How Society Compensates for Spirituality
Within T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” the influences of society and how it can affect the general personality of the public is reflected in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel”. Eliot uses the contradiction of hollow and stuffed men to set up how men have been affected by their societies, the contrast making them devoid of emotion and numb. Their insubstantial filling being the logic and principles that society has provided. Societal influences have taken the place of spiritual transcendence resulting in a lack of understanding of the nature of God and a movement towards the material world. Fitzgerald expands on this by having his characters reflect traits from Eliot’s poem while Cullen’s poem makes a statement about his society by talking about the spiritual presence of God and using it to explain what seems to be his overall view of his fellow man. The overall statement that is made of society in “The Hollow Men” seems to be that it cannot take the place of God and this can be found in both Fitzgerald’s and Cullen’s pieces.
Eliot uses a children’s song to reflect the cyclical nature of society and the world. By saying “Here we go round the prickly pear” it is implied that events will inevitably repeat themselves (Eliot 252). This is supported by Fitzgerald by the nature of Nick Carraway. Nick went to war so that he could escape his past but now that he has returned he has returned to what he was trying to initially escape. He decides to get a job that reflects his past and states, “Everybody I knew was in the bond business, so I supposed it could support one more single man” (Fitzgerald 3). Nick returns from the war restless; and even though he is trying to settle down and gain a sense of the past that he tried to escape by going to war he is still trying to see the world in a military view. He even states that when he returned to the East that he wanted the world to be uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever which reflects a militaristic view (Fitzgerald 2).
Nick wants to establish a sense of stability in his society and bring his past back to the forefront of his future in this way. Another way in which Fitzgerald displays the cyclical nature of Eliot’s poem is with his character of Gatsby. Gatsby went to war to essentially create a new identity and this can be represented by the symbol of the light at the end of Daisy’s dock. The light is green as almost a representation of new life, growth, and the money that it took to turn Gatsby into a new man (Fitzgerald 21). When Gatsby returns from the war he spends all of his efforts with this new persona to win Daisy who is a love from his past (Fitzgerald). He can’t escape the dream of his past that perpetuated into his future and ultimately is killed because of it.
The fact that Fitzgerald’s characters are continuously trying to regain a sense of their past suggests how they can’t seek to delve further into their society without the understanding of who they are in the past. Also since the past may repeat itself if the characters lack an understanding of their past it shows that the same mistakes can be made. Nick himself can’t seem to handle his own families transgressions in the past and seeks to not repeat them. Trying to solve them is part of why he goes to war since his Uncle has gotten out of the war by sending someone in his stead (Fitzgerald 3). Even Gatsby though he is essentially pursuing a part of his past, is also trying to escape a part of his past, and in the end it is proven that he cannot escape his past as one of the few people that attend his funeral is his father (Fitzgerald).
“The Hollow Men” uses the images of eyes that are not there, the multifoliate rose, prayers to broken stone, a broken column, stone images, and a fading star to paint a view of the broken spirituality in his society (Eliot). The column represents a structure that has fallen and the fading star can symbolize the north star but by saying that it is fading it implies that the spirituality is fading from the world. Fitzgerald expands on this with Nicks view of the parties that he attends. The parties can represent the spirituality that the characters are unable to achieve. They let loose during these gaudy displays however Nick is unable to fully appreciate the parties. He essentially has to get drunk to have any enjoyment at all and then claims that it was his second time ever getting drunk. The fact that Nick doesn’t really enjoy the parties, describing them by saying “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” suggests that he cannot achieve a level of transcendentalism because he is held back by his society (Fitzgerald 35). His focus is completely on the material of the party when he is with the lower class. His first party with Gatsby he seems to get a feel for the atmosphere by stating, “I had taken two finger-bowels of champagne, and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental, and profound” (Fitzgerald 47). Again it is implied that to truly let loose and appreciate the feel of the party rather than the look of it Nick has to drink.
Another way in which Fitzgerald displays the spirituality from Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” is by directly pulling T.S. Eliot into his novel as the character of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg by having his eyes represent those of Gods. At one point the character of Wilson states “God sees everything,” while looking at the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg which directly applies the name of God to the eyes of the billboard (Firzgerald 160). In “The Hollow Men” the eyes are no longer there which implies that though they see they are no longer comprehending, they are detached from God perhaps because they have fully embraced society. Fitzgerald brings in these eyes and has them overlook The Valley of Ashes which references just how detached his society is.
Though the eyes are present in Fitzgerald’s novel they aren’t really overlooking anything, just ashes and they’ve dimmed. So as the character of Wilson says, God sees everything but at this point the people are so detached from God that there is nothing to see. The Valley of Ashes itself can also represent the dead cactus land that Eliot discusses in his poem (251). This would imply that the characters that live there, such as Wilson, are the scarecrows that Eliot describes. Wilson’s personality is described like that of the hollow men as well, he is shown by Fitzgerald as a spiritless man and when he first meets Nick, Nick states that a damp gleam of hope sprang into his eyes (25). This can reflect the poem where it states,“The hope only/ Of empty men” (Eliot 251). Wilson is the empty man that is still daring to hope but even his hope is devoid and lacking in emotion. Wilson’s character is trapped by his society as well. He doesn’t make enough money at his job to fully pursue his dreams but he still has a hope that he will be able to make something of himself.
