The inevitable result of living amid such turmoil and a general absence of existential certainty was the internalisation of those feelings, which manifested broadly as moral and spiritual vacancy. Such is the focus of The Hollow Men.
The reference to Heart of Darkness in ‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead’ establishes the poem’s central theme of existential and ontological nothingness (that text explores the depths of the human capacity for evil and dehumanisation that accompanies it). It is important to next make note of the way in which the speaker counts himself among the ‘hollow men’; ‘We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men.’ – they are described as scarecrows, their heads ‘filled with straw.’ Again, Eliot emphasises the way in which the men are empty, in every sense of the word. Their voices are ‘quiet and meaningless,’ as they have been worn away by the world they inhabit. Through the binary oppositions in ‘Shape without form, shade without colour, / Paralysed force, gesture without motion,’ Eliot touches on the frustration of feeling stuck in between something greater, or being neither here nor there, that he explored through the time motif in Rhapsody. In this poem, those lines have the effect of stressing how the men are trapped in the struggle of wanting to achieve a sense of self-actualisation, of feeling real, but ultimately being unable to do so.
The next few stanzas utilise images of decay to further the idea of hollowness and of destruction in a more general sense; through ‘Sunlight on a broken column / There, is a tree swinging / And voices are / In the wind’s singing / More distant and more solemn / Than a fading star,’ Eliot invokes objects that should be symbols of power and the energy of life – a column, a tree, a star – but presents them as being in a state of decay, as they have been weakened and eroded by the forces of modernity.
The rest of the poem, until Stanza V, continues that theme. Stanza V however begins with a corruption of a nursery rhyme which has the effect of painting the men, and in turn their society, as mindless, immature followers desperately clinging to some trivial form of routine and tradition. It is important to note that Jesus was said to have been born at five in the morning, so we can assume that this passage is supposed to be interpreted as a nihilistic take on the birth of Christ.
The lines ‘Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow / For Thine is the Kingdom / Between the conception / And the creation / Between the emotion / And the response / Falls the Shadow / Life is very long.’ Draw on the rhythm and emotional dimension of a sexual act, but do so in a pessimistic and unfulfilling way: Eliot is suggesting that sex, an innately human, powerful experience, is where those kinds of metaphysical and existential thoughts are inspired, but in this case, do not materialise into anything more significant – or, indeed, anything at all. There is no climax; only boiling, unresolved tension, that has the effect of sapping life away, rather than reinvigorating it. That idea is continued in the next few lines. It must be noted that ‘For Thine is the Kingdom’ is a line from the Lord’s Prayer, the most significant of all Christian prayers.
As such, the stunted lines ‘For Thine is / Life is / For Thine is the’ has a startling effect, as the speaker is unable to express themselves – they have lost the ability to not only communicate, but to make sense of their world. They have internalised the erosion of their society and have become hollow. Accordingly, the final passage, ‘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 with a whimper’ again constructs an image of an anti-climax, as Eliot makes a final comment on the failing state of the world we inhabit: not even its end has been granted the privilege of having any significance, as everything has been stripped away and made empty.