The Hollow Men

The Hollow Men Themes


Failure is a major theme in "The Hollow Men." Eliot collects examples of failure in the figures of Kurtz and Fawkes, who both failed at living an anarchic life. He also explores it under other subthemes: paralysis, or a failure of will; impotence, or a failure to procreate; malaise, or a failure of imagination; and amorality, or a failure of faith. Failure is also something "The Hollow Men" demonstrates poetically: the syntax breaks up and the voices in the poem, become unable to complete a prayer. The ritual of reciting poetry fails; language itself fragments and fails. The poem ends with the world ending, another failure, and it ends poorly, in the embarrassing sound of a whimper.


Faith is explored in "The Hollow Men" through contrasts. First, there’s the contrast between the Hollow Men themselves, who are paralyzed by amorality, and those who have crossed the river into the afterlife with “direct eyes,” representing faith and moral clarity. Then, there’s a contrast between the arid desert, the “dead land” of faithlessness, and the dream state in sleep, where the narrator has access to a distant, fading world of faith, represented by the figures of the wind singing, the tree swinging, and the fading star. The poem intensifies with expressions of religious desire, and a simultaneous opposing resurgence of despair. Prayers are directed to a broken stone; the vision of the Christian “perpetual star, Multifoliate rose” becomes “The hope only/Of empty men.” The final word, whimper, describes a sound, expressing the paradox of praying for salvation without enough faith to form a word.