Studying The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot for HSC Advanced English Module B but have no idea what it means or how to analyse it?

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What is The Hollow Men about?
Context of The Hollow Men
Key Ideas in The Hollow Men
Using Critical Quotes in Module B
How to Analyse The Hollow Men in 4 Steps

What is The Hollow Men about?

That’s the question we would all like to know the answer to! It is not always clear what the exact message in T.S. Eliot’s poetry is, because he explores themes and ideas through metaphors, similes and jarring imagery. What is both exciting and terrifying about Eliot’s poetry is that we as the audience have a role in interpreting what the text means. This is especially important in Module B:

Central to this study is the close analysis of the text’s construction, content and language, to develop students’ own ich interpretation of the text, basing their judgements on detailed evidence, drawn from their research and reading. (NESA)

This means that when you analyse The Hollow Men, and all of Elliot’s poetry, the best responses will be ones that argue for their own personal interpretation of the text. We know for sure that this poem is about some sort of people which are feeling numb, and a sense of meaninglessness. However, questions such as “is this poem hopeless or hopeful?” and “Where is this poem taking place?” are up to you to interpret!

Context of The Hollow Men

T.S. Eliot was certainly a Modernist, but the term is extremely broad. The poem was written in 1925, seven years after the end of WWI. Death and tragedy had shaken the western world, which, along with a decline in the belief in God, led to a general sense of hopelessness and meaninglessness. Modernists saw the world as chaotic, futile, pessimistic, unstable, faithless, amoral, and confused.

The modernist period was also characterised by a loss of faith in reason and science, instead upholding individual subjectivity and the mind. This is one reason The Hollow men is such a confusing poem: Eliot is more interested in representing psychology and emotion that he is in truth and facts.

Eliot’s personal faith journey was also a contextual influence on this poem. The poem was written before Eliot’s conversion to Christianity, but only by two years. It is written in the same period as many of his pessimistic critiques of society and its decay, such as The Wasteland. However some critics have argued that it foreshadows his more hopeful poems after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927.

Key Ideas in The Hollow Men

Here are some of the ideas present in The Hollow Men.

  • Spiritual Vacuity
  • Hopelessness
  • Hope
  • Shame
  • Faith in Religion
  • Damaged psyche
  • Inability to communicate
  • Longing

It is important in your study of Module B that you say something about these ideas, to show your personal, rich, interpretation of the text. For example, rather than talking about the theme of “spiritual vacuity”, talk about how “Eliot represents a fear about the spiritually vacuous nature of the world due to the tragedy of WWI and uncertainty about the existence of God.”

Using Critical Quotes in Module B

Critics of The Hollow Men have had vast and differing opinions about the poem. In some cases, critics come to the exact opposite conclusions. In your study of T.S. Eliot, you will need to develop your own critical opinion of the poems, and be able to back that opinion up with evidence.

There are two key ways to use critic quotes in a Module B essay.

Using a quote to back up your argument

This is useful for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it shows your marker that your interpretation is not insane, and published academics have come to the same conclusion. Secondly, it shows that you have researched your text thoroughly, and you are engaging with a critical conversation about the poems.

Using a quote that contrasts your argument

It is important to use critical quotes in this way because it shows that you have a personal interpretation of the text which is different to the interpretation others have made. Band 6 Advanced Module B essays will demonstrate nuance in their disagreement with critic quote and may not disagree with every part of it. This shows that perspective is unique, and they have thought critically for themselves.

The best Advanced Module B essays will use critical quotes both to back up their argument, and to contrast it. Also keep in mind that strong responses will use a mixture of directly quoting and paraphrasing critical perspectives.

Where to Find Critical Quotes

There is a bit of confusion surrounding what a critical quote is. You can’t just quote any smart-sounding-person on the internet! You can only use critical quotes from peer-reviewed journals and books.

One of the best places to find critical quotes is JSTOR. JSTOR is a database where you can search for peer reviewed journals and books. You will need library access to use JSTOR. Check with your school librarian to see if your school has access, and if it does not, you can apply for a State Library card here, which will give you access.

Another great free source of critical essays, journal articles and books is Google Scholar. Note that some articles on google scholar cost money, but other articles can be downloaded as a PDF.

To find the critical quotes below, we did a search for “Hollow Men T.S. Eliot” in JSTOR and in The University of Sydney Library Database. You can also add the theme you are looking for into your search!

Critical Perspectives for The Hollow Men

Everett Gillis argues that Hollow Men represents darkness, emptiness and meaninglessness, and suggests directly that it is not a poem about hope.

