Written by T.S. Eliot in 1925, “The Hollow Men” is a strange and haunting poem intertwined with symbols, imagery, paradoxes, and many more literary devices. Upon first reading the poem is extremely confusing, and even after the fifth reading, the poem is still a little intimidating due to the numerous literary devices and profound messages intertwined within. Perhaps one of the most important literary devices of the poem is imagery. Imagery plays a crucial role in developing the basis of the poem and its underlying themes. The most prominent piece of imagery appears at the beginning when T.S. Eliot writes:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
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
The men are characterized as “hollow” and “stuffed.” This description constitutes one of the most notable paradoxes of the poem. Although these two terms seem contradictory, they, in fact, help each other to fully characterize the men in the same way. The “hollow” description of the men characterizes them as dull, lifeless figures who are lacking value, worth, and effectiveness. However, the “stuffed” description causes the reader to re-evaluate initial assumptions since the word “stuffed” leads the reader to the conclusion that these men might actually have substance and purpose. Nevertheless, the reader learns in the following lines that the men are “filled with straw.” This description helps to confirm the initial impression because although the men are stuffed, they are stuffed with straw, a simple filler that lacks substance. Surprisingly, these two contradictory term ultimately characterize the men in the same way as lifeless, stagnant figures who are there just for the sake of existence and are only able to remain upright since they lean together for support. In addition to this simple paradox, the simile at the end of the stanza helps to further characterize the men as lifeless. Eliot writes that the men are “quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in our dry cellar.” Wind rustling dry grass arouses images of a vast prairie filled with brown, dead grass while a prairie with slightly damp, fresh grass evokes images of life. And usually, a suitable atmosphere for rats is a damp one. Since water is the elixir of life and usually indicates growth and development, the lack of water in this simile further represents the lifelessness and desolate state of the men.
As aforementioned, the poem was written in 1925, around the same time as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. These two pieces of literature share many similarities. For instance, throughout both the poem and the novel, eyes as a symbol play an important role. In The Great Gatsby, the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg are ever-present and are constantly watching over the corrupt and polluted society. George Wilson even perceives these eyes as the eyes of God. Similarly, in the poem, the eyes seem to be ever-present. At first they seem to be evil or dark things that the men fear as they are “eyes I dare not meet in dreams.” However, as the poem progresses, the eyes become a symbol of longing “as the eyes reappear as a perpetual star.” The eyes represent a source of hope and escape from the dark desolate land the men are trapped in. Furthermore, both literary works have similar underlying themes of dissatisfaction due to lives filled with desires. In The Great Gatsby, although some parts seem extravagant and lavish, the entire setting throughout the book is actually corrupt and polluted. Similarly, the setting throughout the poem is one of darkness and hopelessness. Both writers present the ideas that life is filled with desires and the wrong choices can lead to a meaningless and an unhappy life of dissatisfaction. This is clearly seen in The Great Gatsby through Jay Gatsby who spends his entire life lusting for wealth and Daisy Buchanan. In the poem, this theme is not as clear; however, the ending unveils this message in its entirety when Eliot writes “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” Through these lines, Eliot suggests that if men continue to yearn and chase after desires, the world will end in the same desolate state of both the hollow and stuffed men and the lifeless, non-hopeful land they live in. It will end “not with a bang but a whimper” if people continue to chase desires because they will always be consumed with a sense of unfulfillment and dissatisfaction and will whimper for more until the end. Overall, both The Great Gatsby and “The Hollow Men” share many similarities and both present an intimidating message warning their readers of the dangers of living a life constantly chasing after desires.