it ultimately disintegrates into incomplete fragments with no response from any deity. In part three, as the speaker travels through the “dead land,” he reminisces:

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Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

In a weakened state, the hollow men tremble and can barely form prayers to “broken stone,” an image that metonymically evokes fallen temples or ruined cathedrals, which in turn embody the hollow men’s sundered faith. This phenomenon became widespread in T. S. Eliot’s age, in which many people were losing their faith in God and their trust in religious institutions as a result of advances in science and industry. Furthermore, the unprecedented death and carnage of the First World War caused people to believe that either there is no God or that he must be a cruel, indifferent deity. Yet despite his own struggles with religious faith, Eliot converted to the Anglican Church (or the Church of England) later in life.

The Predicament of the Lost Generation

The "we" referred to at the beginning of the poem can be interpreted as Eliot’s generation, 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. For them, the modern world seemed cruel, chaotic, and even meaningless following the traumas of such a violent war. Thus the poem is best understood as the thoughts of these “hollow men” who remain after the war, contemplating matters of life, purpose, and death. The poem plays on the idea of two kingdoms of death. The afterlife, typically considered death's domain, is called "death's other Kingdom." Modern life could be considered death's kingdom as well, given the fragility and precariousness of mortality in an age of political instability and mass mechanization. 

The Deterioration or Fragmentation of Language

Like most of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, parts of “The Hollow Men” contain fragmented, disjointed language that attempt to describe the traumas and incoherences of modern existence. In part five, Eliot presents a series of binaries between “idea” and “reality” or “creation” and “conception,” all juxtaposed with repeated lines like “Life is very long” (an allusion to Joseph Conrad’s novel An Outcast of the Islands) and “For Thine is the Kingdom” (an allusion to the Lord’s Prayer). However, these lines are reduced to fragments as language begins to break down toward the end of the speaker’s journey with the hollow men:

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

In the context of the Lord’s Prayer, the chant falls into incomplete fragments, failing to complete the prayer. It is as though language cannot express humans’ fears and anxieties of an indifferent, chaotic universe.

Death as a Journey

In several of T. S. Eliot’s poems, the speaker undergoes a journey that unfolds both literally and metaphorically. In “The Hollow Men,” the speaker travels through separate kingdoms of death, and the changing nature of the imagery helps mark the transitions of this journey. In part two, the speaker notices “a tree swinging” and “the wind’s singing.” Then, the beginning of part three shifts to imagery of dryness, with references to cacti and stone. Unlike in part two, which contains imagery of “sunlight on a broken column,” light is only seen through the image of a “fading,” perhaps dying, star. The speaker refers to “death’s other kingdom,” first mentioned in part two, noticing the similarities between the two...

(The entire section contains 1053 words.)

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