T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men: Summary & Analysis

  • 1:30 Modernist style
  • 2:08 Allusions in the poem
  • 5:15 Spiritual meaning
  • 6:57 Lesson summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Timothy Inman

Tim has taught college English and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing and poetics.

This lesson covers T.S. Eliot's 'The Hollow Men.' Read a summary and learn to analyze one of this modernist poet's most enduring pieces. Then take a quiz to test your comprehension.

The Poem

Cable news channels today abound with pundits slamming the decline of Western values and traditional morality. Chances are, you have caught yourself echoing the words of the popular song, 'Where'd All the Good People Go?' It's difficult not be a little cynical about the world, given rampant news reports detailing the horrors of school shootings, terrorism, and the like. This sense of doom and gloom, though, is not at all new. It was, in fact, the central idea behind much of American poet T.S. Eliot's work. 'The Hollow Men,' published in 1925, is a great example.

T.S. Eliot circa 1923

'The Hollow Men' shares many of the same themes as Eliot's celebrated long poem, 'The Waste Land.' It is, in some ways, a shorter and more accessible version of this earlier piece. Above all, Eliot concerns himself with the crumbling moral fabric of society brought on by the advent of modern science and the declining importance of religion in the everyday lives of people. Eliot was writing in a time in which traditional authorities, both religious and political, were being overthrown in favor of new forms, such as communism and secularism. The world, in Eliot's eyes, was left without a leg to stand on, leaving humankind without a solid foundation for living moral lives. We have become, in effect, 'hollow men.'

Style

Like most modernist poetry, 'The Hollow Men' is written in an experimental, free verse style, with many shifts in voice and point of view. Eliot was a fan of including abundant references to historical events and other literary works, making his poems difficult for novice readers and even highly educated ones. It is recommended to read through the poem first to get an idea of the overall meaning. Only after this initial step should the reader then delve into the subtle references and 'world beyond the text' so characteristic of Eliot's style.

Summary and Analysis

That being said, the reader should have some familiarity with recurring allusions, or references to outside events or texts, including those made to the English Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and Dante's Divine Comedy. These are the main source texts for 'The Hollow Men.'

Before the poem even begins, the reader encounters two such allusions. The epigraph, or quotation set at the beginning of a literary work, comes from Heart of Darkness. It reads:

'Mistah Kurtz--he dead.'

The speaker of this cryptic sentence is about Kurtz, an ivory dealer in Africa whose sole concern is making money, no matter what it takes. His death is a signal that no matter how much wealth a person accumulates, the same fate awaits us all.

The first stanza of 'The Hollow Men' is preceded by another epigraph:

'A penny for the Old Guy.'

This is an allusion to Guy Fawkes, whose botched attempt at bombing Parliament during the failed Gunpowder Plot gave rise to the holiday known as Guy Fawkes Day. The phrase is traditionally uttered by children begging money for fireworks to celebrate the occasion.

The poem then begins in a rather straightforward way:

'We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men.'

This is also a reference to Guy Fawkes, whose effigy (usually in the form of a straw man or scarecrow) is burned on the celebration bearing his name. Eliot's point is that conspiracies to overthrow traditional authorities are little more than empty gestures.

Scarecrow

Just consider the assassination of Julius Caesar, the subject of Shakespeare's famous play, whose death threw Rome into disorder. Even when successful, conspiratorial plots leave nothing in place to satisfy our basic need for rule and order, leading to a state of chaos. The rest of this opening stanza paints a picture of the desolation wrought in the aftermath of anarchy, through frightful images of 'headpieces filled with straw,' 'dried voices,' 'wind in dry grass,' and 'rats' feet over broken glass.' Everything is dried and hollowed out, as in a war-stricken town or the scene of a terrorist attack.

The second stanza takes this theme and runs with it. In Dante's Divine Comedy, the speaker, who is led through the three kingdoms of the afterlife in an attempt to cleanse his soul, cannot meet his lover Beatrice's eyes in heaven, or 'death's dream kingdom.' He is not worthy, having spent the majority of his life working toward fruitless endeavors and temporary ends. And neither, in Eliot's eyes, are modern people. We wear 'deliberate disguises' but are unable to see life for how it is, because we avert our eyes from what is truly important.

Stanzas 3 and 4 offer much of the same, only on a political and religious level. Modern folks reside in a 'dead land' or 'cactus land,' lacking all the important institutions that gave life meaning before:

'Lips that would kiss / Form prayers to broken stone.'

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