T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men , published in 1925, is stunning—stunning for its heavy use of imagery, stunning for its meaning.
(Read it here.)
“We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed men.”
And it is this first, simple image of Eliot’s poem that stands out most to me, one of hollow yet stuffed men “leaning towards each other, headpieces filled with straw.” Quite similar to a scarecrow, in fact, which could be an appropriate interpretation until you realize it’s only the headpieces filled with straw. Indeed, we are not scarecrows; we are men, not even scarecrows. Because at least the scarecrow’s entire body is filled with straw; it may be filled with nonsensical and absurd thoughts, but at least it’s filled. But we are men. We are men, hollow men with no hearts. And then, our minds run full of frivolous and trivial thoughts, in other words, the empty thoughts. We are stuffed, but we are hollow.
Like the Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which was published in the same year, The Hollow Men too seems to criticize the Jazz Age, criticize the people of this era for their behaviours, attitudes and values. This idea of “hollowness” is seen in Daisy from The Great Gatsby, a superficial woman, who cares only about herself, her reputation, her looks and her goods. As Nick Carraway states, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Both Fitzgerald and Eliot comment on this twisted view of money as the problem-solver, money as the key to humanity.
The parallel of the star in The Hollow Men and the green light at the end of Daisy’ dock in The Great Gatsby represents this era’s misguided hope, the unattainable dream. “Sightless, unless/The eyes reappear/As the perpetual star.” Yet these eyes will never reappear, just like how Gatsby, despite risking everything he had and sacrificing his life, was not able to reach the green light. This glorified destination, that money and class is key to the American dream, is what cannot be reached, will never be reached. And just like the green light, this star, the hollow mens’ only hope to salvation, will also never appear as the perpetual star.
Both The Hollow Men and The Great Gatsby offer insight on and criticism of the same period, the Roaring 20’s. Though quite different in style, both convey a sense of despair, that this is what our world has come to: a society of hollow, careless creatures, who party together, yet avoid speech, whose only hope is a green light seen through direct eyes.