The Stranded Hollow Men
“In his poem “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot describes a group of men distant from moral judgment who are desperately finding their way to one of God’s kingdoms while Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness dramatizes the drastic psychological changes that Kurtz goes through as he becomes more evil during his life in Africa. Both Eliot and Conrad emphasize how Kurtz and the men have lost their moral character and how they have become stranded as a result.
Eliot demonstrates how truly “hollow” the men have become as a result of their fears toward moral questioning. After utilizing a variety of diction and imagery to underscore the hollow nature of these cowards, such as the “headpiece filled with straw” and “dry grass” lacking water, Eliot incorporates parallelism in claiming that “between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow”(74-78). Eliot’s parallel structure allows him to list numerous examples that readers can visualize to understand how the men cannot fulfill what they want to achieve because of their distance from morality. Just like how ideas become useless when they do not become reality and how motions become useless when they do not achieve the desired act, the “hollow” men become useless because they are not prepared to deal with the moral consequences of their actions. These men act with so much fear that the effect of their actions gradually disappear into a vast and dark “shadow.”” Unfortunately, Kurtz is just as hollow as the men in Eliot’s poem. In order to communicate how remote Kurtz is from his sense of morality, Conrad personifies the eerie and brutal wilderness as it “had whispered to him things about himself…and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core”(128). By portraying the wilderness as a powerful human-like force, Conrad exposes Kurtz’s hollow interior because the dark, savage nature has taken over Kurtz and molded him into the inhumane figure he has been until his peril. Unlike the men in the poem whose hollow nature refers to how lifeless and useless they have become, Kurtz is hollow in the sense that he has effectively absorbed the evil from his dark surroundings because nothing inside of him can stop him from doing so.
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After demonstrating how morally hollow the men are, Eliot makes allusions to convey how abandoned these men have become due to their hollow nature. He indirectly refers to Greek mythology and Dante’s Paradiso when he writes that the men “grope together/And avoid speech/Gathered on this beach of the tumid river/Sightless, unless/The eyes reappear/As the perpetual star/Multifoliate rose/Of death’s twilight kingdom/The hope only/Of empty men”(60-69). The “tumid river” that Eliot talks about refers to a branch of the River Styx that souls such as those of the hollow men must cross to reach death. However, when the men have no hope of crossing, a “rose,” Dante’s vision of heaven made up of saints and angels, is suggested to be their only hope. The men’s only problem is that they are too scared to cross the river and face these saints and angels because they may expose the truth about how abnormally lifeless and useless their lives have become. Thus, the men’s fears and lack of moral capacity directly cause them to become hopelessly stranded on one side of the River Styx without any possibility that their souls will reach any of death’s kingdoms. Similarly, Kurtz experiences his moment of desperation and psychological turmoil when he realizes during his last moments how horrifying he has become. Lying inside the steamboat cabin, Kurtz “cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “‘The horror! The horror’”(144)! While reflecting toward himself and his transformation from innocence to savagery, Kurtz learns too late that he has self-destructed and that the process toward moral recovery will be too arduous for him to pursue. He experiences so much desperation and panic that all he can do before dying is scream at himself. Just like how the hollow men have stranded themselves on one side of the River Styx, Kurtz has stranded himself in the heart of darkness to the point where he is unable to undo his evils and tint his black heart of brutality.
Eliot and Conrad both extensively depict how hollow and stranded Kurtz and the men have become because they have lost touch with their sense of morality in their everyday actions. The men’s hollow nature is defined by their inability to achieve anything with their actions because they have distanced themselves from morality while Kurtz’s hollowness is defined by how easily the evil present in the dark wilderness filled his own body. Regardless of their slightly distinct hollow natures, Kurtz and the men have permanently stranded themselves to the point where there is simply no possibility of rescue.”