The Hollow-Men and Mrs Dalloway Essay

Did those Modernists who, either explicitly or implicitly, dealt with the First World War, simply seek to memorialise the dead?

T.S Eliot and Virginia Woolf addressed the First World War in The Hollow Men and Mrs Dalloway.  Both authors sought to memorialise the dead, not through a simple presentation of the physical death of a body, but through the death of the consciousness and spirituality in their characters.  Although, they do partly address physical death, they are predominantly preoccupied with the death of the cerebral over the corporeal.  They sought to do this through their explorations of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (hereafter referred to as PTSD) within their characters, as well as the varying strengths of individual and collective conscience.

The protagonists of The Hollow Men are living soldiers that are deeply disturbed by PTSD.  They are addressed as “the hollow men”[1] demonstrating that they are soldiers who are nothing more than empty shells with no spirit or soul.  The Hollow-Men are living rather than dead, because of how Eliot focuses on the deaths of their spirits, instead of their physical deaths.  This is evident within the two letter O’s in “hollow.” (THM, l. 1) ‘O’ in itself is a hollow letter, which has an unbroken shell protecting its empty insides, similar to the soldiers whose lack of external physical damage disguised their intense psychological damage.  Eliot memorialised the Hollow Men by portraying them as spiritually dead.  Septimus is also portrayed as spiritually dead.  Upon witnessing the death of Evans, he takes pride in how he has become so emotionally numb, because of it.  Instead of “showing any emotion [he] congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably.  The War had taught him.”[2] Septimus has consciously chosen to repress any guilt he may feel over Evans’ death.  Rather than memorialising the physically dead Evans, Woolf is instead memorialising the death of Septimus’ empathy and spirituality.  Septimus has become so desensitised by the war’s violence that he decides, as a coping mechanism, he will not allow himself to feel.  During the war, many soldiers were instructed to be show courage in the face of violence, rather than fear.  They were expected to be masculine and any display of emotion was considered effeminate.  Within Ivor Gurney’s 1916 letter, he writes that “we suffer pain out here, and for myself it sometimes comes that death would be preferable to such a life”[3] and that even though “the task is hard and myself weak, but the thing must continue.”[4] Gurney is putting the greater good ahead of his own emotional well-being.  Like how soldiers were supposed to, he did not show weakness and continued in his duty.

Both Eliot and Woolf explore the theme of isolation in their characters.  Septimus is an individual who is isolated as a result of his PTSD, whereas the Hollow Men suffer in their isolation as a collective.  Eliot uses the first person plural subject ‘we’ seven times, compared to the first person plural object ‘us’ that he only uses once.  Through his constant use of ‘we,’ Eliot is writing in the active voice, as opposed to the passive one.  The Hollow Men are soldiers who have actively chosen to serve their country through feelings of patriotism and false promises of the war being an adventure.  William John Lyons of the Royal Irish Rifles was just one of many soldiers who relied on his patriotism to get him through one of the darkest moments of the war: the battle of the Somme.  He writes “I need hardly begin to tell you about the gallantry of our boys […], they did not disgrace the name of Ulster or their force”[5] and “for whatever little bit of good work I [did] I consider I only [did] my duty.”[6] Septimus Smith further epitomises this: he “was one of the first to volunteer.  He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.” (MD, p. 73) Eliot employs irony in writing in the active voice, considering how so many soldiers were subtly manipulated into serving through patriotism to their country.  However in so many of these soldiers, such as Lance Corporal J H Leather, this patriotism soon gave way to cynicism.  In a letter to his family, he writes that:

the Army is undeniably the most dismal experience I have had yet; […] The idea of breaking the Germans is so much nonsense and you only have to be in this army to see the mess and muddle of everything…”[7]

Both authors memorialised the spiritually dead through how they were portraying their characters as being filled with lies about patriotism that effectively overruled their judgement.  They were manipulated by the elite classes who required an endless supply of men to fight in the First World War.