Society in Fitzgerald’s novel directly influences the actions of the characters as well. Just as society seems to have left the hollow men devoid; and they seem to be merely going through the motions as hinted by the line “Gathered on this beach of the tumid river” (251). In Fitzgerald’s novel society has basically stripped the characters of their free will. In Eliot’s poem they seem to be dictated by their own flaws where society is dictating Fitzgerald’s characters. Though Tom is secretly having an affair with Myrtle it is obvious that he will not leave Daisy for her partly because of her lower class. Even though Nick doesn’t think well of Tom because of his affair it is shown that Nick has had a similar situation that he is running away from (Fitzgerald). The descriptions that Nick gives the houses in East Egg verses West Egg directly shows the differences in class. He describes his own home as a small eyesore (Fitzgerald 5). The descriptions of Daisy and Myrtle reflect a difference in their classes as well. Where Daisy is waif like and elegant, Myrtle is energetic and fleshy (Fitzgerald). Nick despite wishing to be a different person seems to not want to disappoint his society, even though he doesn’t agree with Tom’s affair he doesn’t say anything to Daisy about it. Then later he even helps Daisy to have her own affair. He wants to be socially accepted and it appears that he portrays himself to his reader in a certain way to achieve this.
The character of Gatsby represents how society can change a person. Nick as he writes the story already knows all the details but still keeps the mystery of Gatsby until closer to the end of the novel. In part the mystery that Gatsby is shrouded in shows just how society can define someone. Everywhere Nick goes he hears speculation of who Gatsby is, even before he’s met Gatsby. He hears that Gatsby is the nephew of the Kaiser, that he is a bootlegger and multiple other scenarios. The only real view that is given of Gatsby is the view that Nick has of him and besides his interpretations the only other views we get are from others comments of Gatsby. This paints Gatsby’s character as almost an entirely societal figure.
The fact that no one knows Gatsby’s history or where he came from suggests that while reinventing himself he became exactly what he expected society to want him to be. Though it is later found that the parties are being thrown as a lure for Daisy it can be interpreted at first that his outlandish parties are thrown with the sole purpose of pleasing his society. Also the fact that a lot of Gatsby seems to be almost fake at first, his mansion is this faux castle and even his accent doesn’t seem authentic to Nick. Nick also describes that the history Gatsby originally gives him seems unbelievable. It can be discerned that in order to fit in with society one must take away their individuality and with that conformity will come acceptance. In the beginning of the novel the Gatsby that is given doesn’t appear to have any substance which could represent that by becoming such an integral part of society he has ceased to have individual traits. This can directly relate to the hollow men that are leaning together, these men no longer seem to have separate facets of a personality, that are essentially all one entity (Eliot 249). Later the view given of Gatsby is filled with depth but even then the mystery of how his society views him overshadows the man that he really was.
In Countee Cullen’s poem society is not directly implied in the poem but by his descriptions of God he seem’s to be poking at his society’s perceptions. The poem contrasts “The Hollow Men” as the sole purpose is the wonder of a black man singing and in “The Hollow Men” a conflict with these men is that their jaws are broken (Eliot 251). Eliot’s men can no longer utter prayers or even really speak since all they are able to do is utter which could mean what they are able to say is insubstantial. Cullen’s men on the other hand are able to sing but it is implied that they are scorned for this ability.
The fact that Cullen states that this ability for a black man to sing is the only thing that he seems to question about God’s will. He seems to imply that if it isn’t a sort of mistake it is some sort of punishment for the black man. He demonstrates this by discussing what almost seems to be the Greek Gods by talking about Tantalus and Sisyphus’s punishments. The fact that the myths have an explanation for why these two characters are punished seems to suggest that Cullen’s God has no reason for why a black man is bid to sing.
If there is a reason for it then perhaps he will never know it. He directly says this by stating “Inscrutable His ways are, and immune/ To catechism by a mind too strewn” which means that God’s reasons are impossible to interpret by the societal standards and principles of religion. So even though Cullen’s black man still has his voice he is just as devoid as the hollow men with the broken jaws. Just because he is able to sing doesn’t make the songs any different then illegible utterings. This seems to hint that he is persecuted either way. The hollow men may not know why they are unable to utter prayers just as the black man does not understand why God would bid him sing. Both could be in a state of distance due to the affects there society may have on them. Despite the fact that a black man can sing it is inferred that people are not receptive of his singing which why the singing itself could be a form of punishment. His society does not wish to accept him and his question in the poem seems ask why his society would punish him when he has the same abilities as them.
Countee Cullen also seems to be referencing more of a Puritanical God, the fact that the God he discusses lacks transcendental values which reflects Eliot’s Hollow men. Eliot makes references to the underworld and perhaps to corrupt clergy with his lines “ Headpiece filled with straw” and all of the references to God in his poem seem to be broken images or unuttered prayers. Cullen sets up his God to reflect these images by starting with almost a compliment to his poem. He states that he has no doubt about God’s good attributes but then essentially states that if God deigned to explain these things then he is sure he’d have perfectly good excuses and reasons even if the logic may make no sense to Cullen’s society (Cullen).
Society ends up becoming a sort of substitution for spirituality in these texts just as the characters in The Great Gatsby have substitutions, for instance Nick substitutes Gatsby for an ideal that he wants to be. While in “Yet Do I Marvel” the substitution is in a Puritanical God verses a sort of Greek deity. These texts relate how a society can change and influence the actions of individuals and though one may try to use it as a substitution for spirituality it is insubstantial as portrayed by the vapid natures of the hollow men in Eliot’s poem. The act of trying to force an ideal of spirituality into a societal mold doesn’t seem to work and only seems to result in a lack of understanding on the part of the society. Such is the example in Countee Cullen’s poem. His ability to sing may have come from God but it didn’t fit what his community was used to and so resulted in persecution. Inevitably society cannot replace spirituality without losing a portion of it’s soul and resulting in men that are devoid of life.
- Cullen, Countee. “Yet Do I Marvel” The Pearson Custom Library of American Literature. Eds. John Bryan, et al. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2007. 265.
- Eliot, T.S. “The Hollow Men” The Pearson Custom Library of American Literature. Eds. John Bryan, et al. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2007. 249- 253.
- Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.
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