Study Guide

The Hollow Men Themes

By T.S. Eliot

  • Dissatisfaction

    You can't blame the Hollow Men for being dissatisfied. They are trapped in the desert on the bank of a river they can't get across. In fact, you would expect them to be even more ticked off than they are. But quite frankly, they can't even muster the enthusiasm to complain. They try not to say anything at all. (When you don't have a proper soul, it's harder to get worked up about soul-crushing misery.) The Hollow Men are like the souls in Canto 3 of Dante's Inferno, who are so bland and cowardly that they are excluded even from the fantastically grotesque torments of Hell.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. How much do the Hollow Men understand about their own condition? Do they recognize the extent of their own unhappiness?
    2. Did God punish the Hollow Men, or did they get what was coming to them? If so, of what does their punishment consist? If not, isn't being ignored by God a punishment in and of itself?
    3. Do you think the Hollow Men suffer more from their physical condition, or from the knowledge that they cannot enter Heaven? How much do they know about Heaven?
    4. How would explain the reference to their "lost kingdoms" in line 56? What kingdoms did they lose?

    Chew on This

    The Hollow Men do not realize how unhappy they are because they do not understand the joys of Heaven enough to know what they are missing.

    The Hollow Men understand the joys of Heaven at an emotional, but not an intellectual, level. Thus, they are deeply unhappy as they intuit their damnation but cannot explain it.

  • Passivity

    The Hollow Men have a bad case of "the Shadow." Like when you sit down to do your homework, and you can't bring yourself do open your book, you too can blame the Shadow. But the Hollow Men have it even worse. They can't even respond to their own emotions. The Shadow represents their cowardice and the failure of their will. They can't even look the "eyes" in, well, the eyes. They turn around and around like the wind and wait on the bank of a river.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. What is the comparison with scarecrows in the poems supposed to suggest? Are they actually scarecrows, or is it just a metaphor?
    2. What would it take to save the Hollow Men? What human characteristics are they lacking?
    3. What does the Shadow do that keeps them from acting? Have you ever felt something like the Shadow that preventing you from doing something?
    4. Is doing nothing and remaining neutral worse than actively committing evil? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The Hollow Men have been damned for their cowardice and weakness of will, symbolized by "the Shadow."

    The Hollow Men are not morally worse than the "violent souls" of Hell, but they are more contemptible. They envy the violent souls for their ability to at least look goodness in the eye, even if only to spit on it.

  • Identity

    The Hollow Men all speak as one because they have the same identity: an empty one. The words "hollow," "empty," and "stuffed" are repeated again and again. Though we think we're dealing with flesh-and-blood people who happen to be passive and wishy-washy, in reality we're dealing with an empty void disguised as a person. The Hollow Men perform ritualistic actions like prayer and have some emotions, like fear. It's important to remember, though, that they are incapable of normal human reactions. They can't finish anything they start. Back on earth, they might have been famous politicians or journalists, but now they're just shells.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Are the Hollow Men fully human, part human, or not human at all?
    2. What do you think the Hollow Men were like on earth? Would there be any way to tell if someone were "hollow"?
    3. If they are supposed to be empty and have heads stuffed with straw, how do they know so much about their own condition?
    4. Why are they afraid of looking at the "eyes"? What do they think would happen if they were exposed to the eyes?

    Chew on This

    The Hollow Men represent people who are more comfortable taking part in a mob mentality than in holding their own moral viewpoints. They are the ultimate example of "groupthink."

    The Hollow Men do not completely lack self-knowledge. They see enough of their own condition and flawed ideals to be ashamed of themselves. Otherwise, they would not be afraid to look at the "eyes."

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    At several points in the poem, the Hollow Men express vague hopes of being rescued by "the eyes." Do they think that the souls with eyes will come back on the last day of history and pluck them off the river to live among the stars? We don't know, but somehow we don't count this outcome as very likely, particularly when they are so afraid to meet the eyes even in their dreams. The stars represent the hope of salvation, but they grow dimmer and will probably be gone soon. The Hollow Men have no concrete plans and can't even finish a simple prayer.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Do the Hollow Men have any hope of being saved? If not, why would Eliot write such a hopeless poem?
    2. Is "death's dream kingdom" supposed to represent Heaven? Why would Heaven be a dream?
    3. What does the last stanza mean to you? Is the poem really describing the end of the world, or do the lines merely express a belief held by the Hollow Men?
    4. Why do the Hollow Men say that their vision can only be restored by a "perpetual star" or "multifoliate rose"? What do these symbols represent? How do they work?

    Chew on This

    "The Hollow Men" is slightly more optimistic than Dante's Inferno because Eliot suggests the faintest of hopes that these lost souls might still receive God's grace, though they do not deserve it.

    "The Hollow Men" are "blind" because their spiritual vision remains fixed firmly on the past, on their "lost Kingdoms."

  • Exile

    In Canto 3 of Dante's Inferno, Dante's guide Virgil explains that some souls are not accepted by either Heaven or Hell. They didn't do any good in the world, but they didn't actively work against the forces of good, either. They just ignored the universal conflict between good and evil and drifted around aimlessly, pursuing their own empty interests and desires. Dante felt that much of humanity fit into this category. It seems like the Hollow Men are clearly meant to fall in a similar category. They are stuck on the bank of the River Acheron and cannot cross over into death, even though they are dead themselves.

    Questions About Exile

    1. Why wouldn't Hell want to include the Hollow Men among its ranks? Isn't Hell supposed to be for worst people? In that case, shouldn't they be there?
    2. Why are the Hollow Men "gathered" on a beach alongside a river? What is the river, and what are they waiting for?
    3. Why don't the heavenly souls take pity on the Hollow Men? Do you agree with the poem's vision of justice?
    4. Why are the Hollow Men narrating the poem? Do they want to be remembered by people on earth? What would they gain from being remembered?

    Chew on This

    The Hollow Men have no hope of ever crossing the River Acheron. They wait in vain without realizing it.

    The Hollow Men have not been exiled from either Heaven or Hell except insofar as they have exiled themselves by forfeiting their humanity. They cannot achieve either salvation or damnation because they are not fully human.