The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot: A Summary

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at 2016.10.31
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The Hollow Men was written by Eliot after World War, as a fitting reflection of a soulless generation that seemed to have lost hope in both religion and love. Eliot too shared this confusion and this becomes apparent right from the very beginning, with the two relevant epigraphs.

The first epigraph, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead” referring to the death of the immoral character, “Kurtz” and the second epigraph, “A penny for the Old Guy” concerning Guy Fawkes Day celebration, seem to prepare us towards getting involved with Eliot’s complex exploration of the agitated psyche of modern man.

Section-wise Summary

Section 1

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

Summary: Commenting upon their state in the form of a chorus, The Hollow Men specify that they are “hollow” (emotionally and spiritually) and yet “stuffed” (insignificant trash as straw fill up their heads). Thus being barren, they lack the capacity to stand erect and hence lean “together.”  Such is their pathetic condition that neither are they audible (dried voices, whisper) nor can they say anything with reason (Are quiet and meaningless) except a deep rooted bemoaning of their fallen state through the solitary ejaculation, “Alas.” They appear to be a contorted mass of contradictory features: formless (Shape without form), blanched (shade without colour), immobile (Paralyzed force) and have a clueless expression (gesture without motion).

Having failed to cross “death’s other Kingdom” (possibly Heaven since dead men are hinted to have “crossed” it with “direct eyes”), they seem to cherish at least one satisfaction, being recalled as “hollow men” by “Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom.”

Section 2

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

Summary: After proclaiming their deplorable state, the Hollow Men now proceed to offer a glimpse of the other limitations they endure. Being predominantly timid and terrified, they desperately seek a refuge from the carefree “Eyes” of souls that dwell in Heaven “Eyes I dare not meet in dreams/

In death’s dream kingdom.” Their apprehension is made explicit by the candid usage of the word “dare;” they cannot “dare” to face those “shining eyes” even in their “dreams.” In that forbidden territory, “eyes” resemble “Sunlight on a broken column” and “voices” appear as “distant” and “solemn.”

Singularly disinterested in invading such a “death’s dream kingdom” the Hollow Men are content in concealing within “Such deliberate disguises” as “Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves.” They twist and turn aimlessly as scarecrows and refrain from confronting a terminal evaluation of their character by the penetrating “Eyes” during a final rendezvous (presumably Last Judgment Day) at “twilight” (the end hour of the world).

Section 3

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

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.

Summary: So long engrossed in describing themselves, now the Hollow Men attempt to present the typical condition of the land they inhabit, “the dead land.” The arid land grows nothing except cacti; there also exists “stone images” that receive the begging (supplication) of these doomed men “under the twinkling of a fading star” thereby suggesting how their fervent desires too are threatened of a rapid disintegration.

Suddenly these men become inquisitive of the state of affairs in “death’s other kingdom.” “Is it like this,” they ask and further wonder if the settlers “there” are condemned as them to roam “alone.” It is interesting to note that in spite of stark sterility highlighted so long, they now seem to possess some bits of “tenderness” that tend to tremble them. However, long borne inactivity overrides their subtler feelings rendering their “Lips” useless, instead of kissing, they can only “Form prayers to broken stone.”

Section 4

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

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

Summary: Bereft of vision, the Hollow Men “In this valley of dying stars/ In this hollow valley,” huddle together and choose not to speak. The “fading stars” here are almost “dying” thereby indicative of their further deterioration, and the place too signals a final predicament; it is “the last of the meeting places,” “This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms” perhaps suggesting an impossibly remote land from where there is no resurrection.

Stranded, they long for the “eyes” to “reappear” not as “fading” but eternal (perpetual) so that they gain access to “death’s twilight kingdom” and this forms the sole wish of these “empty” men.

Section 5

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

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.

Summary: If men are essentially “hollow and empty,” if they are “shapes” without “forms,” it is natural that their children are supposed to run around a “prickly pear” rather than a “mulberry bush.”In the next fragment,

“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom”

Eliot now gives a somewhat passing explanation of their complicated forms. There is an irrevocable “shadow” that restricts these forsaken men from realising their “ideas” into “reality” or “move” into “action,” thereby reducing them to mere nothing.

Such is their fate that they are rendered inept even from muttering the concluding part of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” They end up with only “For Thine is the Kingdom.” It gives the impression that if only they could complete the prayer, their long misery would have subsided; but their failure is appalling, and they are left to perish between life and death. In the next two fragments,

“Between the conception”… “For Thine is the Kingdom”

the crippling power of “the shadow” is further analysed; it rudely intrudes in the midst of “conception” of an idea, and  it’s “creation” or execution, it intervenes the fragile moment when one feels emotional (emotion) and is about to respond(response). Their messy state thus turning awfully intricate, they cannot help but exclaim wearily,” Life is very long.”  The unsparing oppression of “the shadow” continues, now invading the territories of “desire” and “spasm,” “potency” and “existence,” and higher “essence” that things possess and their “descent.”

The Hollow Men attempt to chant Lord’s Prayer again but this time they fall through in the middle of a sentence:

“For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the”

Unable to remember and transfixed to their miserable plight, they sadistically revel crooning their bizarre adaptation of the famous song of the “Mulberry Bush,”

“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends”

However, it is the last line that epitomises the probable end of such a unique survival,

“Not with a bang but a whimper.”

And it is through this ignominious and paltry manner of fading away into oblivion that Eliot attempts to mirror the fate of his confused generation. There is no celebration of life’s triumphed obstacles, no satisfaction of a life well spent; it is only an inconsequential “whimper.”

The Hollow Men, apart from being a reflection of the paralysed psyche of post World War 1 men, is also reminiscent of Eliot’s mental agony; it was written when his marriage with Vivien Eliot had collapsed, and he was skeptical about such things as religious hope and love. Now, for more information, you may read the detailed analysis of the poem.

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