Conclusions

"The Hollow Men" is essentially a poem of emptiness, Eliot's exploration of the state of his own soul as one of many modern souls suffering the same affliction.  It is an emptiness caused by the condition of the modern world, a modern world in which men live only for themselves, failing to choose between good and evil.  The souls in the poem whose condition we are supposed to be horrified by are not those who have sinned the most, but those who have not chosen whether or not to sin.  They exist in a state in-between, a state in which their failure to make a decision causes an utter lack of hope and joy or pain.  The heroes of this poem are those who clearly see this state and recognize its true horror.  Much of the horror of this state is constructed through the use of allusions that refer to past historical and fictitious characters who suffered similar fates, or who realized the horror of that fate in some decisive moment.  While Eliot's general intent may be clear purely from the words of the poem, a much richer understanding can only be achieved by understanding the allusions he uses as literary tools to construct the work on a foundation laid by authors before him.

Eliot's allusive sources are well chosen, for they bring to mind examples of souls who suffer from the same moral condition as those in the poem.  All of those souls that are referenced are taken from works or events that are extremely powerful in their own right.  Eliot's use of them adds considerably to the power that his poem can convey.  From The Divine Comedy he takes images of souls at every level of the afterlife: hell, purgatory, and heaven.  Dante's lost souls who never made up their minds to live their lives for good or evil and thus are denied entrance to all three suffer the same condition as Eliot's modern man.  Dante the pilgrim becomes heroic in that he dares to look his guilt, shame, and sin in the eye and then makes the conscious decision to repent.  Joseph Conrad's Kurtz also escapes this danger, because in his death he realizes the horror of the modern condition, while his Marlow also realizes a bit of the danger, but still cannot bring himself to tell the truth of it.  Shakespeare's Brutus also realizes the danger of inaction, the fate of only being able to exist as the shadow, somewhere in-between, but his pride causes him to choose the weaker route and join the doomed conspiracy.  Guy Fawkes's whimper spells the end of the failed conspiracy with which he was involved - by doing so he gives up the choice he made for rebellion, his confession betraying his co-conspirators.

Without these specific examples, Eliot could not have conveyed the same meanings without spelling everything out letter by letter.  In this poem not only do the allusions display particularly strong examples of the condition Eliot is conveying, but they also add to the power of the poem considerably by evoking a sense of history, of being part of something larger, of being part of a continual decline, or of a constant danger of the human condition.  The whimper with which the world ends is the whimper of modern man, the whimper of Guy Fawkes giving away other members of his plot, Brutus betraying his Caesar, Kurtz finally seeing all that he has created and been a part of for what it is, and the murmur of the shades who can never enter heaven or hell.  When seen in this context the last words of the poem gain a sort of power they do not have on their own, as they echo the spirits of other historical and fictitious characters.

Only by discovering the sources of Eliot's allusions can we come to a complete understanding of the poem, regardless of how well it may appear to stand on its own.  Eliot himself gives very clear clues to at least two of his allusive sources by direct quotations before the poem proper even begins: first in the epigraph to the section, taken directly from Heart of Darkness, and then in the epigraph to the poem, taken directly from the children's cry on Guy Fawkes Day.  Clearly these are not meant to be hidden references and once they are discovered other uses of those sources, and other sources that touch upon the same themes, can be quickly uncovered and interpreted.

The particular format I make use of allows these discoveries to be made easily, certainly much more easily than pouring through guides, criticism, and original texts.  Probably the greatest addition to a hypertext annotation of the poem, as opposed to a regular print annotation, is that often one can easily access external web sites on that work, allowing the reader to examine the entire source text, explore other criticism on that text, other historical information on it, and even bibliographical information on the author and other works he or she has written.  Of course, this is all dependent on what is publicly available as well as on its quality, but with increasing frequency one can find numerous places, often officially affiliated with a college or university, or some other form of professional scholarship, that are accurate in their information and intuitive in their use.

Putting together the pieces that make up an allusion (finding the source, examining it, applying the relevant themes from the source to the newer work) allow the reader to take some of the power of the poem into his or her own hands.  It is up to that reader to find and determine the meanings of the poem and apply his or her own learning experience to the poem.  This act of interpretation makes the poem much more personal to the reader even though initially, the allusions may have the opposite effect, making the poem seem exclusive in that it is only accessible to an already knowledgeable reader.  In this presentation, I have sought to make the "The Hollow Men" accessible to any reader willing to be active; this is merely an example of methods and presentations that can be used with any other allusive work.  The hypertext links allow any active reader to become knowledgeable easily, thus demonstrating both the power of allusions as a literary tool, and the power of hypertext as a scholarly tool.  The two complement each other in such a way that each reaches its full potential, making the author's text more widely readable with all of its intentions intact, and allowing the reader a better opportunity to study and understand those intentions, an unquestionable benefit to both.

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