This perspective comes from Gillis’ journal article, The Spiritual Stasis of T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Men. You will notice that we haven’t directly used a direct quotation here, instead we have paraphrased. This is a useful skill to develop because it shows your marker that you have understood the argument of the critic, and often allows you to express their perspective more succinctly. Our analysis will show how this perspective is partly true, however we will ultimately disagree with it.

Strothmann and Ryan argue that the poem does foreshadow a future hope for the hollow men.

This idea comes from Hope for T. S. Eliot’s “Empty Men” by Friedrich W. Strothmann and Lawrence V. Ryan. our analysis will similarly show how this quote is partly true, but ultimately our analysis will take a different stance.

“The poem is, in effect, a bridge between the spiritless decay of The Waste Land and the spiritual reinvigoration of Ash-Wednesday”

This is a quote from Oliver Tearle’s book,The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem. Our analysis is going to agree with this quotation! We will argue that The hollow Men inhabits a liminal space between hopelessness and hope.

How to Analyse The Hollow Men in 4 Steps

Often students will try to start with their thesis when trying to answer an essay question. Instead, start with your analysis! You need to equip yourself with the knowledge of your text before you can answer anything about it.

After you’ve analysed your text, you can draw ideas from it, then you can build your thesis!

Below we are going to analyse The hollow Men, focusing on how it represents the liminal space between hopelessness and hope. 

liminality: the state of being in between two things

Step 1: Choose your example

For this paragraph, rather than give three examples of of liminality, we are going to start with an example of hopelessness, move to an example of the transition between hopelessness and hope, and finally finish with an example of hope.

That’s why we’ve chosen the quote below:

“We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men”

Step 2: Identify techniques

When trying to find a technique within your example, it’s not about finding the fanciest technique or just any old technique for that matter!

It’s about identifying a technique which will enable you to say something about your idea that’s interesting and can contribute to your argument and analysis.

For example, we could have chosen anaphora as a technique here, but instead we have chosen to use paradox because there is more we can say about it.

Step 3: Carry out your analysis 

There are two things to ask yourself when you are writing analysis

  1. Have I shown the effect of my technique and linked it to the idea?
  2. Have I progressed my argument in some way?

Good analysis involves using a technique to say something in addition to what the quote says.

Bad analysis is using a technique to restate what happened in the quote.

Bad analysis sounds something like this: “Therefore [technique] shows [your idea]”, without going into any real depth.

For the example above we have given the following analysis:

This paradox of being both vacant, and full of “straw” reflects the emptiness and meaninglessness of post wwi society. The jarring image also represents the confusing and absurd nature of the world. Eliot suggests that the people of this world have become dead, hollow men themselves, reinforced by the symbol of a purgatory-esque afterlife, “the dead land . . . . the cactus land” These people are neither in glorious heaven nor burning hell, but some dry and liminal space.

You’ll notice that in this piece of analysis we have used a second quote which we have not fully analysed. This is ok, so long as you have three fully analysed quotes per paragraph, and it is a great way of bringing in more textual detail.

Now, let’s organise our analysis by placing it in a TEE table like below!

What’s a TEE table?

The TEE in TEE table stands for Technique, Example and Effect. They’re a great tool you can use to analyse your text.

All you have to do is include your pieces of evidence under ‘example’ then identify the technique in the ‘technique’ column and carry out your analysis.

If you’re analysing a few themes, it’s a good idea to have a separate TEE table per theme. For example, for The Hollow Men you may want to keep all your pieces of evidence that relate to liminality in one table.

For more info on what a TEE table is and how to use one to boost your analysis of an HSC text, check out this article here!

Step 4: Link to the question

Finally, it is important to establish that we do not recommend fully memorising an essay paragraph like this to go into your exam. Your analysis, examples and ideas will always change based on the essay question.

However, it is helpful to have paragraph plans like this one which you can use to answer an essay question if the ideas fit.

After you have written your analysis, it is useful to include the key words of the question to show that your essay is coherent! Although, remember not to be too repetitive. If you have already answered the question in your topic sentence, any link back to your topic sentence will be by default answering the question!

Plus, you can download our analysed examples and Band 6 exemplar paragraph for The Hollow Men Below!

Download The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot: Analysed Textual Examples and Sample Paragraph Here!

And that wraps up our guide to analysing The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot for HSC English – good luck!

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Brooklyn Arnot has a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature with Honours at the University of Sydney. She scored an HD average and has even received the Dean’s award for excellence! Brooklyn teaches our English classes at Art of Smart and has over 5 years of experience supporting Year 11 and 12 students throughout their HSC. She’s also a new Syllabus expert and studied 4U English in high school.