Through Eliot’s continued use of the first person plural, he gives the Hollow Men a collective conscience; they are a group of men who have lost their individuality and are now uniform.  In seeking identity within a group, they have lost identity as individuals.  The first person singular is only used three times compared to the nine times that the first person plural is used.  The overpowering use of ‘we’ creates a choral narrative voice.  Instead, of having a single spokesperson, the Hollow Men speak as a collective.  As a group, they perform physical acts, such as when “we grope together| [at] the tumid river,” (THM, ll. 58, 60) yet they willingly avoid any act which would express individuality, such as speaking.  Eliot writes there are “no eyes here| in this valley of dying stars,” (THM, ll. 53-54) thus portraying the Hollow Men as soulless.  The eyes are windows into the soul and within the Hollow Men’s efforts to find solace in the collective, they have abandoned their individual, autonomous selves, in favour of a group commanded by instinct.  The use of the first person singular in “eyes I dare not meet in dreams,” (THM, l. 19) adds a small sense of individuality to the collective.  This line demarcates the only occasion where the Hollow Men try to break free from their collective and reassert their individual identities, yet this proves to be unsuccessful as within the third section they revert back to the first person plural with “we grope together.” (THM, l. 58) Their desire to stay as a collective has overruled any ambition to return to their independent selves.  Whereas the Hollow Men lose their souls as part of the collective, Septimus retains his by remaining as an individual.  Throughout the novel, he is ordered around, whether that is by his wife, upon Doctor Holmes’ orders, to urge him to acknowledge things external to himself (MD, p. 18) or Doctor Bradshaw saying that Septimus and Lucrezia “must be separated.” (MD, p. 125) However, Septimus consciously chooses to kill himself, rather than be taken to one of Doctor Bradshaw’s homes.  Julian Pattison argues that Septimus has “maintained his independence and integrity reasserting control at the last moment.”[8] By choosing to commit suicide, Septimus has broken free from the consensual opinion of the collective conscience surrounding him and has reasserted his individual identity.  Both authors contrast in how they sought to memorialise the dead.  Whereas Eliot focused on the Hollow-Men choosing their collective conscience over an individual identity, Woolf concentrated on Septimus’ suicide serving as an attempt to retain his individual integrity.  Rather than being absorbed into the soulless collective of the Hollow-Men, Septimus has kept his identity and died as an individual.

The Hollow-Men and Septimus became spiritually dead, as a result of PTSD.  Septimus continues to see Evans throughout the novel.  Evans is referred to by name twenty-one times, one of the most concentrated occasions being on page fifty-nine, where Evans is repeated four times.  When Septimus sees Evans approach him, he cries out “for God’s sake, don’t come” (MD, p. 59) as he “could not look upon the dead.” (MD, p. 59) Septimus’ guilt over Evans’ death is haunting him and he is not prepared to confront it.  However, his guilty unconscious overpowers him as “the branches parted [and] a man in grey was actually walking towards them.” (MD, p. 59) This man is Evans who Septimus sees with “no wounds.” (MD, p. 59) Septimus’ conception of his friend is vastly romanticised.  Instead, of seeing Evans as a war-torn corpse, he views him as if nothing has changed.  Whilst Septimus’ unconsciousness forces him to confront this image, his conscious mind chooses exactly what he sees.  Michael Levenson asserts that “many modernists- including Eliot and Woolf- could not suppress pictures of traumatically broken space, but were compelled to visualise the outspread, uncontrolled and perilous terrain: the waste-land.”[9] If Septimus had suppressed his memories of Evans, he would have suppressed the broken space in his mind.  Yet by confronting him, he is compelled to visualise the armies and battlegrounds of the First World War, which he does until Lucrezia interrupts his reflections.  The repetition of “prickly pear” (THM, l. 68) has twelve uses of the plosives ‘p’ and ‘k’ that create a rhythm reminiscent of an artillery barrage.  The first stanza of section five is comparable to the nursery rhyme ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,’ with the “prickly pear” (THM, l. 68) substituting the Mulberry Bush.  The use of the nursery-rhyme structure infantilises the soldiers by reducing them to mere children who are gaily dancing and singing.  The Hollow Men have regressed to an age of innocence to help them tolerate the horrors that they witnessed.  The nursery-rhyme structure also embeds a drumbeat within their minds.  Through the use of ‘we,’ Eliot presents Hollow-Men as the ones singing the nursery rhyme.  The consistent use of plosives demonstrates that they have internalised the noises and sounds of the war.  They are driven to “go round the prickly pear” (THM, l. 68) by a rhythmic tattoo, just like how a marching drumbeat would have compelled them to march towards the enemy’s forces during the war.  Here, Eliot and Woolf have memorialised the dead through their detailed focus on the condition that rid so many soldiers of their souls and spirituality.

