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“The Hollow Men” by T.S.Eliot Analysis

Modernism was the cultural and artistic movement starting around late 19th century and was first practiced in visual arts (paintings and architecture) and poetry. In early 20th century, when Modernist literature became more and more prevalent and influential, social events also played significant roles in advancing this movement. The most shocking and depressing one, WWI inevitably became the major topic for many poets and writers. In The Hollow Men, Eliot gives a vivid image of the post-war social mindset after WWI came to an end. The first great war in modern age, WWI led to not only physical destructions, but also spiritual disillusionment. The quote from Heart of Darkness and a line related to Guy Fawkes provides the readers a first taste of the themes of the poem: brutal transformations of individuals and the recurring motif of “straw men.” As both historical and literary backgrounds, the criticism of imperialism in Heart of Darkness and the failure of Gunpowder Plot of 1605 both suggest the relationship between people and social trends, which are surpassingly more powerful; this relationship, or struggle, is also what Eliot tries to explore in this poem. Staring with images of religious service, which are full of “dried voices” and “quiet and meaningless” worshippers, the first stanza of the poem already suggests that the effect of the war presents challenges to and causes decline in faith. With alliterations such as “shape without form, shade without colour”, Eliot underscores that those who have lost faith are empty inside. These men are “the hollow men” , embodied in the “broken column” and “fading star”, which symbolize hopelessness and disintegration. Even their land is “the dead land”, “cactus land”, where no life survives. On the other hand, the “stuffed men” have “eyes” as “the perpetual star” and “multifoliate rose”, the vision of a paradise. The “hollow men” are afraid of the “eyes” of “stuffed man”, people who belong to heaven and still have their faith, because they cannot find a proper answer for questions like “what is the purpose of the war?” The “hollow men” used to be “stuffed men” in the past, before they go to the war,  and now they see those parts that make them “stuffed” die in themselves. In part V, also the last part of the poem, the complexity and severity of the war’s aftereffects are portrayed to full extent in terms of form, diction, imagery, content, etc. This part begins with a children’s rhyming game, with a substitution of “prickly pear” (another alliteration) for “mulberry bush.” According to the footnote prickly pear is a cactus and therefore alludes to that the soldiers lose their innocence in the battlefield, represented by the cactus land. The seven pairs of opposites or cause and effect — “idea” and “reality”, “motion” and “act”, “conception” and “creation”, “emotion” and “response”, “desire” and “spasm”,  “potency” and “existence”, and “essence” and “descent”, are all separated by the “shadow”, which represent two forces, the external force of war or other unstoppable events and the internal force of one’s actions, and both forces are responsible for the interruption or separation. “For thine is the Kingdom” is put aside and in italics, suggesting that faith is now set aside but is always there as an independent existence and never really disappears. Though the line of prayer sounds like the “whimper,” the next side line, “life is very long” slightly reflects the hope for regaining the faith. The last stanza in italics responds to the first part of part V: when the game comes to an end, it ends with a “whimper”, sad, soft, quiet, more like the nature of the war’s aftermath, extremely painful but too much pain to express.


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