Study Guide

The Hollow Men Introduction

By T.S. Eliot

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The Hollow Men Introduction

"The Hollow Men" is a huge downer of a poem. In this way, it fits into the general arc of T.S. Eliot's career, which can be divided into Huge Downers and Glorious Uppers. For example, The Waste Land: Huge Downer; Four Quartets: Glorious Upper.

Clearly we're over-simplifying. But Eliot was going through a rough patch when he wrote "The Hollow Men." His marriage to Vivienne Eliot had collapsed, and some scholars think she was having an affair with the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Also, Eliot was still moving toward a religious conversion to Anglicanism that did not arrive until 1927. Several of the poems that Eliot wrote before this conversion concern the total failure of religious hope and love (see, for example, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock").

"The Hollow Men" begins with a quote from Joseph Conrad's famous novella Heart of Darkness, the story of a colonial Englishman who goes power-hungry in Africa, and things only go downhill from there. Eliot's poem is about a group of scarecrow-like individuals who exist in a state between life and death and suffer from a serious case of moral paralysis. They are forever trapped on the banks of the River Styx, the ancient Greek symbol for the dividing line between life and death. Some critics consider "The Hollow Men" to be a companion piece for Eliot's most famous work, The Waste Land, another poem about moral paralysis.

Eliot's poems from the 1920s are often read in a political context as a reaction to the aftermath of World War I. Eliot was preoccupied with the idea of a European literary and ethical tradition, and he saw this tradition fragmenting everywhere around him. He turned, as he often did, to his favorite Italian poet Dante Alighieri, whose Inferno was inspiration for this poem. "The Hollow Men" was published in 1925, three years after The Waste Land. In 1948, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

What is The Hollow Men About and Why Should I Care?

Many people know this poem only for its immortal final lines:

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

We find these lines terrifying because we tend to like stories to have big, flashy endings, and what could be a bigger story than the history of the world? And yet, sometimes real life isn't very dramatic. Every time some petty and preventable catastrophe befalls humanity (or a part of humanity), you'll find journalists, diplomats, and newspaper editorialists turning to T.S. Eliot 's prediction that the world will end with a "whimper."

Don't believe us? Try a Google search with a major global problem and the words "bang" and "whimper." Global warming? Click here. Conflict in the Middle East? Got it covered here. Financial meltdown? But of course. The last lines of "The Hollow Men" have entered the mainstream culture as a way to describe the sometimes arbitrary ways that we humans make a mess of a situation.

The irony is that Eliot really disliked journalists. He thought they were just like the "hollow men" of this poem, and that the politicians and newspaper editors in Paris weren't even capable of making enough of a splash to get into Hell (source). When you read the final lines of "The Hollow Men" in light of the rest of the poem, you'll see that the poem is not so much about the end of the world as about people who sit around and talk without ever trying to put their beliefs or ideas into practice. The poem's message is dark: if you're not going to be a good person, then at least be a really bad person.

The Hollow Men Resources


The Poetry Foundation
The Poetry Foundation presents a long and useful biography of Eliot, and a selection of some of his lesser-known poems.
One of the best things about this page devoted to Eliot is the link to the complete version of his most famous poem, The Waste Land, and his famous and controversial article titled "Tradition and the Individual Talent."


Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now
The director Francis Ford Coppola pulls off a neat stunt in his film Apocalypse Now. Both the film and Eliot's poem are inspired by Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, so Coppola has the character of Col. Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando) read "The Hollow Men" – that is, except for the epigraphs that announce the death of Kurtz.


Wild Voices
An audio recording of "The Hollow Men," plus some background music.


A Portrait of the Hollow Men
A painting of lean-looking men in business suits inspired by Eliot's "The Hollow Men."

Dante and the "tumid river"
An illustration for Canto III of Dante's Inferno shows the souls waiting to be ferried across the Acheron by Charon.

The "prickly pear"
The Hollow Men dance around this desert cactus at the end of the poem. We think the plant is actually quite striking and beautiful.

Portrait of Eliot
A photograph of Eliot without his trademark glasses and cane.


Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
The classic novel about British colonialism and moral emptiness inspired Eliot.

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
A digital edition of Dante's Comedy. Check out Canto 3 of the Inferno for parallels with "The Hollow Men."

Movies or TV Productions

Apocalypse Now
A monster of a film, Coppola's tale of Americans in the Vietnam War is loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Dark, disturbing, fascinating: one of the most important cinematic works of all time.

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