Whilst the Hollow Men and Septimus Smith are both examples of the spiritually dead, Woolf and Eliot also sought to memorialise the wider population.  Rather than just focus on two specific examples, they apply their writings to the 80,000 cases of shell shock that the army treated by the end of the First World War.[10]  Eliot first discusses the idea of external characters in:

Those who crossed

With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom

Remember us-if at all-not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow-men

The stuffed men.  (THM, ll. 13-18)

The first two lines of the stanza refers to the soldiers who have physically died, either through injuries sustained on the battlefield or through being shot for cowardice.  This was usually the fate for those soldiers who were caught deserting or suffering from PTSD.  Saul David found that 309 British and Empire soldiers were executed for military offences with 266 of these being desertion and 18 cowardice.[11]  This places the Hollow Men in a state of purgatory as they wait for their sentence for their own cowardice.  The defeatist, fatalistic tone attached to “remember us-if at all” demonstrates how the Hollow Men have been manipulated into resigning themselves to their fate.  They believe that they should be punished for their cowardice and openly acknowledge that they may not be remembered.  Their belief in their own cowardice is further demonstrated within the line “eyes I dare not meet in dreams,” (THM, l. 19) where the Hollow Men are too ashamed of themselves to make eye contact with the soldiers who died as heroes.  Woolf also addresses the theme of cowardice where Doctor Holmes calls Septimus a coward after he “flung himself vigorously, violently down onto Mrs Filmer’s area railings.” (MD, p. 125) Doctor Holmes is bastardising and condemning Septimus’ bravery, as an act of cowardice.  Pattison asserts that Septimus sees suicide as his “only means of defeating the forces which threaten his inner sense of himself.”[12] It was his only method of escape from Doctor Bradshaw’s psychiatric home.  Through exploring the theme of cowardice, both authors have memorialised the spiritually dead by addressing the critical and negative attitudes that were attached to PTSD.

Mrs Dalloway and Lucrezia Smith are just two examples of how the living can be affected by both the spiritual and physical deaths of soldiers suffering from PTSD.  Septimus’ ailment has unintended consequences on his wife.  Due to the strain of caring for her mentally sick husband, Lucrezia feels isolated and begins lamenting on having to leave her home and family in Milan.  (MD, pp.55-56) In a resentful tone, she asks “why should she be exposed” (MD, p.56) to her husband’s ramblings.  Not only does Lucrezia complain about her own suffering, but she also fails to empathise with Septimus’ isolation.  She trivialises it by arguing that “everyone has friends who were killed in the war.” (MD, p. 56) Mrs Dalloway, rather than be affected by Septimus’ spiritual death is more deeply touched by his physical death.  Upon reflecting on his suicide, she does not pity or condemn his actions, but “she [actually] felt somehow very like him.” (MD, p. 158) Unlike Doctor Holmes who accuses Septimus of cowardice, Mrs Dalloway acknowledges the “death was [an act of] defiance.  [His] death was an attempt to communicate…” (MD, p. 156) and she respects this.  However, where Septimus bravely confronts his final judgment, the Hollow-men wish to postpone theirs.  They do not wish to attend “that final meeting| in the twilight kingdom.” (THM, ll. 37-38) Whilst Septimus’ suicide was an attempt to communicate, the Hollow Men are content to remain in their isolation.  Where Septimus is prepared to confront death, the Hollow Men are happy to stay in their own state of stagnation.  They have become comfortably numb within their own paralysis, as is evidenced by the religious imagery within section three.  The pious tone attached to “lips that would kiss| form prayers to broken stone,” (THM, ll. 50-51) demonstrates how the Hollow Men are still semi-reliant on the notion of faith and prayer.  Unlike Septimus, they are not willing to actively change their fate and would rather wait for somebody to help them and pull them out of their own paralysis.

