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T. S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men” Essay

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Updated: Oct 22nd, 2021

Human beings, as opposed to animals, possess the ability of abstractive thinking that results in the appearance of the superstructure referred to as social or collective consciousness that nowadays drives individuals to be careful when expressing their thoughts, emotions, and aspirations. The ethical debate over the appropriateness of such behavior has a long history and is not likely to be resolved in the nearest future. The genius of symbolist poetry, Thomas Eliot, demonstrates the destructive aspects of such adaptation and implies that the very nature of ethics as transcendence and humanity are corrupted by the clerical imperative of wearing grey camouflage of ignorance and emotional emptiness.

In his verse entitled “Hollow Men” Eliot expresses a categorical opinion against the avoidance of spiritual self-revelation as a path to the death of the soul. At the very beginning of the poem, the author employs allusion for the purpose of directing symbolist imagination from “A penny for the Old Guy”, or games children play when imitating beggars, to the daily theatrical performance, imposed mostly by religion: “Shape without form, shade without color,/Paralyzed force, gesture without motion” (Eliot, I, pp. 11-12). The author, as one can assume, uses descriptive cue, implying the papacesarist imperative of conformity and assimilation into the colorless society.

Eliot employs the so-called exhausted poetic mode for the purpose of showing the corruptive nature of adherence to social mimicry, which results in the spiritual blindness, the loss of the ability to the perceive the world as it is: “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” (Eliot, I, pp. 13-17). It needs to be noted that the exhausted mode is partially the result of irregular rhyming; for instance, in the first part, one can find the following tendency: a-a-b-c-a-b-d-c-c-b. Such sequence can be classified as thorn rhyme; moreover, to highlight the words of deeper sense like “men” and “together”, the poet utilizes identical rhyme as well. In the first and second parts, allusion is used so that Eliot refers to Dante’s Beatrice, who embodies purity and sincerity, or “direct vision”, and opposes the miserable empty people to the person, who never loses her ability to look deep inside and see the very seed of truth.

Furthermore, to demonstrate the general framework of this socially governed deception, Eliot uses hyperbola: in fact, the objects of his criticism are not born hollow; they rather voluntarily empty themselves by confusing their “Ego”, our inner self, with the “Alter Ego”, or the social self, and abandoning the inner truth everyone maintains. However, it is inferred that the words of love that derive from the heart are much more ethical than the stipulation of the piety formalities, as the slight reference to Beatrice, an eternally devoted creature, illustrates.

The further symbolic language specifies the forms of deception: “Between the idea/ And the reality/ Between the motion/ And the act/ Falls the Shadow” (Eliot, IV, 5-9) and “Between the conception/ And the creation/ Between the emotion/ And the response/ Falls the Shadow” (Eliot, IV, pp. 11-15). The symbols can be interpreted in the following way: individuals fail to render and actualize their will and consider each step, forced by the fear of marginalization; finally, they fail to distinguish between the personal and the imposed. However, the benefit of such existence is also pointed out; in reality, such hollow individuals do not need to invest their effort into critical thinking and reflection, as the alleged universal axioms are incorporated into their outlook by the environment, in which clergymen are identified first and foremost. They are first to benefit from this carefully fabricated cognitive slavery, in which the enforcement of constraints is closely followed by setting an illusionary idea of salvation in the afterworld: “Sightless, unless/ The eyes reappear/ As the perpetual star/ Multifoliate rose/ Of death’s twilight kingdom/ The hope only/ Of empty men” (Eliot, III, pp. 9-15). These lines metaphorically reflect the hypocritical (in Eliot’s account) notion of the “delayed well-being” in the afterlife, which resembles Dante’s Limbo, the place of forgetfulness and eternal shadow.

As one can assume, the interpretive analysis of the symbols and metaphors in the poem suggests that Eliot appears an opponent of any behaviors conditioned by social or religious necessity as the path of spiritual degradation.

Works cited

Eliot, T.S. “The Hollow Men”. 2002.

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