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Plath’s poem ‘The Mirror’ and Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” are two pieces of verse that provide contrasting discourses about the existential concept of condemnation that mankind faces and the lack of confidence that defines who we are. Essentially both poets agree upon the issue of identity crisis/alienation of how people see themselves. Sylvia Plath’s career began at the age of eight, but then spiralled into a life of depression and suicidal endeavours- such a life is clearly demonstrated in her work “The Mirror”- the point of this poem was that Plath believed we will have to face the truth about ourselves and that the mirror is in essence, cruel just like the world we live in. Eliot on the other hand experienced a life of success, founding popular journal “Criterion”, this does not shape the way in which “The Hollow Men” is written but perhaps adds sophistication to the theme of “Hollowness” and the way in which Eliot…
Plath and Eliot lived two very different lives, one of success, the other of depression and attempted suicide. The early life of Eliot describe one who felt the success of a poet who thrived in the modern world however he tends to write more desolate works condemning the world around him. On the other hand Plath struggled with life, with attempts of suicide at a young age and a failed recovery with electroshock – which merits the way in which she taunts the way she sees herself in “The Mirror. Her social power was miniscule compared to Eliots, and this shaped a sense of bitterness that can be interpreted from the poem.
Condemning the World
Despite their contrasting discourses, these two poets find common ground amongst the theme of identity. The identity of the hollow men is that they are empty, emphasizing this by reiterating the words “hollow”, “empty” and “stuffed” over and over again throughout the verses.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed me
17. as the hollow men
18. The stuffed men
53. in this hollow valley
65. of empty men [ ‘ The Hollow Men – T.S Eliot]
These men appear empty, void of any real personality; just shells. The speaker is not just a stand in for the poet; it is almost as if words are being put into their mouths. The voices seemed to differ throughout the verse and give the impressions of a splintered tone of voice- like that of a broken mirror and broken images are speckled throughout.
At times the hollow men can seem almost self-pitying such as when they cry “alas!” [Line 4]
At times the Hollow Men are a bit cheesy and self-pitying, such as when they cry, “Alas!” in line 4. At other times, they talk like professors of ancient Greek philosophy, covering topics like the gap between “idea” and “reality” or between “potency” and “existence.” They speak in a highly stylized and symbolic language that does not resemble normal speech. How many people do you know who sprinkle their conversation with phrases like, “perpetual star/ Multifoliate rose” (lines 63-64)?
It’s more like they are puppets being manipulated by someone who wants to condemn them. Our puppet-master/speaker also makes them sing and dance. The poem begins the declaration that the Hollow Men are a kind of chorus, speaking together as one. By the final section, they are dancing around a prickly pear cactus and singing a children’s song. Every once in a while, they try to say part of the prayer but can’t bring themselves to do it. They trail off and return to their “end-of-the-world” jig.
, the mirror, having no true feelings or emotions, does not understand that the woman is upset. The mirror believes the tears to be rewards for its loyalty and therefore has no sympathy for the woman. The mirror then states “I am important to her”, which again is completely incorrect. The mirror itself truthfully means nothing to the woman. Instead, the woman is important to her own being. She is only concerned with her personal beauty and self-image, not with the mirror. This clearly shows that while the mirror is always truthful, it is also ignorant to reality. The mirror only knows what it sees on the outside- it acknowledges faces, the darkness, and even the pink speckled wall, but its comprehension of reality does not stem anywhere past appearance. In fact, the mirror is only honest to the extent that the person looking into it allows it to be. In reality, the mirror has no power whatsoever. Inside, the woman already knows what she will see when she looks into the mirror and therefore the mirror is simply a mere tool.
Regardless of whether or not the woman dislikes her own reflection, she cannot help but return to the mirror each morning-“She comes and goes. Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.” The woman actually becomes dependent upon the mirror or her reflection in general. As the poem comes to an end, the mirror proclaims- “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish”. It has witnessed the changes in her appearance as she grew older and is constantly observing her as the woman morphs into an old woman. It becomes abundantly clear that each morning, the woman is forced to look into the mirror at her old face which many days she does not recognize to be her own
Two Very Different Perspectives on the same awful world.
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I wouldn’t pretend to understand all of this, nor exactly what it is he’s trying to say, but I do know what it says to me. I take it as an indictment of Modern man and the failure of confidence that characterizes us. The epigraph about Mr. Kurtz, from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (see Review), seems to harken back longingly for even such monstrous men who at least believed in what they were doing, however horrific the results. It sets up a natural contrast to the hollowness of Modern man , who fundamentally believes in nothing and is, therefore, empty at the core of his being, like a Guy Fawkes dummy.
Two other powerful images really appeal to me. The comparison of the sound of modern voices to “rat’s feet over broken glass” aptly dismisses all of the psycho babble and faux spirituality of the age, all of modernity’s futile effort to replace the beliefs that have been discarded. And, of course, the great lines, “This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper” remind me of an argument that I used to enjoy during the Cold War when such melodramatics seemed more appropriate; that it would be better to just juke it out with the USSR, just let the missiles fly, than to gradually succumb to Communist domination. Of course, this seems like the product of unbalanced minds now that we’ve triumphed, but think back to things like Dr. Strangelove and you get a feel for the tenor of the confrontation between absolutists and appeasers. I for one preferred the bang to the whimper.
This is a powerful poem that rewards repeated readings, revealing different interpretations and images with each successive return.
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