Nearing the end of Mrs Dalloway, Septimus commits suicide.  He could no longer suffer under the indignities of PTSD and thus saw suicide as the only escape.  Vincent Sherry asserts that Doctor Bradshaw’s “concept of proportion prescribes and endorses a structure of power”[13] and that it “preserves the echo and refrain of an ideology.”[14] Doctor Bradshaw and his unshakeable belief within Proportion represents him, as a lingering anachronism of the upper-classes circa the First World War.  However, Septimus, “aged about thirty” (MD, p. 12) at his death, thus making him twenty-five at the end of the war and twenty-one at the beginning of it, functions as an epitome of a new generation of man that emerged as a result of the First World War.  Instead of passively agreeing to be committed to one of Doctor Bradshaw’s psychiatric homes, he openly defies him by killing himself, thus undermining the doctor’s outdated ideologies.  Eliot also engages with the theme of suicide within the line “not with a bang but a whimper.” (THM, l. 98) Firstly, this alludes to the anti-climactic nature of the War: for many soldiers it was promised to be a four month long adventure that soon gave way to what Kurt Perterson describes as a “vile abortion brought forth by human wickedness”[15] in his letter dated October 25th, 1914. Secondly, it refers to the premature deaths of the millions of men with promising futures.  For example, Septimus fought “to save an England which consisted entirely of Shakespeare’s plays.” (MD, p. 73) However, for the Hollow Men, “the world ends| not with a bang but a whimper.” (THM, ll. 97-98) They were not killed by the guns or cannons of the War, which the onomatopoeic bang refers to.  Nor have they decided to commit suicide.  Instead, they continued living as the broken, dispirited whimpers they became as a result of the War.  Through how both authors have explicitly confronted what many soldiers saw as the only way to escape their spiritual madness, they have memorialised the death of the spirit in their characters.

Whilst, T.S Eliot and Virginia Woolf were preoccupied with memorialising the dead, their primary intention was not to focus on the physical death of their characters, but rather their spiritual deaths.  Through their emphasis on the debilitating effects that PTSD can cause, both authors have explored how the condition has affected the consciousness of their characters.  After the war, thousands of soldiers struggled to comprehend the horrors and bloodshed that they saw and for many suicide and self-isolation seemed like the only options.  In how T.S Eliot ends the Hollow Men, he is not only portraying how the world would end for the shell-shocked soldiers, but also how for many people the conflicts of the First World War heralded the end of the world, as they knew it.

Word Count: 3086


Bourke, Joana, ‘Shellshock during World War One,’ 2011 [last accessed 25/12/2014]

David, Saul, 100 Days to Victory: How the Great War was Fought and Won 1914-1918 (London: Hodder, 2014)

Eliot, T.S, 1925, Poems 1909-1925 (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1925)

Gurney, Ivor, War Letters, selected and introduced by R.K.R Thornton (Manchester: Carcanet New Press, 1983)

Levenson, Michael, Modernism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011)

Love, Tommy: Letters Home, from the Great War to the Present Day, selected and introduced by Andrew Roberts (Oxford: Osprey Publishing Group, 2012)

Pattison, Julian, ‘Mrs Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf (Hampshire and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1987)

Sherry, Vincent, The Great War and the Language of Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Witkop, Philipp, German Students’ War Letters, trans. by A.F Wedd and introduced by Jay Winter (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvannia Press, 2002)

Woolf, Virginia, Mrs Dalloway (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)

‘The Hollow Men,’ in T.S Eliot, 1925, Poems 1909-1925 (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1925), l.1 All subsequent quotations were taken from this edition and all future references will be mentioned in parentheses after quotations in the text.

[2] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 73 All subsequent quotations were taken from this edition and all future references will be mentioned in parentheses after quotations in the text.

[3] Ivor Gurney: War Letters, Selected and introduced by R. K. R Thornton, (Manchester: Carcanet New Press, 1983), p.183

[4] Thornton, p. 114

[5] Love, Tommy: Letters Home, from the Great War to the Present Day, selected and introduced by Andrew Roberts, (Oxford: Osprey Publishing Group, 2012), p. 34

[6] Roberts, p. 34

[7]Roberts, pp. 50-51

[8] Julian Pattison, ‘Mrs Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf (Hampshire and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1987), p. 51­

[9] Michael Levenson, Modernism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011), p. 225

[10]Joana Bourke, ‘Shellshock during World War One,’ 2011 [last accessed 25/12/2014]

[11] Saul David, 100 Days to Victory: How the Great War was Fought and Won 1914-1918 (London: Hodder, 2014), p. 55

[12] Pattison, p. 52

[13] Vincent Sherry, The Great War and the Language of Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 289

[14] Sherry, 289

[15] Philipp Witkop, German Students’ War Letters, trans. by A.F Wedd and introduced by Jay Winter (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvannia Press, 2002), p. 149

*Author’s Notes*

This is the final essay I wrote for my Modernisms module.  In this essay I wrote about T.S Eliot’s The Hollow-Men and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.   Whilst I really enjoyed The Hollow-Men and would definitely recommend it, I didn’t much like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.  I don’t much like Woolf anyway.  The reason I decided to write on her was that she was the best author for this text.

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